Despite opposition from members of the city preservation commission, Evanston aldermen overruled the commission’s denial of a certificate of appropriateness for a new visitor’s center and parking garage proposed at Northwestern University.
Located on the southern end of campus at 1841 Sheridan Road, the proposed building is 81 feet at its highest point and would contain a visitor center with auditorium, offices for admission staff and two-story reception area as well as a seven-story, 435-car parking garage, according to city documents.
Northwestern University appeared before the preservation commission three times between August and October, as part of its application for a certificate of appropriateness. The document is required by the city for construction in a historic district or on a lot of record containing landmark buildings. The proposed building falls into the latter category, and is located on a lot of record that includes 12 landmark buildings, among them the Daniel Burnham-designed Fisk Hall.
Speaking before the city council, several members of the preservation commission said they denied Northwestern’s application because of their concerns about its height, location on the lakeshore and visual relationship to Fisk Hall, which dates to 1899. The proposed visitor’s center is composed of modern sheets of glass and stone, while Fisk Hall is built of brick with terra-cotta and stone trimmings and a red tile roof.
“Context is everything in this project,” said commission member Jack Weiss. “The proposed visitor’s center imposes significant visual impact on anyone approaching the south entry to the campus.”
Weiss said the building would clash both with the homes in Evanston’s lakefront historic district and with nearby Fisk Hall, and told council members to support the preservation commission’s suggestion that the university move the building back further on campus.
Kris Hartzell, vice-chair of the preservation commission, said she was concerned about destruction of the lakefront that might be required to construct the building. Architectural drawings show that the visitor’s center would be built on vacant land where the lakefront path curves around the southernmost entrance to Northwestern, but the university plans to extend a new walking and biking around the eastern exterior of the building.
“This particular proposal for this particular structure in this particular location is not the only solution to the parking needs of this university,” Hartzell said.
She, too, suggested that Northwestern University move the building north on its property. But Ron Nayler, associate vice president of facilities management, said that the university cannot move the building because there is a parking deck behind the proposed site.
“We’ve moved it as far north as we can into campus,” he said. “We don’t have any further room to move.”
Nayler also described the new path — which the city will lease to the university and which will also serve as a fire lane — as a benefit to the Evanston community that will maintain access for pedestrians and bicycles along the lakeshore path.
Evanston alderman Judy Fiske (1st Ward) and Melissa Wynne (3rd Ward) both expressed concern over the proposed building. Fiske said she worried that the new building would destroy habitat for wildlife and migrating birds along the lake, as well as for resients. But Nayler said he had met with the Chicago Audobon Society and the university had made changes to the building to make it more bird-friendly.
Wynne said she, too, was worried about habitat for migratory birds, as well as potential light pollution from the parking garage, and said she did not believe she had enough information to reverse the preservation commission’s denial.
Aldermen Jane Grover (7th ward) and Donald Wilson (4th ward) both said they believed Northwestern University had satisfied the community’s concerns, however.
Grover noted that the university had placed trees far enough from the building so that birds would be unlikely to fly into it, and that residents would still be able to continue biking, walking or running along the lakefront path. In fact, she added, the city would even still own the path.
Wilson said he, personally, had passed the spot on the lakefront path at the southern end of campus thousands of times, whether running, biking or walking with his kids.
“There’s the garage, it’s the part I least like going by,” he said. But because Northwestern University plans to add landscaping around the new building, he said he believed the path would actually be improved.
Furthermore, he noted, a parking garage would take some of the stress off neighborhood streets.
Aldermen voted 6-2 to repeal the preservation commission’s denial of a certificate of appropriateness, with Fiske and Wynne voting no. Alderman Coleen Burrus (9th ward) recused herself because she is director of corporate relations at Northwestern University.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include information about why Ald. Burrus recused herself.