After the 1986 referendum, Evanston officials figured the fuss over the Northwestern University/Evanston Research Park had ended. Four years ago, Evanstonians proved so enthusiastic about the 24-acre mixed-use development that they voted by a two-to-one margin to break ground on the site without delay, not even for an environmental-impact study.

Today city officials contend that the project is an unmitigated success. On what had been a sparsely developed patch of substandard buildings and vacant lots stand three new and two rehabbed buildings, housing two dozen businesses, employing 400 workers, and generating millions in tax revenues.

“It represents a true partnership between Northwestern and Evanston,” says Judith Aiello, assistant city manager. “If you look at it objectively you’ll see that it’s good news; I don’t understand how there can be any complaints.”

And yet there are. At least 100 residents attended a recent city council meeting to protest plans to demolish the Levy Senior Center, a recreational center that sits in the middle of the research park, to make way for another phase of the project next year.

“Destroying Levy means spending another four to six million in tax dollars to build another center in an out-of-the-way location, and it doesn’t make any sense,” says Sidney Zwick, leader of a group called the Independent Senior Citizens of Evanston. “It’s a waste of money and effort.”

Zwick has been opposed to the park since its inception in the early 1980s. The mere mention of his name is enough to spur some Evanston officials to rage; they dismiss him and his cohorts as fringe oddballs. “Zwick is just one man out of 73,000,” says Aiello. “There are small-business success stories in that research park; there are 400 people employed there. Those are the people you should talk to.”

Zwick is an inveterate crusader–a 64-year-old retired Chicago public school teacher, prolific writer of letters to the editor, and organizer of ad hoc groups. He has not had much success in stopping the park’s growth. But his efforts reflect the longtime resentments of many Evanston residents toward Northwestern University.

“The founders of Northwestern would roll over in their graves if they saw the way the university is run today,” says Zwick, who graduated from Northwestern in the late 1940s. “It’s run by hardheaded and coldhearted businessmen who don’t give a damn about the needs of Evanston and only want to bring in more money in research grants. The research park was their thinly veiled attempt to grab a piece of downtown Evanston, and we let them get away with it.”

To outsiders, this town-gown dispute is a little strange. The Northwestern administration is not as snobbish as, say, the folks at the University of Chicago, who have historically regarded their Hyde Park campus as the south side’s island of culture amid a sea of decay. And Northwestern doesn’t stand out the way colleges in small towns do, where faculty and students have more money and education than the locals. Instead it blends in with its surroundings, a lakefront neighborhood full of big, expensive homes.

School officials brag about their close ties to Evanston, classes taught by university students at Evanston Township High School, the $1.72 million the school pays each year in city water, sewer, and utility fees, and the untold millions faculty and students deposit in local businesses.

“Mr. Zwick claims that we are a drain on Evanston, but the exact opposite is true,” says Chuck Loebbaka, manager of media relations for Northwestern. “We give Evanston the benefit of a world-class institution. The name Evanston appears in newspapers all over the country because of Northwestern. Anytime an article is written about the university the dateline says Evanston.”

Big deal, counters Zwick. His main gripe is that the university’s state charter renders it exempt from local property taxes. “The university owns some of our most precious lakefront real estate–over 200 acres right on the lake–for which they don’t pay one dime in property taxes,” says Zwick. “Can you imagine how much money we would reap if that were taxed? [School president] Arnie Weber’s house is exempt because it’s owned by the university. Weber makes almost $200,000 a year. Are you telling me he can’t afford to pay property taxes? It’s just not fair.”

Such sentiments first motivated local politicians (led by Alderman Jack Korshak) about two decades ago to propose a $45-a-year tuition tax for every college student in Evanston. Under the plan–which has been brought up almost every year since–each institution of higher learning in Evanston (there are four) would have collected the money from students and turned it over to the city.

In 1990 the city council finally passed the proposal but did not have enough votes to override Mayor Joan Barr’s veto. A few months later, the General Assembly amended state law to make such tuition taxes illegal.

