Determining how to replace an aged limestone path through the Ladd Arboretum has proven more difficult than could have been expected thanks to the basic difference between viewing the path as part of a “tree museum” or as a throughway connecting Bridge Street to Green Bay Road.
City Staff made its choice this month when it applied for an Illinois Department of Transportation Enhancement Program funds grant to be used to replace the Arboretum Path. ITEP funds are available “to support alternative modes of transportation,” and the City called the Ladd Arboretum Path “an alternative transportation option to workplaces and school …” according to the staff memo accompanying the proposal.
The City’s initial plan, presented in late 2013, sought to convert the current crushed limestone path, installed more than 40 years ago, into a smooth asphalt path that could be plowed in the winter and would allow for wheelchairs, bicycles as well as walked and other non-motorized transportation methods to use the path year round.
A problem arose immediately. The group charged with overseeing the Arboretum, the Ladd Arboretum Committee, objected vociferously to the proposed asphalt path for a number of reasons. The Evanston Environmental Association, the committee overseeing the Ecology Center and grounds, objected as well. Both view the area through which the path travels as a park and arboretum first, a transit corridor second. Asphalt does not mesh with their collective vision for the area.
On Feb. 9, City staff returned with a revised proposal for the Ladd Arboretum path. This time, instead of asphalt, the City proposed permeable or porous concrete for the path surface. According to staff, a permeable surface will remain in keeping with the spirit of the Arboretum by offering an environmentally friendly surface while at the same time allowing the path to be plowed and therefore accessible 12 months a year.
The cost of switching from asphalt to a permeable surface would shoot up from $289,626 to $462,587. According to staff, “Federal funding for this project will pay 80% of construction and construction engineering costs up to a maximum of $580,000.”
All speakers appearing before Council at the Feb. 9 meeting objected to concrete and insisted on crushed granite as the path’s surface. They cited numerous reasons, including inconsistency with the Arboretum’s master plan, their vision of the Arboretum as a quiet contemplative haven in the City, environmental issues and the proximity of a paved path going roughly the same place just yards away through Twiggs Park. Further, several speakers said the City’s plans included trees that did not exist while failing to include some trees that do.
“There is a reason we chose the material that we chose,” said Charles Smith, a longtime member of the Ladd Arboretum Committee. The Arboretum’s “ambiance” and sense of “solitude” are important, he said.
Jim LaRochelle said that he resigned from the Committee in protest last year because the City seemed dead-set on paving the path despite the strong recommendations from both the Arboretum Committee and the Evanston Environmental Association to stick with crushed granite.
Speaker after speaker delivered the same or a similar message.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said that while the City’s plan made a lot of sense, “How do you respond to those who run and oversee the Arboretum?” City Council deals with lots of issues every meeting, she said, “but this is what they focus on.”
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, had a different take, insisting that the path be constructed in such a way that it could be used 12 months a year. “I am concerned about preserving the aesthetic of the nature of this garden oasis,” she said, calling the Arboretum a “tree museum.” “The path is a connector,” said Ald. Grover. “It’s not just a destination. My interest in this is for this to be a year-round path. I think it needs to be a 12-month path.”
“The other piece is the cost, and that takes us back to the original plan,” said Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward. She said in her mind the decision was between the cheaper asphalt and porous concrete.
Ald. Rainey also spoke about the cost, but in a different way. “I came to the meeting supporting crushed granite based on the cost,” she said. Having learned in the meeting that crushed granite and permeable concrete cost roughly the same, Ald. Rainey admitted to “flip-flopping” and supporting the concrete path. “I thought [crushed granite] would be half the cost of permeable. I was wrong,” she said.
At issue, said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, is a central question: “What’s your vision for the path?” If the vision is to keep the path as it is, then crushed granite is the solution. If the vision is to view the path as part of the City’s commitment to alternative transit routes, then concrete or asphalt is the answer.
Ald. Grover pulled the Arboretum master plan up on her computer and quoted sections calling the path a “connector.” The only reference to crushed granite, she said, was a section about replacing limestone with granite. Since the plan’s adoption in 2007, she said, things have changed. The City’s focus has shifted toward a bike-friendly, alternative transportation City.
Director of Public Works Suzette Robinson initially told Council the ITEP grant would expire in two weeks, but later corrected herself and said Council could hold the matter for two weeks and decide the issue at its Feb. 23 meeting. Council asked for more information as to the cost of crushed granite, and whether it could be plowed.
Recently, the current limestone path was plowed, though the results were mixed. Ms. Robinson said plowing was done without supervisory permission, and she said she was concerned about damage that may have been done as a result.
The matter will return to Council, with more information on Feb. 23. At that point, Council will decide whether to follow the vision of the committees overseeing the Arboretum and Ecology Center, or trump those visions with their own vision of connector transportation paths.