For the second time in as many weeks, on July 30 City Council postponed the vote on a memorandum of understanding between Northwestern University and the City of Evanston about Lincoln Street Beach. The beach was created by sand accretion over the years because of Northwestern’s lakefront construction projects, and the University has deemed it an exclusively Northwestern beach.
The beach was closed for two years for the construction of the athletic complex that stretches along the north side of the University’s lakefill. When the beach was reopened, it was called “Lincoln Street Beach,” and the City touted it as one of its six public beaches.
Northwestern, though, still claims title to it. Under the public trust doctrine, some advocates say, the beach belongs to the public. Northwestern would like to settle the matter with the City by retaining what it claims to be its ownership of the beach, offering to staff and maintain it and allowing Evanston residents who have beach tokens or who have paid the daily admission fee to use the beach.
Because of its location, the beach is difficult for Evanston residents to access, and those without a Northwestern parking permit must either walk several blocks or pay $8 to park in the nearby University lot.
Several residents and at least one alderman cautioned the City about approaching beach negotiations with Northwestern without strong affirmation on the City’s part that Lincoln Street Beach is a public, not a private, beach.
During Citizen Comment, Carl Bova said he did not see “how Council can act on this when staff has not done its due diligence” in researching ownership of the beach. “I suggest taking no action until the facts are known.”
Jeff Smith said, “You can do a better job for the City. Everything east of Campus Drive and north of Colfax is City-owned. This is a public resource.”
Speaking on behalf of the Southeast Evanston Association, Linda Damashak said, “Ownership of the beach must be codified now.”
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said he felt that the residents who spoke about the ownership of the beach and Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie, who prepared a report on the beach, “did a good job.”
He also said he agreed with the position of Alderman Judy Fiske that, without additional research and information, it is premature for the City to sign a memorandum of agreement with Northwestern. “Ownership has to be established,” Ald. Fiske said. “We can’t go into the conversation without knowing the answer to ownership.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz did not, however, take a strong stand about negotiating from the position that the City owns the beach. Instead he said, “I just need to notify the Council that this is a difficult, complicated situation. This is going to require time – staff time, certainly by the law department, which is down two lawyers. We may need to reach out to some outside counsel, and certainly have additional discussions with the University. We may not have all the information by Aug. 13 [the next City Council meeting], but it could come by Sept. 10.”
Ald. Fiske said she felt there are resources in the community – such as Mr. Smith, former general counsel for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources – who could help or advise the City. She also suggested the City start with the legal description of the property.
“I think it’s really important that, if this land turns out to be public land, we operate this beach in the way we’re operating the other City beaches. If you walk down to the property, you wouldn’t even know how to get in.” With its tall fence and padlocks, it does not look like a beach. Further, she said, the only entrance to the beach is through Northwestern property.
“It could very well be,” Ald. Fiske said, “that since the 1960s this has been public land, and no one ever knew about it.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “It’s important to articulate to the Council that the University believes it’s their land, and so the process we are going to have to go through to have that conversation, I don’t anticipate being easy. I don’t anticipate its being a straightforward one.” He then asked, “Given other [business] of the Council, is this a path we need to walk down?”
Ald. Fiske said, “I’m saying we can take one step forward at a time. There needs to be an agreement and it needs to be written down. This may seem unwieldly and not something easy to do, but it is important for subsequent generations. It’s really important. It’s our lakefront. Public land is for the public and not for private use.”
Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, asked about use of the beach in the off-season. All other Evanston beaches are accessible to the public, for free during non-swining hours and all during the off-season.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said the agreement covers only the beach season. He also said, “We are going to have to persuade the University – they are coming at it from the perspective that it’s their beach.”
Mayor Stephen Hagerty appeared reluctant to get the City involved in a disagreement about ownership.
“I would just caution the Council that we have a lot going on, a lot on our agenda. We have a beach and a handshake agreement. They’re spending their money to do that. To me, an agreement in place in perpetuity that this beach is accessible to the public … if Northwestern is willing to maintain the beach and maybe make improvements so there is access – isn’t that the same outcome that we all want? The beach can be enjoyed by all in Evanston.”
“I couldn’t disagree with that more,” said Ald. Fiske. “I agree that Northwestern may have said, ‘OK, we’re going to let folks with tokens come on it – that’s very different from being a public beach.” She said she feels the question of ownership should be settled and said she need to explain things to her constituents.
Mayor Hagerty said, “And it’s awfully nice that Northwestern lets us walk on their property. And if we get into a fight with them legally – with lawsuits going back and forth – I don’t think that’s good for the residents of Evanston or our City government.”
The Mayor then asked Ald. Fiske if the beach is in the First Ward, of which she is alderman. She responded that the beach is in the Seventh Ward but that First Ward residents live near it.
More information is likely to be ready for the Sept. 10 City Council meeting, a week after the beach season officially ends.