Even though the prospect of a 57-room hotel in the former Harley Clarke mansion – now home to the Evanston Art Center – is a thing of the past, three organizations and other concerned residents have been working on an ordinance to protect the public lakefront from commercial use.

At a meeting on Oct. 23, representatives of Southeast Evanston Association, Central Street Neighbors Association and Noparksale.org presented a second draft of an ordinance they may submit to City Council and discussed its implications with the nearly 40 residents in attendance. 

Cameron Davis described section by section “what the ordinance does and doesn’t do.” He said he attended the meeting “only as an Evanston resident who cares – a lot like you care – about the lakefront.”  Formerly the head of the Great Lakes Federation, now the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Mr. Davis is the senior advisor to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on matters concerning the Great Lakes.

The draft presented at the meeting, Mr. Davis said, “does not tell lakefront residential owners what they can or cannot do with their property. It does not tell the City that it cannot sell public property.” The intent of the ordinance is “to help the City know that the lakefront is for all residents to enjoy and ensure that the lakefront will be open and undeveloped … and that the shoreline is safe.” It is intended to “make sure we take the next step in following the Lakefront Master Plan.”

The proposed ordinance allows homeowners along the lakefront to protect their property from erosion by adding rip-rap (rocks) and creating groins (pier-like extensions) but regulates their size and length. The intent of those protections is to encourage homeowners to “work with the lake and not against it,” said Mr. Davis.

The shoreline and all public and private properties with Lake Michigan frontage within the City would be covered by the proposed ordinance: “all public property within the Lakefront Protection Zone [as defined by the ordinance] and all property within 200 feet of Lake Michigan in what is designated as U3 [University] zoning.”

While the ordinance, if passed by City Council, would not mandate that Northwestern tear down the seven-story garage and visitors’ center it is constructing at the lakefront, it could delay or prevent other such permanent buildings on the lakefront.

In the past 11 years, several commercial proposals have been made for lakefront property, Mr. Davis said: In 2002, Northwestern University proposed filling in parts of its lagoon, which drains directly into Lake Michigan. The proposal was withdrawn after protests by students and residents. In 2003 and 2004, residents and some City Council members considered creating a marina across from Calvary Cemetery. A different marina proposal resurfaced in 2008, one year after the City adopted the Lakefront Master Plan. “Every two or so years, there is a new proposal to do something with the lakefront,” Mr. Davis said. This year, it was the proposal to sell the Clarke mansion and a part of the lakefront park to a private developer.

Ramona Meher, one of the residents who successfully led the struggle against the proposed marina in 2003, said “I hope the lakefront protection ordinance w[ill] make it clear that we are opposed to the privatization of public space.”

Jeanne Kamps Lindwall, whose expertise is city planning, distinguished among the comprehensive plans that the City has adopted periodically since 1919, the Lakefront Master Plan, which the City adopted in 2008, and the City’s zoning code, which can be amended by City Council. The zoning code is a regulatory tool, Ms. Lindwall said. The open space (OS) designation allows community centers and cultural facilities as well as parks, she said.

“The Comprehensive Plan is a guide, a statement to be used for planning and zoning. The Lakefront Master Plan is a more specific policy document. The vision is that the plan will respect the delicate balance of ecosystems,” Ms. Lindwall said.

“A policy document is only as good as the City Council’s and City staff’s willingness to follow it,” Ms. Lindwall said. An ordinance is needed because “we need codification” of the policy.

“Part of the problem,” said Barbara Janes, cofounder of Noparksale.org, “is that people think that the Lakefront Master Plan is the law. It isn’t. It’s just a plan.”

The drafters of the ordinance requested specific input over the following few weeks so a final draft can be approved by the organizations and then perhaps be presented to City Council.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...