Questions arise over beach on northern part of Northwestern’s campus


David Lee / Daily Senior Staffer

Lincoln Street Beach. The beach’s ownership is up in the air.

Nora Shelly, Editor in Chief

For decades, Northwestern students had near-exclusive access to a beach on north campus.

The Lincoln Street Beach, formed largely due to lake bed shifting that occurred after Northwestern began constructing the Lakefill in the 1960s, was considered University property until 2015. Then, NU built the behemoth Ryan Fieldhouse with thousands upon thousands of square feet of concrete and steel — and turf — that again raised the issue of who owned the plot of sand on the northern edge of campus.

“This is beachfront that has occurred by the shifting, literally shifting of sands in Lake Michigan,” said city manager Wally Bobkiewicz. “Prior to that, the beach was basically where the building is.”

The property, which abuts the city’s water treatment facility and was previously known as the Northwestern Beach, reopened this summer once construction of the athletic complex was complete.

Although the new beach is bordered mostly by campus and is set off by University-built gates, Bobkiewicz said it certainly isn’t Northwestern’s property, but isn’t the city’s either. Once the sand funneled up from the lake bed and plopped onto land, it seemed to become state property by default.

“The state of Illinois has jurisdiction over issues involving Lake Michigan,” Bobkiewicz said. “They are the adjudicators.”

State officials could not be reached for comment.

Evanston resident Jeff Smith, who ran for mayor in 2017, was general counsel for Illinois Department of Natural Resources for close to two years. Smith (Weinberg ’77) said that under the law, any sand that accretes naturally and forms land is the property of whoever owns the abutting lakefront. Any sand that builds up to form land due to construction of something in the lake, like the Lakefill, is under the state’s jurisdiction.

“It’s not that DNR owns the sand, it’s that the rights to Lake Michigan reside in the people,” he said. “The state owns it in trust for the public.”

This summer, the beach was staffed by Northwestern lifeguards, although residents with an Evanston beach token were allowed access. All seemed well, Bobkiewicz said, until residents raised questions over whether it was proper for the University to operate the beach.

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th), whose ward encompasses much of north campus and the beach, said residents are looking to make the beach as accessible as others in the city.

“It’s complicated because the access to the beach is across Northwestern property, compared to our other beaches which have Evanston park land next to them,” she said. “The access question hasn’t been resolved yet.”

University spokesperson Bob Rowley said while the beach is surrounded by fences during the off-season, the gates are unlocked and the area is open for people to walk. The complex land ownership issue, Rowley said, remains under discussion.

Currently, the discussions are on the back burner. Not only is fall budgeting season for the city, but there also isn’t a lot of swimming going on in Lake Michigan right now — water temperature for Monday was in the 50s.

Bobkiewicz said he hopes Northwestern, Evanston and Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials will hash out the issue by next summer. Revelle said she doesn’t expect the state to maintain the beach, and hopes at some point it can come under city ownership.

“I think there’s still a lot of unanswered questions here,” she said.

Kristina Karisch contributed reporting.

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Twitter: @noracshelly