Evanston aldermen to consider land lease for Northwestern visitors center

Susan Du, City Editor

Northwestern’s proposed visitors center continues to draw community criticism even as the Evanston City Council nears final deliberation over leasing city property for its construction.

The council is scheduled to vote tonight on a project agreement and proposed leasing contract for the land at the northeast corner of Sheridan Road and Campus Drive. The proposal that council members will review designates NU rental fees for building a fire access lane on city property as $10,237 per year, or $255,012.50 for the first 25 years of the agreement.

NU has also agreed to make $280,000 worth of improvements in the public right-of-way as well as pay $1,500 for ongoing maintenance and $3,500 in capital costs, according to city documents.

Nevertheless, several Evanston residents and some aldermen remain opposed to the construction of the visitors center, citing environmental and aesthetic concerns. Evanston’s TribLocal website reported Saturday that Ald. Judy Fiske (1st)  reiterated grievances expressed at previous city council meetings that the visitors center would negatively impact the lakefront ecosystem. Additionally, she challenged the preliminary proposal of charging NU $1 per year for 75 years to lease the land.

Fiske could not be immediately reached for comment.

However, University spokesman Al Cubbage confirmed in an email to The Daily on Sunday that the updated leasing rate of $10,237 per year is correct and had been determined as the result of discussions between the city and University on Friday.

The $1 per year rate appeared in the initial draft of the proposal presented to the council a few weeks ago and has since been modified, Ald. Don Wilson (4th) said. He called the current rate a “better, more appropriate” figure.

“Generally speaking, if we have some kind of asset, we want to get something in exchange for it,” he said. “It would be my hope if they’re going to use part of our land that we would get something for that, something reasonable.”

Wilson said he has received a number of emails and calls from residents complaining about the proposed visitors center and expects that many of them will voice their concerns at tonight’s council meeting, but he will stand by his decision to support NU’s plans. As a jogger, he said he frequently uses the lakefront path and appreciates NU’s efforts to provide Evanston residents with attractive access.

The complaints some residents have presented to aldermen include the aesthetics of the proposed visitors center, its environmental impact, the inclusion of a parking space in the plans and leasing contract rates.

Evanston resident Matt Mirapaul (Medill ‘82) said he hopes that the council will recognize that the proposed parking deck will present environmental problems and ultimately reject contracting with the University.

“There’s a long list of species that come here,” Mirapaul said. “I don’t know how the birds and other wildlife will adapt to a severe change. It will take years, if not decades, to recover from this change.”

Similar environmental concerns were raised years ago when NU proposed building the Lakefill, essentially creating the beach ecosystem over which objections are again being raised.

This new wave of criticism for the visitors center project comes after the city’s preservation commission unanimously recommended that the council reject the proposal based on concerns that the new building will not complement surrounding historical buildings. At its Oct. 22 meeting, the Evanston City Council nevertheless approved NU’s plans by a 6-2 vote. Fiske and Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) dissented and Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th) abstained.

In an interview with members of The Daily’s editorial board earlier this month, University President Morton Schapiro said he was surprised by the number of grievances Evanston locals raised in regard to the visitors center because it’s a project that benefits both the University and the city.

“To say that building … somehow interferes with Fisk Hall because it was a Daniel Burnham building (is) kind of crazy,” Schapiro said. “I thought that was a little mysterious. The other thing is that it replaces surface parking lots, which are very bad for the environment and hideous, and that two-story structure that is God-awful. So I was thinking, ‘You really don’t want us to build that?’ It would be crazy.”

Following initial objections from the city, the plans for the visitors center now include bird-friendly windows and a height that complies with city codes.

Manuel Rapada contributed reporting.