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Ravinia Neighbors Association Blog

Welcome to RNA’s Blog Page which features articles from Ravinia writers. Although articles are chosen in accordance with topics we feel are relevant to Ravinia and of possible interest to our readers, RNA does not necessarily endorse the opinions put forth in the blog posts. If you would like to comment on any articles put forth in the blogs, please use the comment box that follows each post.

Rosewood Beach & the Interpretive Center

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The story of how an unwanted facility is being forced upon the tax paying public

In 1988 Highland Park residents voted down an ambitious lakefront plan proposed by the Park District of Highland Park (PDHP). In 2008, Highland Park residents voted down another ambitious lakefront plan proposed by the park district. In 2010, the PDHP prepared yet another lakefront proposal. Their proposed plan presented in 2010 was still ambitious, yet their focus upon a single beach rather than the entire Highland Park lakefront would render the public's opinion on the development inconsequential (or nearly so). This time around, there was no need for a referendum to raise funds. Twenty millions dollars had been amassed within the park district's reserve funds. With this level of cash reserves, the PDHP could cover more than just emergency repairs. By consolidating efforts upon a single beach -- Rosewood Beach -- it was now possible to erect (if not maintain) what the PDHP's executive director confirmed would be a "signature facility", funds in hand, with no need of a referendum or input from the public.

Without a pending referendum, the 2010 plan was back page news and the development almost went through without a ripple. However one Ravinia resident, a real estate professional, was as accustomed to reading back pages as she was with sizing up buildings and square footage. At a Ravinia Neighbors Association (RNA) meeting Eve Tarm brought forth her concerns. How could the park district fit a single level 4000 square foot building on little Rosewood Beach? After a field trip and staking out of the footprint, others agreed. The plan to wedge the combination nature center/ beach facility on to the beach by cutting into a restored bluff was just one aspect of the plan to which residents objected. At a City of Highland Park Design Review Commission meeting, commissioners also found the plan objectionable. The plan was voted down.

A drawing, provided by the park district, of the proposed “Interpretive Center,” which would be parked on the beach, basically between the existing parking lot and Lake Michigan.

Though temporarily waylaid by the park district's pension scandal that broke shortly thereafter, it was apparent that the PDHP was regrouping for yet another effort. It was encouraging to hear a city recommendation that the PDHP consider public input going forward. In November of 2011, the RNA started a petition. Hundreds of people added their names online and later, on hard copies out on the streets. In one early version of the petition, "just bathrooms" were requested. In a later version "basic amenities" were sought. In every version, residents called for minimal development that would serve to enhance the swimming beach without overbuilding. Yet the PDHP had their own ideas, about the development and how the all important public input would be achieved.

In preparing for the next 2012 version of their proposal, the PDHP decided to assemble a "Rosewood Beach Task Force" (RBTF). Ostensibly, this group was to represent the public, exemplifying the various backgrounds, neighborhoods and perspectives of those who live in Highland Park. All could apply. Interestingly, the individuals chosen were not only a fairly homogenous group but one highly representative of the PDHP. Three of the voting members chosen for the task force were past park board members. With two additional ex officio board members joining the group, more than half the committee steering the decision were directly tied to the PDHP. Most of the remaining candidates chosen were also well known to PDHP leadership. In at least one case a selected member did not even have to apply but was simply recruited. Three members were allied with the architectural and building industries. Not one member selected had any professional background in any environmentally related discipline. One member who applied, Eve Tarm, was selected to represent those in the Ravinia neighborhood who had stood up against the 2010 plan.

Although one of the four primary written objectives for the task force was to meet with the larger public for input, no formal meeting involving the public would occur until May of 2012, approximately a year after the task force convened. Those who did attend task force meetings did so by seeking out meeting information. A few attending residents turned to dozens as people informed neighbors and friends. We watched in dismay as the one representative who questioned the process and preconceived parameters was strictly silenced by the chairman (a past park district board member). Citizen concerns regarding overbuilding the beach or what could reasonably be sustained were pushed aside. It had been decided long before that an "Interpretive Center" (IC) with its full range of additional programming and competing needs would absolutely be part of the design.

