In Focus: Future of Roycemore property unknown

Audrey Cheng

For almost 20 years, Northwestern officials have known the Roycemore School building that sits on some of the land-poor University’s last open property would be vacated by 2014. Four months after Roycemore moved out, NU officials are still not sure whether student housing, office space or another project will be constructed on the 1.5-acre lot.

It’s a difficult decision that draws on existing town-gown tensions and could take another four years to solidify, according to University officials.

The property sits at 640 Lincoln St., the edge of NU’s campus, and was the home of Roycemore for 95 years. In the mid-’90s as the University began running out of land, NU officials warned Roycemore that they would not be renewing the private pre-kindergarten through high school’s lease, said Ron Nayler, associate vice president of facilities management at NU. Ideas for how to use the Roycemore land have run the gamut – from residential halls to sororities or fraternities to office space to academic buildings – but no specific use has been determined.

The lag has fueled curiosity, if not concern, on the part of some city residents worried about the University building student housing closer to city housing.

“There are members of the non-Northwestern community who every week at various meetings ask, ‘What are you doing?'” said Eugene Sunshine, NU senior vice president for business and finance. “We don’t have a ‘plan.’ That’s not how it works.” A ‘land-poor’ University

When NU was founded in 1851, the University bought 680 acres of land in Evanston, acquiring virtually all of the city’s downtown. But the University was forced to sell much of the land for various reasons, which primarily boiled down to finances, according to Nayler. NU currently owns just 242 acres of that original land.

Had NU kept the majority of its land, downtown Evanston would have been farther south.

But NU sold and leased so much land that it became a land-poor university, a reality that became much starker as the school faced increasing demands to construct more residential and academic buildings. NU officials turned to the only feasible option: They started ending leases.

“There was an acknowledgement at that time that we needed to be able to find ways to meet all the needs … and we couldn’t do in under the bounds of what was in current University use,” Nayler said.

Almost a decade later, NU began developing a framework plan to outline options for Roycemore’s future use, said Nayler. ‘There needs to be a suitable buffer’

City officials met with NU representatives March 14 for their quarterly meeting. Nayler, Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) and community representative Tom Gemmell were all in attendance. Sunshine was not present.

Fiske, who chaired the meeting, said she would prefer the land be used for an office building, and she pressed Nayler for the name of a University official residents could contact to share their concerns about the site. Fiske and most residents at the meeting were clear that a residential hall or sorority or fraternity housing would be disruptive.

Were a residential hall to be built at the Roycemore site, Fiske suggested creating an interior courtyard to minimize noise from the building.

“I thought it was a positive and proactive way for the neighborhood to recognize that there is going to be a different use on that site and interact with the University in a positive way,” Fiske said after the meeting.

Evanston resident Jeanne Lindwall (WCAS ’71) agreed with Fiske, supporting another proposed idea – changing the entrance for Roycemore, which currently faces out on Orrington Road toward Sheridan Road.

“There needs to be a suitable buffer so that the residential area and neighborhood are not adversely impacted,” Lindwall said. “I think that has benefits for both the neighborhood and the students.”

Nayler said he was not surprised there were a few vocal residents at the meeting.

“If it’s a residence hall, obviously we’re meeting with the community to understand what their issues are and have them understand what our rights are and what our needs are,” Nayler said. “Remember this is a group of less than 12 people that are vocal at this meeting. Is that representative of the general community?”

The University plans to employ the same controls it uses in all its other residential housing by using resident advisors and community assistants to monitor the building. Nayler said if residents had issues with noise or particularly rowdy student behavior, they could present their complaints to the students.

“It’s too bad that someone has to come and stop it, but that’s part of living next to a university,” Nayler said. A tenuous timeline

Roycemore headmaster Joseph Becker said though he was disappointed when the school found out they would not be able to continue at NU, “it became clear that this really was in the best interest of the current and future Roycemore.”

As for what NU intends to do with the land, Becker said he hasn’t been informed and isn’t particularly concerned now that the school has moved.

“But I guess if they don’t have a decision made by (2014) I would be sort of curious,” Becker said.

NU does not have a time frame for figuring out how best to use the Roycemore land because University officials do not feel pressure to make a decision, Sunshine said. Renovating existing student housing takes priority.

In their decision process, University officials are juggling a few different concerns: Officials must note when spaces will be available for use or renovation, what the priorities are for moving offices and people, what the conditions of existing housing are, which faculty members need to be near each other and the overall cost of the construction process.

“It’s like musical chairs or dominoes, that kind of thing,” Sunshine said. “So you’re juggling six or seven different variables, and that’s why we don’t know what we’re going to do with Roycemore.”

Sunshine said the process is “really complic
ated” and is “really an art.”

Ultimately, University President Morton Schapiro will decide how Roycemore will be used. Sunshine said he “would be really surprised if we haven’t done anything on Roycemore in three to four years.” Unique zoning, unique options

The city has zoned NU property so that the majority of the east side of Sheridan Road is in zone T2 and the west side of the road is in zone T1. One of the major differences between the two zones is that in zone T1, NU can’t use any building on the west side of Sheridan Road to conduct research.

The Roycemore land is unique, and offers more options, because it falls in neither of those zones. The land is technically part of the U1 zone, where NU can build fraternities, sororities, residence halls, classrooms and offices.

Seabury Hall, which is split between T1 and T2 zones, is another property that Northwestern has acquired in recent years.

But Nayler said deciding what to do with Seabury Hall when NU took over the lease in 2009 was easier, because it employed a grandfather clause that allowed University officials to retain the building’s original function even though the residential housing violated the terms of the new zone in which it was classified.

In 1993, the city rezoned Seabury Hall into T1, T2 and U1 areas.

NU officials passed around a map at the March 14 meeting that showed T1, T2 and U1 limits, according to city minutes.  

The Roycemore land is the last substantial unused University property that falls within the U1 zone. The majority of the U1 zone is located west of Sheridan Road, surrounding the residential housing along University Place. Preserving a landmark

Because of Roycemore’s status as a historic landmark, Nayler said NU officials have never considered demolishing the building.

University officials have been leaning toward converting Roycemore into either office buildings or student housing. Sunshine said conversation has largely focused on upperclassman housing, which the University is currently lacking.

Though Sunshine said there is not a rigid timeline for deciding on Roycemore’s use, creating more upperclassman housing options is a priority for the NU administration. In an interview with The Daily in January, Schapiro said he hopes to add 1,000 beds, possibly in the form of apartment-style housing on campus.

The Roycemore land could help provide some of those apartments, Schapiro said. He said he would like to create the additional housing as quickly as possible.

“We don’t want your grandchildren to finally be living here,” Schapiro said. “We want these things available as soon as we can possibly do it.”

In the meantime, it is likely NU will use Roycemore as an interim office space for Kresge employees when renovations on the building begin during the spring or summer of 2013.

“We have talked about using it on an interim basis – like two or three years – for office buildings,” Sunshine said. “But we haven’t decided that either.” [email protected]