Is Rosewood Beach ready for a big building?

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2012-04-23

(I was asked to write an article on this local "hot" issue -- the Highland Park park district's plan to ruin the local small only swimming beach in town because some builders think it's a good idea to do it. So I wrote this, and because this article is suddenly getting wide encomiums, I figure it must be okay to place in my list of articles. (Sorry it's not a major issue.))

IS ROSEWOOD BEACH READY FOR A BIG BUILDING?

If you live in Highland Park [Illinois, USA] and drive a daily commute over frequently congested highways, behind gas-spewing trucks on crowded hot tarmac city streets, you may, on a weekend in spring, think of finding comforting relief from the mind-bending daily slog at a close-by naturally benign environment at the lake.

Rosewood beach is one of four HP public beaches dotting the lake coastline that include seven miles of rich and complex, beautiful natural habitats, though in some locations showing erosion caused by the natural heaving of sand, (also by years of neglect) except for attempts at control by unattractive metal groins.

Rosewood, the only swimming beach, of modest size as Great Lakes beaches go, is prized as a natural combination of clear sand and high, steep, forested bluff, with its uninterrupted wide views of the water's edge and the far horizon's vista, and as one Ravinia Neighbors Association member observed, this natural horizontal sight line is the dominant feature of Rosewood, highly appreciated for its own sake by those who come to calmly contemplate the tranquil scene in a restorative and peaceful environment of this beach.

Two years ago the HP Design Review Commission (and the overwhelming opinion of the HP residents) turned down the first Park District building plan for Rosewood beach, and the PD in its revised concept presented a slightly changed and partially improved plan -- but containing the same major large building installation which would again change the nature of the beach (as well as distort the natural scale and contour lines of this wonderful spot.)

The community - and most RNA members -- agreed that Rosewood could use some small useful additions which it doesn't presently have, such as permanent restrooms, a required lifeguard storage station, a seasonal small concession stand, perhaps an open patio near it, all strategically placed so as not to interfere with the small scale of the beach and the wide horizontal beach views.

The stated PD purpose of the building central to their plan is for providing an interpretive center that would have a conference room, a children's camp in the summer with school buses delivering and picking up each day. Other uses mentioned for such a building were possible rentals for "unspecified events."

The Park District executive director stated that preference will be given to "special groups." But as one RNA member noted, the Park District is the gatekeeper to space that is now freely open to the public. Will preference be for those who can pay? A telling point made was that the HP public now has only 2% of its lake shoreline open for its use.

Indeed, beyond loss of lakefront space, and a change to the natural feel that this spot is endowed with, (and the initial cost, and continuing maintenance cost to taxpayers by building on an unstable sand location) the plan for this building would further compromise the public's use of its prized proximity to Lake Michigan. This aspect is hardly mentioned by the District.

On the positive side of the new PD plan, Eve Tarm, RNA vice president and member of the task force that was convened by the Park District to work with them on identifying an architectural firm for the redesign, said that part of the proposed plan that the chosen architectural firm Woodhouse has put forward is a big improvement and much more consistent with the natural surroundings on the beach, including a wooden walkway to replace the current wide asphalt walk, and for the three small functional buildings also to be of wood -- all more in tune with the natural environment, Tarm said. But she cautioned that the total footage of the 3 small buildings may also have to be scaled down to be made size appropriate to the area.

It is also generally agreed that repair and restoration of the eroded coastal areas is a major need, and for this purpose the Army Corps of Engineers has been tapped by the District for the coastline improvement to stop further erosion and do physical repair, as well as remediation from asbestos pollution seeping from Waukegan industry (for which the PD will pay 35% of the projected cost.) And that is a necessary project, said Tarm.

But the use that this large building is contemplated for, Tarm said, would necessitate more paved parking at our small beach. Where people swim extends only approx. 580 feet south of the parking lot. Even at its deepest the sandy beach is very shallow, approx. 130 ft. from the edge of the asphalt walkway. The size of the interpretive center building is planned at approx. 2000 sq. ft. (changes may be made) to be placed at the north side of the parking lot on the sand, blocking open views and ultimately changing the nature of Rosewood. There is no way to create more parking without taking more beach away.

The insistence by the Park District on building this interpretive center on Rosewood seems short-sighted and arbitrary. We understand that considerable time and effort went into obtaining grant monies of over $800,000 to accomplish this. And a consideration is given to the claim that if these grants are not used, another such grant can not be sought for five years.

But it still requires a lot more of taxpayer money to build and to perennially maintain. And the RNA board's question to the Park District about the flexibility of the terms of the grant as to where an interpretive center near the lake might be placed has not been responded to by the Park District.

Because if an interpretive center indeed needs to be built for Highland Park, (still to be proven since the HP Heller Nature Center may be underused), there are many other more adaptable locations for it, all of them also at the lake, with a better and more non-disruptive outcome.

For example: THAT PARK BUILDING COULD GO HERE:

  1. Leading north from Millard Park beach there lies the very large, totally vacant and beautiful property of the former Schaffner estate, (actually owned by the Park District since 1969,) high up on the wide bluff with attractive natural habitats and views and easy access to it, all of it nicely maintained by the PD although hardly ever frequented by the public.
  2. At Park Avenue beach there is the old Yacht Club, a building still in limited use but dolefully out of date, needing updating and redesign, possibly some enlargement to accommodate an interpretive center though its present size may be enough for any special needs. And rehabbing of an existing structure would require less expense for the PD, of course.
  3. There is the property for sale just contiguously north of Rosewood at the top of the bluff, a large modern single-story private home on ample parking which has been for sale for some time. That house would seem to require little rehabbing for the purpose needed.
  4. There is also excellent space at Moraine Park bluff and beach, and that location already has permanently built restrooms.
  5. There is also a possibility that the HP Senior Center has outlasted its needs and will seek to move to a different location. The handsome building might be sold, affording another opportunity for a choice location for an interpretive center on the lake.
  6. At Millard park at the bottom of Ravine Drive there is the large old yellow brick structure, the outside still solid, the inside only half gutted, with vertical brick columns inside and 1st floor wooden ceiling apparently left intact, standing back from the water's edge, its large (glassless) windows facing directly east and south to the lake. Couldn't that half-gutted building with a creative architecturally sound plan be redesigned, rehabbed and newly retrofitted and at much less cost?
  7. There is also public comment and questions about why the relatively new addition of the assembly hall at Ravinia School could not be further enlarged if necessary and used for purposes of an interpretive center, if this is administratively possible.

But it's difficult to understand the seeming intransigence by the Park District in their insistence on using the small and narrow Rosewood beach for their new building enterprise. This is not an appropriate use of the beach. The lakefront belongs to all. A public beach space should not be compromised for special groups at public expense that would also mar the natural landscape of Rosewood beach.