Rendering of the proposed athletic and recreation complex as shown on Northwestern University’s website

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Northwestern University has applied for a permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to construct its proposed new athletic recreational complex along Lake Michigan. Much of the land on which Northwestern seeks to build the complex was lake bottom that was conveyed to Northwestern by the State of Illinois for $100 an acre in 1961, and Northwestern filled in about 75 acres of the lake bottom to create what is commonly called the lakefill.

A  posting on a Northwestern website created for its Sesquicentennial discusses the politics of acquiring the lake bottom and creating the landfill. It says, “University business manager William Kerr had spent considerable time in Springfield lobbying for the measure, and with Governor Otto Kerner and Speaker of the House William Redmond, both graduates of the law school in 1934, Northwestern had powerful friends in the state capital.”

The Alliance for the Great Lakes, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of the Great Lakes and the people who enjoy them, has filed comments with IDNR, requesting, in essence, that IDNR ask the Illinois Attorney General for advice on whether the land on which Northwestern seeks to build the complex belongs to the public under the “public trust” doctrine. The Alliance cites cases holding that lake bottom is held by the State in trust for the people of Illinois for public uses, and it cannot – even when authorized by legislation – convey the property for non-public uses. In one case, the federal court in Chicago held that a transfer of submerged lake bottom to Loyola University was void under the public trust doctrine, and it enjoined Loyola from proceeding with an expansion project on that land. 

The Alliance also argues that some of the land on which Northwestern seeks to build its athletic complex was created by the accumulation of shifting sand, and that any accumulated sand beach and dunes should be considered public property. It asks that IDNR delineate what portions of the land have accumulated since 1961.

The public may submit comments to IDNR on Northwestern’s request for a permit until Sept. 18.