Rendering of Northwestern University Visitor Center. Rendering by Goettsch Partners

Citizens lined up Monday night, November 12, to speak against the proposed Northwestern University visitors center and parking lot planned for the Sheridan Road curve just north of Clark Street Beach, but the matter, from City Council’s perspective, had already been decided. All that remained was the fate of the bike and pedestrian path around the new center, which will double as a fire lane in emergencies.

After numerous citizen comments regarding the parking structure, Alderman Jane Grover, 7th ward, put the central issue to rest immediately. Council has “already moved forward on the visitors center when we granted [Northwestern’s] appeal” from the decision of the Preservation Commission, she said. The issue, she said, was no longer before the Council.

The concerns raised by citizens were largely split into concerns about the environmental impact of the structure and the Northwestern not paying its fair share as the City continued to provide giveaways. Despite the fact that the issue was already decided, Alderman Don Wilson, 4th ward, addressed both concerns.

The triangle of nature at the top of Clark Street Beach where the pedestrian path enters the campus, including trees, other vegetation, and varied wildlife and bird life, will be removed as part of the construction process. Ald. Wilson said that the “triangle” was relatively new, having grown since the 80s. “Nature has a way of finding its way back,” he said. It’s “appropriate” for Northwestern to have a visitors center and a parking lot, he said. “I believe this is going to be an improvement.”

Regarding the “giveaway,” Ald. Wilson said, “People will always be upset that Northwestern does not pay taxes, but to infer that Northwestern doesn’t like the environment” is wrong. He urged people to look at the improvements to campus over the past decades.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st ward, disagreed on both counts. “I don’t see any reason the city should be removing trees, removing habitat,” she said. She also said that Northwestern should be paying more that proposed, pointing to its $7 billion endowment.

The only issue to be decided Monday night, however, was whether to lease the path/fire lane to Northwestern. Under the ordinance before Council, the City would have leased the path, which will be on City land, to Northwestern in exchange for an agreement to maintain the path and landscape around it. A number of residents protested this as well, calling it a giveaway for far below market value.

Ald. Grover proposed to “make it quite simpler.” Rather than lease the path to Northwestern and require it to pay for maintenance, she suggested having the City maintain possession of the property but require Northwestern to pay maintenance cost. The effect will be exactly the same – possession of a public path is in consequential other than symbolically and for insurance purposes.

Under Ald. Grover’s proposal, Northwestern will pay the City a one-time fee of $250,000 to cover maintenance of the path for 25 years, or $10,000 per year. The parking lot will go up as planned, the path will be constructed as planned, the triangle removed as planned. Council voted 6-1 in favor, with Ald. Fiske voting no, Alderman Melissa Wynne absent due to injury, and Northwestern employee and eighth ward Alderman Coleen Burrus abstaining.