City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz suggested at the July 30 City Council meeting that negotiating a memorandum of understanding with Northwestern University about Lincoln Street Beach would be “difficult and not straightforward.” He cautioned that the University believes it owns the beach and questioned whether the City’s claiming ownership of the beach “is a path we need to walk down.” He seemed to think that defending the City’s position that Lincoln Street Beach is public would be too much for our understaffed and otherwise overwhelmed legal department. He told the RoundTable that his comments related not to the merits of the issue but to allocation of resources.

We find this posture disappointing.

We are also concerned that Mayor Stephen Hagerty suggested that having Northwestern maintain the beach and allow access to the beach to those with beach tokens is essentially the same thing as owning the beach. He said a lawsuit would not be “good” for the citizens of Evanston or for City government.

We strongly disagree with Mr. Bobkiewicz and Mayor Hagerty. The beach is a significant asset, and strong arguments have been made that the public owns it. We appreciate that there may be counter-arguments on this and regret that their attitudes show so little respect for the residents of Evanston and such carelessness about City assets such as the lakefront as to be demeaning. 

We believe that when it comes time to negotiate with Northwestern, the City’s position should be that the Lincoln Street Beach is public and that it is up to the University to prove otherwise.

There are several reasons we should walk down that path to public ownership of Lincoln Street Beach. The beach was created by sand accretion caused by Northwestern’s construction projects, so under the public trust doctrine, it is public property. If the City does not claim title to it, either in the name of the City of Evanston or the people of Illinois, there is a good chance that Northwestern will continue to treat it as private property, diminish access to it, try to close it, or even attempt to build on it. Trading present-day, ephemeral “convenience” for the enjoyment, recreational and educational (yes, one can learn at the beach, even without a formal classroom) opportunities seems like a fraud perpetrated on future generations.

City officials should take the high road, not the easy path. Public ownership of the beach will preserve this valuable resource for generations to come.