City lawyer: NU secret land buys OK

City Corporation Counsel Jack Siegel has concluded Northwestern University is correct in its contention that it’s not required to disclose its property acquisitions to the city in advance.

Despite that, at tonight’s NU-City Committee meeting, David Schoenfeld, a city appointee to the committee, continued to insist the consent decree that established the committee requires such disclosures.

But Aldermen Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward, and Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said that in light of Siegel’s opinion, there’s no point in continuing the argument, although “relations between the university and the city would be much better if the university did make such disclosures,” Ald. Tisdahl said.

“Real estate acquistions — on the part of city government, private developers or non-profits don’t get talked about publicly in advance,” Eugene Sunshine, the university’s senior vice president for business and finance, said, “There’s a reason why the city council goes into executive session to discuss real estate matters.”

The university’s purchase of a home at 1945 Orrington Ave. this spring triggered the controversy over disclosure of real estate deals.

Eli Wolf, who lives at next door at 634 Foster St., said the secret purchase showed the university wasn’t a good neighbor, but he acknowledged at the meeting that the university responded immediately to his wife’s request to take care of some maintenance issues with the home it acquired.

Mr. Sunshine, who lives in a university-owned home at 1620 Judson Ave., said the school plans to use the house on Orrington for temporary housing for university faculty.

“We bought it because it’s in an area zoned for university housing, it’s close to campus and it’s around other university buildings so it interferes as little as possible with non-university uses,” he said. Much of the block is occupied by the Foster-Walker dormitory complex.

Peter Lobin, attending his first meeting as a new city representative on the committee, asked, “How can we build a little more trust here and try to move forward as neighbors?”

Mr. Sunshine said the school tries in a lot of ways. It has a staff person who works full-time trying to improve the relationship, participating in meetings with residents about security and student behavior issues.

It also pays for extra dumpsters to be placed near students housing when students are moving out, to reduce trash disposal problems, he said.

But the NU-City Committee may not be the right forum for much of that work, he suggested.

“This committee was set up explicitly as part of the settlement of a lawsuit. It has a particularly narrow scope,” Mr. Sunshine said, “I believe it’s very important for the university and the community to have a broader and better relationship, and there are a lot of other forums for that.”

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