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ZBA rejects ‘Great Room’ challenge

Evanston’s Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday night rejected a neighbor’s challenge to the city zoning administrator’s approval of Northwestern University’s operation of a dining hall a building the school acquired from Seabury-Western Seminary last year.

Evanston’s Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday night rejected a neighbor’s challenge to the city zoning administrator’s approval of Northwestern University’s operation of a dining hall a building the school acquired from Seabury-Western Seminary last year.

Art Newman, the attorney for the challenger, said after the board’s vote that he’d have to consult with his client before deciding whether to seek to have the ZBA decision overturned in court.

The four ZBA members present voted unanimously to uphold Zoning Administrator Bill Dunkley’s decision, concluding that the dining hall, renamed the "Great Room" by the university, was a permissible continuation of an existing non-conforming use in the transitional zoning district — not an expansion of the use as neighbors had claimed.

ZBA member Matthew Rodgers said that when Seabury-Western owned the dining hall at 600 Haven St. "it was available for open dining to the public." Northwestern has said it now limits access to university students, faculty, staff, alumni and their guests.

And Rodgers said claims by neighbors that thousands of people might use the facility seemed far-fetched. He said he’d seen only eight or 12 people there at times when he’d visited the building.

Member Lori Sutton said she found no basis in the zoning ordinance for the board to be able to impose time restrictions on operation of the dining hall once the zoning administrator had approved it. Neighbors had complained about the hall being open until 2 a.m.

And member Mary Beth Berns said the neighbors’ objections seemed to be based on the age of the people using the building. "If the people who were still using the food service area were still part of Seabury — and were a slightly older demographic — they would have been fine with it," Berns said.

"They just wanted to have the zoning changed so people who are 18 to 23 years old could not be the main demographic of the dorm and the food service establishment," she added. "I find it troubling that they’re trying to zone against a certain demographic of people, which we all know is not right and shouldn’t be right."

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