Evanston Preservation Commission votes against proposed Northwestern visitors center

Susan Du, City Editor

The city’s Preservation Commission unanimously declined to support Northwestern in its plan to build a new visitors center on Sheridan Road at their Tuesday meeting. Seven commissioners voted against the plan and two abstained.

The proposal for a new visitors center, which is scheduled for a vote at the Evanston City Council meeting Monday, could still be approved. However, its chances of passing are slimmer than they would have been if the preservationist panel had given the plan their blessing.

Among the commission’s concerns regarding the proposed visitors center are its size and its location on Sheridan Road.

“We’re also concerned about the context of the building in the Evanston community, and this building represents a very different story about that context,” commissioner Jack Weiss said, according to Evanston Now, adding that a change in location might secure the commission’s vote of confidence.

Bonnie Humphrey, the University’s director of design and construction, said the city’s zoning code requires adding parking, which the Sheridan Road location could accommodate.

Other attendees at Tuesday’s meeting protested the plan because, they said, the proposed visitors center is too far removed in style from landmark buildings on NU’s campus. Humphrey argued that the new building would fit in with the campus’ many contemporary buildings, which feature limestone and glass.

University spokesman Al Cubbage said the Preservation Commission is only one of several city divisions NU has been in contact with in regard to the proposed visitors center. Despite its disapproval of the plan, NU hopes for the best in making its case before city council on Monday, he said.

“It’s a disappointment of course. The new visitor’s center is something that will, in our minds, enhance the campus quite a bit and also alleviate some of the problems that currently exist with the current visitor’s center that are a bit of a concern to the local neighbors,” Cubbage said in reference to overcrowding of vehicles around the existing visitor’s center that street parking creates. “So what we’re trying to do is create a place that’s going to be a real showcase for the university, a very striking building.”

Despite the disappointment of not receiving the commission’s approval, University officials say they will continue to negotiate for the visitor’s center.

“The city has a process it is going through and the Evanston Preservation Commission’s role is part of it,” said Eugene Sunshine, NU’s vice president for business and finance. “We fully respect and understand the process. We look forward to more discussions with the city.”

NU was obligated to present its plans for a new visitors center before the Preservation Commission because much of the campus is considered landmarked property. The exact lot reserved for the proposed visitor’s center is situated near 12 designated landmark buildings; therefore, the commission has purview over any campus developments visible from the public way, said Carlos Ruiz, the city’s historic preservation coordinator.

Under normal circumstances, NU would need the Preservation Commission’s certificate of appropriateness in order to obtain a building permit for the visitor’s center. However, the University can still move forward with its plans despite the commission’s Tuesday night vote to deny that certificante.

“If the commission denies the certificate of appropriateness, the applicant can either appeal or apply for special merit,” Ruiz said, adding that “special merit” is contingent upon the proposal’s potential to benefit the community in some way, such as providing economic gains. “(NU) didn’t apply for a certificate for special merit. They’re basically asking city council to overturn the (Preservation Commission’s) decision so the permit can be approved.”

However, Ruiz said the city council “very rarely” ignores the Preservation Commission’s recommendation.

Ald. Jane Grover (7th), along with the rest of city council, will eventually decide whether to allow NU to build the new visitors center. She said she supports the idea of an upgraded center but that she will also be expected to take the Preservation Commission’s Tuesday vote into consideration.

“I don’t know,” Grover said of which side she will favor when the issue comes up for city council vote. “I think the project should go forward. The welcome center will be a nice staging area. It will make the school much more attractive and tours more persuasive, and also parking relief is nice. (The old visitors center) was a ragtag house where they gathered prospective students.”

In an interview with The Daily earlier this year, city spokesman Eric Palmer praised the University’s development plan, calling it a “win-win situation” for both NU and Evanston.

“The city of Evanston is definitely excited about the new visitors center that will be built at Northwestern University,” Palmer said in February. “The community grows and becomes economically healthier when we bring more students in and more visitors.”

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Marshall Cohen and Paulina Firozi contributed reporting.