“That was an ill-conceived proposal,” says Jeff Smith, an Evanston resident and Northwestern graduate. “It was antieducation, antibusiness, antistudent and made Evanston a laughingstock nationwide. I won’t disagree that Northwestern has the capability to be rapacious and arrogant. I can remember when former president [Robert] Strotz said, ‘Students are customers; if they don’t like it here, they can go somewhere else.’ But there must be better ways to channel your protest.”

For better or worse, the research park has become the target of anti-Northwestern protesters. To city officials struggling to balance the budget while expenditures rise and the tax base diminishes, the site–roughly bounded by train tracks on the east and west, and Emerson and Davis streets on the north and south–has long been considered prime for commercial development because of its proximity to downtown. But most big backers have funneled their money into sprawling shopping centers in suburbs to the west, closer to the expressways. When Northwestern came forward with the idea of building the research park, Evanston officials were delighted.

“It’s hard to say what would have gone there without the research park,” says Aiello. “A McDonald’s? A Handy Andy? A smokestack factory? Who knows what the free market on its own will bring? Who knows if it would be good for the city?”

According to the deal worked out between city and university officials, Evanston would spend as much as $24 million over the course of about 25 years to acquire the property, clear it, and outfit it with sewers, lights, and sidewalks. Northwestern would build one building, rehab another, lend the city $4 million at below-market interest rates, and offer its name and faculty as an incentive to lure outside businesses. To oversee the project, the city and university formed a joint venture (Research Park, Inc.) and hired the Charles Shaw Company as developer.

“The idea was to bring in businesses that did the kind of research and development which would help the midwest and the country expand its industrial and manufacturing capabilities,” says Helen Squires, public information coordinator for Research Park, Inc. “This way you not only put more land on the tax rolls–which benefits Evanston–but you use the university’s research and technological strengths to benefit the region.”

To cover its costs, Evanston issued bonds, to be paid with the higher property taxes generated from the site. As with all projects of this sort, there was a risk that the research park would not generate an increase in property value (in which case, Evanston would pay back the bonds with money from its general revenues). But officials decided it was a risk worth taking, and so far the land has increased from roughly $1.8 million to $8.2 million in value.

The proposal was immediately greeted with protest by a well-organized group of activists (including Zwick) who feared it would, among other things, hasten the gentrification of a nearby working-class black neighborhood and expose the public to hazardous chemicals (brought in by research activities). Their concerns were addressed in the form of a referendum on the 1986 ballot. After the referendum was voted down, Evanston and Northwestern signed the deal, and since then the project has proceeded almost as planned.

“Some of the businesses that come in here are already established,” says Squires. “But we’re proudest of the ones that have grown up here. Two of our buildings are what we call incubators–that is, they are places where businesses get their start. The point is to put fledgling entrepreneurs in one building. They don’t get a rent break. But the advantages are shared services like receptionists, computers, and fax machines. The atmosphere is almost like an artists’ colony, only it’s a colony for inventors and entrepreneurs.” Several companies that started in the incubator have expanded and now rent space in other buildings in the research park, says Squires.

Despite these success stories, Zwick and others doubt the research park has been a sound investment. “We have a rental vacancy rate of 1 percent,” says Zwick. “I think the land would have been better used for housing.”

And when the city announced plans to demolish the Levy Center next year, about 100 residents protested. “If you take that center away, you’re going to be cutting the throat of this city,” 73-year-old Bee Zabell told a Tribune reporter.

“If it means lying in front of the bulldozers [to block the move],” added Zwick’s wife, Rosemary, “this local yokel will do it.”

Evanston officials contend they will not deviate from their plans to relocate the center. “It’s not even an issue,” says Aiello. “The next senior center will be even better.”

But Zwick says opposition to the Levy move is growing. His efforts have won the backing of the chamber of commerce, and by focusing on Northwestern’s involvement in the issue (though so far university officials have remained out of the line of fire), Zwick hopes to gain even more support.

“A lot of these Evanston and Northwestern officials would like to plow us away like we were a bunch of old buildings,” says Zwick. “But this is a democracy and we shall have our say.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.