Evanston City Council overturns ruling against Northwestern construction plans

Rachel Janik, Reporter

Evanston aldermen voted Monday to ignore the Preservation Commission’s recommendation and grant Northwestern’s appeal to proceed with plans to construct a new visitors center on Sheridan Road.

The 6-2 vote came after last week’s Preservation Commission meeting, when the panel unanimously declined to grant a certificate of appropriateness to the University. NU appealed the commission’s decision to the city council for review.

Commission members made several remarks to the council before the vote at Monday’s council meeting. They expressed many concerns about the style of the proposed building, some saying that the steel and glass would conflict with more historical structures such as Fisk Hall, one of the oldest buildings at NU.

Jeanne Lindwall, a NU alumna who currently lives near campus, said she fears the new building would “intrude into the rhythm of the lakeshore historical district.”

After the public comment period ended, the council invited Ron Nayler, NU’s associate vice president for Facilities Management, to speak for 10 minutes on behalf of the University. Nayler stressed the concerns many of the plan’s opponents had were misconceptions, including one claim that the University plans to fill in part of the lakefront.

He said the center plans were drawn in accordance with all zoning regulations. He added that the building, which many were afraid would dwarf all surrounding structures, is within 10 feet of nearby Fisk Hall, and is far from being the tallest building on campus. University Hall is 117 feet tall and the McCormick Tribune Center stands more than 80 feet, Nayler said.

Many questions posed to Nayler by the council dealt with environmental issues. Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) and Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) both mentioned conservation efforts by many in the community to maintain a diversity of bird life near the lakefront and expressed concern that the work could be disrupted by the proposed changes to the area.

Fiske mentioned a lack of connection between the University’s vision and that of local residents, one she felt should be resolved.

“Where we struggle between Evanston as a community and Northwestern as a university is the way we look at land,” Fiske said to Naylor. “We’re outside looking in, and you’re inside looking out.”

After some discussion, Ald. Jane Grover (7th) moved to grant NU’s appeal, with a second by Ald. Don Wilson (4th).

Wilson argued that the new building, although it may conflict with the personal style of some residents, meshes well with NU’s eclectic architecture. He said he is also in favor of many aspects of the plans as well, including extending the lakefront bike paths.

“With a project like this, you’re not going to make everyone happy,” Wilson said. “I think all we can do is strive for the best that can be developed.”

Wynne moved to table the measure and consider it in two weeks, echoing concerns about the environment and lingering confusion about the final product.

Despite that request, the motion to grant the appeal held, and the measure passed 6-2, with Wynne and Fiske dissenting. Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th) recused herself from the vote because she is an NU employee.