In the past four years, since the current City Council took office, there has been a new spirit of cooperation between the City of Evanston and Northwestern University. While both institutions can take pride in setting aside past differences to work for the common good, the City should recognize, as the University does, that there will be issues on which the City and University will disagree. One that has been the most problematic over the years is acquisition of City land for University use. We have such an issue before us at the present time.
On Nov. 12, the City Council will consider an ordinance that would allow Northwestern University to lease a 1/2-acre parcel of City-owned lakefront property at the north end of Clark Street Beach to serve NU’s new parking garage and visitor’s center. The lease would run for as long as 75 years at $1 per year.
The design requires acquisition of City land to construct a fire lane for emergency vehicles to access the new building and the new NU boat house. Right now this land is home to a stand of mature trees and shrubs that includes endangered shoreline plants and serves as a natural refuge for wildlife and migrating birds. It is an environment that is increasingly rare in Evanston. NU’s plan calls for cutting down the trees and removing the habitat.
There are more reasons to be concerned about the project.
At a time when Evanston is struggling financially, the City cannot afford to give anything away, especially a prime piece of lakefront real estate that is valued at over $1.5 million on today’s market. The parcel, if leased at market rates, could generate $60,000 or more per year.
The Evanston City Council has a fiduciary duty to its citizens. So when some aldermen recently opposed the nonprofit Evanston Baseball and Softball Association’s proposal to pay $1 per year to lease the unused recycling center on Oakton Street, even though EBSA promised to invest $750,000 in the project to serve Evanston youth, the aldermen said no. They argued that EBSA should pay market rent to the City. The situation with NU is no different.
And when the City was assembling land for the Trader Joe’s project on Chicago Avenue and needed to acquire a Northwestern-owned lot to make the deal happen, the University asked the City to purchase the lot at the fair market price of $650,000, and the City agreed.
Again, a similar situation. The NU parking garage will be a money-making operation, and the revenue generated will easily exceed $200,000 per year. When the roles were reversed, the University was astute enough to ask us to pay; we should not shy away from doing the same.
In response, the University says that for $1 per year, it will build and maintain the fire lane and open it up to the public for pedestrian and bicycle use. However, Northwestern is obliged, in part of being permitted to infill the lake for private use, to provide the public free, unfettered access to its landfill campus. NU goes on to argue that they need the garage because the City requires them to provide more parking on campus, but the total spaces on University property apparently meet City requirements.
Let’s be clear. The University does have a demand for more parking on campus, and it needs an attractive visitor’s center in a central location to serve its many prospective students and guests. However, by simply pushing the project a little further north, NU can accomplish that without destroying trees and habitat; and, if not, it can easily afford to compensate the City for the loss by buying or leasing the land.
Regardless of how the Council finally decides this matter, we must start a meaningful discussion with the University regarding land use policy, and how decisions made on campus affect the quality of life off campus.
We must take time to educate NU about how we establish policy in Evanston and how the success of the Lakefront Master Plan, which was two years in the making, depends on the University’s active support and participation.
We need the University to be a partner to help us preserve shoreline ecosystems and to recognize that the beach and lakefront have extraordinary value to Evanston residents. We need them to understand that historic Sheridan Road is a gateway not only to Northwestern, but to Evanston as well.
But most importantly at the moment, we need them to understand that a seven-story parking garage on the beach is a really bad idea.
Ms. Fiske is alderman of the City’s First Ward.