Conflict over Northwestern visitor center

By Hallie Zolkower-Kutz

Northwestern University is facing opposition to its plan to construct a new visitor center in Evanston, a move preservationists say will be detrimental to the environment.

Controversy arose Nov. 13 when Evanston’s City Council approved the construction on the university’s Lakefill, an area of land on the Southeast side of Northwestern’s campus. The council rejected arguments made by the suburb’s Preservation Commission, which disapproved of the size and location of the building. Preservationists claim it is too large and the center would distract from the landscape.

Northwestern’s Lakefill is an area of land constructed in the late 1960s using landfill materials, according to Bob Rowley, director of media relations at Northwestern.

“It is a shame to lose a spot of land like that on the lake,” said Evanston resident Rick Weiland, who attended the City Council meeting. “It really is a beautiful area.”

Weiland said he noticed that the building site has begun to develop its own ecosystem, adding that he doesn’t like the idea of the lakeshore becoming the site of what he believes is simply a glorified parking garage.

Evanston Alderman Donald Wilson (4th Ward) said he believes Northwestern has jumped through the “necessary hoops” to get its proposal approved and pointed out that a portion of the Lakefill’s ecosystem wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the university.

“The land is not formally designated as a nature preserve,” Rowley said. “While it’s always disruptive when you do construction, the environment settles in largely as it was before.”

Some Evanston residents said the six-story building will ruin the environment and aesthetic of the area, which abuts Evanston’s preservation district. Weiland said he believes the area should instead be designated a nature preserve or bird sanctuary.

In addition to permitting the construction of the 170,000 square-foot building, the City Council is allowing the university to use a strip of land at the edge of the site for a fire lane and bike path, provided it shoulders the cost of constructing and maintaining them, according to Rowley.

“[The bike path] was important to me because I wanted to make sure we had that access to the shoreline in an attractive, well-maintained path,” Wilson said.

Northwestern will pay Evanston $250,000 over the next 10 years for upkeep of the land, but the city will still own the fire lane, a change from the original proposal, Wilson said.

The construction of the visitors center will begin in summer 2013 and continue into 2014, according

to Rowley, who said the center will serve an important function for the university.

“This building will be the gateway to our school,” he said. “We get [about] 47,000 families a year who are competing with city residents for curbside parking. We think this will help that.”

The new building will feature admissions offices, an auditorium and a four-floor parking garage, Rowley said.

Northwestern draws a lot of traffic to the area, an issue Wilson said residents often complain about, so the new building will concentrate that traffic to the campus and free up parking in the area for residents.

Rowley said he hopes people will recognize what the visitor center can do for the community, something Wilson agrees with.

“I think the ultimate end product will be a positive improvement to the area,” Wilson said.