It is important to note that grant monies and grant requirements featured prominently in the process. The PDHP had secured Illinois state grant money for the building and amenities project and pending assistance for a separate beach augmentation and restoration project that would be partially funded through the Army Corps of Engineers. Three separate state grants would contribute $850,000 towards the roughly 5.3 million estimated costs for the buildings and amenities. The pending Army Corps project cost estimate would escalate from 5.7 million to 7 or more million over time, with Highland Park residents to pay 35% of total costs.

Forced to wait for approval of the ACOE project by the federal agency, the PDHP's plan was to risk starting with the building and amenities project and then follow up with the beach augmentation project once federal funding was approved. The costly IC would be placed literally several yards away from the high water mark and susceptible to damage during foul weather, waves and ice surges. (Even with beach augmentation, the IC would be a high maintenance facility susceptible to damage.) As late as the second-to-the-last task force meeting, the Director of Planning and Projects would be asked by a PDHP representative "God forbid the ACOE [funding] doesn't come through" what would happen to the IC? To which he'd answer that they'd then have to provide (unspecified) protection. In response to intense criticism, the Park District has recently depicted the projects as running concurrently asserting that the federal assistance will come through anytime now.

Mindful of the great effort to secure the state grants for the IC and its programs and the unlikely possibility of forfeiting these funds, RNA members asked about the flexibility of grant requirements. Could a nature museum instead be placed up in the upper park where it would be both less vulnerable and less intrusive? Later grant research would indicate that many alternative possibilities likely do exist, yet the inquiry was ignored as the process plowed on.

This shows the proposed buildings along the beach. The biggest one, to the extreme left, is the “Interpretive Center,” or “Education Pavilion” (the name seems to change every few weeks). The three smaller buildings, on down to the right, are the lifeguard station, the restrooms and the concession stand. click image to enlarge.

Architects were interviewed. At this point the designs produced were part of a competition to select a winner. After review of the 9 pre-screened applicants, David Woodhouse Architects (DWA) was selected by the task force to develop the final design. The park district administration (not the task force) then gave the architect the programming packets that would serve to define the site, needs, functions, objectives and parameters underpinning the architect's final design.

DWA arrived at an interesting solution to the many functions the Park District had directed to be accommodated on the beach --as well a design that would provide an unforeseen foothold in the coming months for those leery of overdevelopment. Rather that risk disturbing the bluff for a single oversized complex (and subsequently having to seek approval due to city ordinances), DWA proposed to build a series of buildings along the beach: the much needed bathrooms and changing rooms, a lifeguard station, a concession building (which all came to be referred to as the "auxiliary buildings") and finally the Interpretive Center, a multipurpose room/ museum display/ party-meeting room with adjoining storage, additional bathrooms and an HVAC utility room for heated and cooled year-round use.

The predominately glass IC, comprising 68% of all proposed interior space to be created on the beach, would clearly be the centerpiece of the development. It would also be the linchpin for a whole new range of programming for the beach designated as Highland Park's only swim beach. The IC was promoted as an educational facility where children could learn about nature (protected inside from nature). It was promoted as an exercise/activity room (because the park district doesn't have any – on the beach). It was promoted as a party venue (for those who might otherwise prefer the aqua park). There was an obvious thread connecting this facility to the PDHP's earlier plans for lakefront development. Prior to the 2008 referendum, sample groups were questioned on what residents wanted in regards to their beaches. Focus group participants were told in response to the stating of their more modest desires to "dream big" by at least one facilitator. If residents could have anything they wanted, what would that be?

