Residents file suit to stop Northwestern visitor center construction

The University is anticipating a 2014 opening for the new Visitor Center. The project costs over $32 million dollars and is pursuing a LEED CI Silver rating.

Courtesy of University Relations

The University is anticipating a 2014 opening for the new Visitor Center. The project costs over $32 million dollars and is pursuing a LEED CI Silver rating.

Manuel Rapada, City Editor

Three residents who oppose the construction of a lakefront University visitor center have taken their case to the Cook County Circuit Court.

The visitor center, which Northwestern announced plans for last February, will be the new place to welcome prospective Wildcats and their families. However, the project is now the latest example of Evanston town-gown conflict.

Evanston residents Matt Mirapaul (Medill ’82), Mitchell Harrison and Ann Jennett filed suit Friday, asking the Cook County court to require that aldermen rescind their October overturn of the Evanston Preservation Commission’s decision against the project.

“At this point, we feel we have no recourse but the courts,” Mirapaul said Tuesday. “Everyone who learns about this project, everyone who sees sketches of this project, everyone who enjoys Clark Street beach is shocked, if not outraged by its potential impact on the lakefront,” he said.

NU’s plans for a seven-story building near Fisk Hall faced a setback in mid-October when the Preservation Commission unanimously denied a certificate of appropriateness required for construction.

Despite strong public opposition expressed at the Oct. 22 Evanston City Council meeting, aldermen voted 6-2 to reverse the Commission’s denial. The residents’ lawsuit claims the city disregarded its setback and use requirements in the U3 zoning district, in which the visitor center will be built.

Among other decrees, the plaintiffs requested the court find that “the City Council’s reversal of the Evanston Preservation Commission’s denial of the certificate of appropriateness was arbitrary and capricious.”

Evanston spokesman Eric Palmer declined to comment.

NU is not directly involved in the lawsuit. Still, University spokesman Al Cubbage reiterated in an email to The Daily, the need for a visitor center that would replace the current Hinman Avenue admissions office that is “cramped, overcrowded and inefficient.”

Nearly 50,000 people visit the office every year, Cubbage wrote in the email Tuesday, adding the new center will include an auditorium, waiting areas and improved admissions staff offices.

“Therefore, we hope very much that this lawsuit is resolved quickly and favorably, so the University can begin work on this important project,” Cubbage wrote.

Opponents to the plan, on the other hand, have called the visitor center’s height into question in comparison to other nearby buildings. The plaintiffs also argue the value of nearby residential properties will be hurt by “the significant infringement and interference in lakefront vistas” and “the replacement of a mature wooded landscape.”

Mirapaul said he and the other plaintiffs would not have filed the lawsuit if they didn’t think their case had merit. With visitor center construction set to begin next week, Mirapaul said there is no word on when the court would address the case.

“Our first concern is that those trees don’t come down,” he said.