Despite apparent collegiality at a community workshop on Feb. 17, rancor prevailed at the Feb. 23 City Council meeting, at which the vote was to pave the path in the Ladd Arboretum. RoundTable photo

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A spot of Evanston turf about three-quarters of a mile long and less than two yards wide – the path in the Ladd Arboretum – was the site of a heated dispute about the future of the Arboretum and its flora and fauna; the accessibility of the path to those in wheelchairs, strollers and bicycles; the safety of children walking to Haven and Kingsley schools; and, of course, the cost of materials.

The matter came to a head earlier this year, when money was at stake: The deadline to accept a transportation grant from the State to pave the path was looming. When the vote came to City Council on Feb. 23, four of the eight aldermen present were in favor of refusing the grant, and four in favor of accepting the grant. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl cast the tie-breaking vote – to pave an 8-foot wide path with a two-foot buffer on each side.

Environmental vs. Safety Issues

The current path through the Arboretum, which stretches from Green Bay Road to Emerson Street, is a peaceful one, built for quiet enjoyment of the stands of trees, hillocks, the gazebo, the Grady Bird Sanctuary and the native wildflowers.

It is also broken in places; it floods in rainy weather or when snow melts rapidly; and, since it cannot be plowed, it is impassable or nearly so after heavy snowfalls or in melt-freeze conditions. The two organizations charged with the oversight of the Arboretum – the Ladd Arboretum Committee and the Evanston Environmental Association – recommended that the path be redone with crushed granite, to fit in with the character and use of the Arboretum.

Crushed granite, however, cannot be plowed, making passage difficult for perhaps three months of the year.

Children who use the path in the Ladd Arboretum to walk to Haven or Kingsley school often cross McCormick Boulevard in wide diagonals or walk on the street altogether. According to the City, an average of 74 students per day was counted at the McCormick/Prairie/Arboretum intersection in 2014, up from 65 the year before.

At a community workshop on the arboretum path, City Public Works Director Suzette Robinson said the Arboretum, rather than City sidewalks, is part of the route chosen and designed by the school principals and PTAs for students walking to school.

Residents of nearby Over the Rainbow apartments, located at 2045 Brown Ave., most of whom are in wheelchairs, find portions of the path difficult if not impossible to navigate, even though the new Bridge Street bridge has sidewalks wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.

City Received Transportation Grant

The City applied for and received a grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). IDOT’s Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ITEP) will fund 80% of the cost of the new path. Because of the nature of the grant, the Arboretum must be multi-use. That is, it must “support alternative transportation” such as bicycles, said Ms. Robinson. She also said the City did not apply for a grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency because “we have tried unsuccessfully to secure IEPA funds for several other projects.”

City staff recommended that the path be paved with permeable concrete. Permeable concrete would likely have had high installation costs, but its environmental impact and maintenance are more favorable: It drains well in wet weather and can be plowed in winter.

Council Discussion and Vote

Much of the Feb. 23 City Council meeting was consumed with debate about the future of the path.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, had moved that the City forgo the grant money and increase handicap accessibility in a different way. “I would like to approach the Arboretum at another date with that in mind –making it more accessible.”

Ald. Tendam said he was “fundamentally opposed” to paving the path. I do believe the Arboretum should be and can be more accessible, more inviting, more inclusive. I think we’re approaching it the wrong way. This was really approached by means of a grant for a path for bicycle use …”

Ald. Tendam’s motion garnered the support of Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; Don Wilson, 4th Ward; and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. The four in favor of paving the path were Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Delores Holmes, 5th Ward; and Jane Grover, 7th Ward. Ninth Ward Alderman Coleen Burrus was absent.

Ald. Grover said she felt she and Ald. Holmes were the only two aldermen who heard calls about kids crossing McCormick mid-street or walking in the street.

The Fifth and Seventh wards meet at the canal, which Ald. Grover called a “psychological barrier between the two sides of the canal.” She also said she had received a lot of calls asking that the path be repaired.

Ald. Holmes said that, while people opposed to the project showed up to protest the paving, she believed there were many more who wished to have it paved.