On the streets of Highland Park, a whole different picture was emerging. Collecting petition signatures around the city, volunteers discovered that many residents wanted nothing at all done to the beach. A great number were concerned with taxes and upkeep. Many who used the beach appreciated the unique quality of the beach that was more natural than beaches of other north shore communities. Approximately 7 of every 10 residents engaged by volunteers readily signed a petition. Approximately 3 out of 10 queried stated that they would want to study the situation further before signing. Out of the 400+ residents this writer personally spoke with, 8 at best stated that they would want more than the basic swim facilities for Rosewood Beach with extra amenities (like concessions) provided on a seasonal basis.

By the time RNA presented the petition signatures to the City Council in April of 2012, almost 1000 residents from all over the city of Highland Park had signed a petition. Seeking compromise and consensus between many who wanted no development, those who wanted more amenities, and the PDHP which was intent on a "signature facility", the RNA's official position coalesced into one of supporting all the swim and recreation related aspects (bathrooms/ changing rooms, lifeguard station and concession facilities) while strongly opposing the larger IC and its additional programming.

On May 2nd and 6th of 2012, the park district held highly publicized public presentations of the Rosewood Beach proposal shepherded by the task force. Material obtained from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveals that the PDHP actively solicited support for their plan. Even so, 75% of those who attended and spoke, spoke against the Interpretive Center. Just days later, some residents (those among the 13,000 people on the PDHP's data base with email addresses, heavily representing younger families), received an email soliciting comments based on a sketch of the project. The solicitation, headed "Responsively Listening to Rosewood Beach Feedback", mentioned washrooms, concessions, safety station, and a "beach house" that would be used for various purposes. A big reply button at the end facilitated the invited response.

A FOIA request made by the RNA revealed that only 26 of the 125 people emailing after the restricted solicitation responded in favor of a larger development (like Lake Forest/ Glencoe), the IC (or beach house) specifically, or any of the functions proposed for the IC (camps, education, parties, revenue, multi-purpose use). 32 people supported general improvements, of these 2 preferred no IC but would accept it if needed to finally get improvements. Some of these IC-neutral responses expressed enthusiasm for bathrooms specifically. 50 were against the IC, any tax expenditures or any changes to the beach. 19 were single issue requests (biting flies, fishing piers, etc) or questions not indicating preference. Inexplicably, the task force chairman in a presentation to the PDHP board would declare 80% of these emails as in favor of the whole proposal, IC included.

The "citizen" task forces' official recommendation to the board was presented on June 21, 2012. Only one task force member, Eve Tarm, had voted against the IC as part of the plan. The RBTF chairman asked the park board to approve the plan including the IC to which a large majority had objected at the May 2012 meetings. As described above, the erroneously reported "80%" of emailing residents who approved was cited as the public support backing the RBTF's vote. In addition, the chairman rejected 1000 "don't overbuild" petition signatures gathered at that point, pronouncing them to be invalid because they were collected prior to the public meetings and contained variations in wordings. (The video record of the chairman's 6/21/12 report, though once available on the PDHP website has been unavailable for many weeks. When clicked, the link leads to a screen that falsely informs "This Meeting was not Filmed".)

After concluding with the task force's 6/21/12 report and recommendation, the task force chairman then spent at least half an hour attacking the RNA in an effort to destroy the credibility of the most organized faction of those who opposed the Interpretive Center. RNA was decried as "nimbys" (residents opposing development so as to be "not in my back yard"). The chairman's assertion, which served to fuel rumors in website media and negate credibility of those opposed, was made despite the chairman's awareness that, along with other alternative sites suggested, the RNA had first advocated for the IC to be re-sited at Rosewood Park – a location that was every bit as much in their back yard. The RNA, in fact, supported everything except the IC being built in their backyard. The chairman mocked the variations in petition wording. He criticized RNA's depiction of the IC as a "costly" building in petition wording. He overlooked the fact that many of the 1000 signing the petitions and speaking out in public resided throughout Highland Park.

