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Northwestern unveiled plans to build a brand new basketball arena and facility 100 yards into Lake Michigan on a constructed “Basketball Island.” Officials announced the proposal before a rapt City Council just after the latest NCAA basketball tournament participants were revealed on “selection Sunday”– a list Northwestern has never in its history found itself on.

Ian Naismith, great grandnephew of basketball creator James Naismith and a Northwestern alum, attended the presentation and spoke in favor of the project. “Everyone knows our facilities are holding us back,” he said. “Once we have this new building up and running, recruits will flock to campus. Who wouldn’t want to play on an island in Lake Michigan?”
The facility, according to the University’s PowerPoint presentation, will be reachable by retractable drawbridge and a cadre of student-propelled rowboats. Rather than setting the facility in a concrete foundation, engineers will construct the island to actually float on top of Lake Michigan, making for potentially interesting bounces and stray shots in stormy weather.
“It will take quite a swell to move a structure as large as Basketball Island is going to be,” said project designer Shiva Fillmore. The structure more closely resembles an aircraft carrier than man-made island, he added. “That said, sometimes that lake can get pretty rough.”
Seating capacity is expected to be in the 12,000 to 15,000 range. During warmer weather, a swim-up access point will be available for students only, complete with changing facilities.
Aware of a potential backlash from the environmental community, Mr. Fillmore introduced the facility’ green feature. “This structure will have the greenest roof yet constructed,” he said. “Vegetation will cover about two-thirds of the roof, and solar panels the other third. In addition, three 30-foot-high wind turbines will provide enough power to run our state-of-the-art scoreboard, provided there are high, steady winds.”
The environmental community was not, however, assuaged. Despite the short time between publication of the proposal and Council’s April 1 meeting, protesters filled Council chambers, obviously upset with yet another encroachment into the lake. With lakefill precedent set already, most observers believe it unlikely the Army Corps of Engineers will unduly delay the University’s application.
“Hey, we know they like basketball, too,” said Evanston’s University-City liaison, Pearl LeBlanc. “As for the City, we can hardly wait to get our hands on the construction permit fees.”
Nonetheless, Socrates Sharkey – representing Friends of the Lakefront; Blue Water, No Fills; and No Man Is an Island, among other organizations – said he would seek an injunction under the Public Trust Doctrine, which effectively blocked Loyola University’s proposed encroachment into the lake several years ago.
Steven Broccolini, University Vice President of Environmental Utilization, said Northwestern would defend its proposal on the grounds that the proposed “island” is not an island at all. “It floats. How can it be an island?’ he rhetorized.
The facility will cost approximately $1.2 billion to complete, and is expected to be fully operational by the start of the 2017 basketball season. Basketball Island will replace Welsh-Ryan arena, one of the smallest and oldest basketball facilities in the NCAA.
In a deal reached with Northwestern just prior to Monday’s meeting, the City also expects to collect revenue from a newly instituted “bridge and boat” tax. For each person transported across the lake to Basketball Island, the City will receive $1 in “lake-use tax.” The tax is similar to that collected on Evanston beaches.
“We will have to provide added security and services in case people fall into the water,” said Ms. LeBlanc. “A bridge-and-boat tax just makes sense for everyone involved.”
All 34 of Evanston’s purported environmentally friendly organizations protested the proposal. Because of the number of speakers at public comment, however, each speaker was given only 12 seconds to address Council, which allowed only for an introduction and identification of the speaker’s position on the topic.
Construction is expected to begin shortly after April 1, 2016.