By Brian L. Cox, Special to the Tribune8:59 p.m. CST, January 16, 2013
Less than week after three Evanston residents filed a lawsuit to stop a big lakefront project by Northwestern University, construction crews on Wednesday began clearing a stand of trees on the site that some say has ecological value.
“It looks like a clear-cut logging operation out there,” said Evanston resident Matthew Mirapaul, one of the plaintiffs seeking to stop the university’s $32 million project. “It looks like a sad day for Evanston.”
NU spokesman Alan Cubbage said work began before the lawsuit was filed.
“The fences have been up for at least a couple of days,” he said. “We are on a construction schedule.”
In the lawsuit filed Friday in Cook County Circuit Court, Mirapaul and fellow residents Ann Jennett and Mitchell Harrison asked a judge to order Evanston to rescind its approval for Northwestern’s visitor center and 435-space parking garage on the southeast corner of campus. The site is adjacent to the popular Clark Street Beach.
In addition to concern about losing the trees, some opponents say the center and garage will loom inappropriately over a picturesque stretch of Evanston lakefront.
Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the university has permission for the work to begin.
“I know our forestry folks have been in touch with the people at Northwestern,” Bobkiewicz said. “We’re keeping an eye on it. We knew it was coming.”
Mirapaul said the city has yet to respond to the lawsuit, and by Wednesday afternoon crews had cut down many of the 170 trees on the site.
“I’m astonished that this would occur so quickly,” Mirapaul said. “I thought that the legal process ensuing from the complaint would be sufficient for this not to happen.”
“Northwestern is not a party to the lawsuit, so there is nothing that prohibits us from moving forward,” said Cubbage, the university spokesman. “We have a signed project agreement with the city.”
The Evanston Preservation Commission in the fall recommended against allowing the project to proceed as proposed. But in November the City Council gave Northwestern the permission it needed.
The nine-page lawsuit alleges that the council acted “arbitrarily and capriciously.” It also claims that the structure violates the city’s zoning ordinance and is contrary to long-standing city planning documents, including the Lakefront Master Plan adopted by the City Council in 2008.
The project will be built largely on NU property, but the university needed a sliver of city-owned land next to the beach — where the trees stood — to build an access road.
Members of the Evanston North Shore Bird Club have watched birds rest amid the lakefront haven of trees for years, said Libby Hill, a member and city resident.
Birds migrating from the east to west have stopped to nest and gather strength along their way, she said. Hill has worked with Northwestern on creating bird-safe buildings and knew the day would come when the trees fell.
“Everybody is unhappy to see it go,” Hill said. But she takes solace in the fact that “because of the city’s tree ordinance, Northwestern has to reimburse the city for every tree going down. That will go toward creating another habitat somewhere down the lake.”
Mirapaul called the lakefront a priceless natural resource and vowed the lawsuit would continue.
“The forest, although an important part of this project, is not the only part of this project about which we have concerns,” he said. “Everyone in Evanston who loves the lakefront should let the people know who are responsible for this know how disappointed they are.”
Tribune reporter Lisa Black contributed.