Conversely, an emerging group of Park District supporters (wooed by the Park District in FOIA request materials) would soon report 325 non-legally binding Facebook "Likes" lacking any proof of "Liker" residency. Yet, the casual affirmations from Friends of Rosewood Beach (FOR) were legitimatized and eagerly embraced by the Park District. Did the supporters on the Facebook page "support Rosewood Beach improvements"? (RNA too supports beach improvements.) Or did they specifically "support the Interpretative Center on Rosewood Beach"? Based on at least one negative comment made about the IC by a woman wearing a FOR badge at a public meeting, it would seem not all FOR "Likers" necessarily did approve of the IC. As the FOR Facebook page was not accessible to the general public and has since been taken down, the question of what Friends of Rosewood Beach actually did "Like" remains unanswered.

With the task force's work completed, the decision to implement the plan was now in the hands of the PDHP Board. Opponents of the proposed plan met with each of the park board members individually in a series of meetings, expressing concerns and asking questions. Wouldn't the unnecessary IC be susceptible to damage and require excessive maintenance in the beachfront environment? If the lower, accessible parking lot already filled up on nice days, how could the PDHP justify actually reducing parking and then increase the beach programming? Would the proposed shuttle bus adequately solve parking problems? Would it prove cost effective or environmentally friendly? Why reduce habitats with an unnecessary IC? Wouldn't the already difficult ingress and egress at the main entrance become dangerous in winter conditions? Was there any back up financial information to confirm the dubious and slim $10,000 improvements estimated for beach revenues? Might expenses exceed, even greatly exceed estimates? How could the Park District schedule IC rentals (which would overtake the beach and parking) only on "off" hours when all hours on a nice day bring beachgoers? How could they predict the bad weather that would create truly "off" hours for additional programming?

It is disconcerting to note that at the meeting arranged with the board VP, the accompanying PDHP Executive Director jumped in to state that "our programming is up" in a response to a query of whether trends indicated a need for another camp facility, only to have the official treasurer's report reveal that camp attendance was actually significantly down during a regularly scheduled board meeting held the very next day. Throughout all of the questioning, with all of the PDHP commissioners, no clear or reassuring answers were given.

The president of the park board was also lobbied with a special request. He was asked to revamp the upcoming vote on the proposal so as to not to have the vote be an all or nothing proposition. With the swim related buildings separated from the IC building, it would be possible to vote up the improvements that so many wanted immediately while voting down, or at least tabling the controversial IC until problems were proven to be solved and a true mandate from the community made apparent.

After delays the President of the PDHP called for the all or nothing vote. Upon listening to a significant majority of residents again speak against the IC, each of the board members read a prewritten statement after which each voted to pass the entire proposal including the unpopular IC.

It is clear to citizens who participated in this process that PDHP claims of "responsively listening" were insincere. The PDHP did not care what the public had to say about development on Rosewood Beach having long ago decided that their signature facility would be built whether the tax payers and beach-goers of Rosewood Beach wanted it or not. Because of the hefty tax reserves already collected, they didn't have to care.

Fortunately, residents do have one last hope that their voice will yet be heard. As in 2010 when the city's design commission voted down the 2010 version of the Park District's plan, city commissions (recommending) and the city council (voting) will weigh in on the plan. Although council members will look to city code to determine what is acceptable at Rosewood, the effort to extend themselves and enter into a struggle with the PDHP may hinge on how vocal voters become.

The RNA asks all those who care about Rosewood Beach, their tax bill and enforcing accountability of our public leaders write or phone the city council as well as attend the city council meeting at which the status of the IC will irrevocably be determined. We ask that residents who have not yet signed an earlier petition sign the latest rendition of the petition at www.ravinianeighbors.org/petition. This version of the petition asks that all the swimming beach amenities be built without delay but that the IC be omitted. Many residents have no idea of what has transpired or what is at stake. If you are concerned about the lack of true input given residents and the pending overdevelopment of Rosewood Beach, along with its tax implications, we ask that you spread the word throughout Highland Park. Recycle this newsletter by passing it on.