The match seemed perfect: Northlight Theatre needed a permanent home, and National-Louis University wanted a well-regarded Equity company for its 600-seat auditorium.
So they signed a deal: starting this fall, Northlight would stage its next ten seasons at the National-Louis facility on Sheridan Road in Wilmette. And that’s when the trouble started. Wilmette wanted no part of Northlight, at least not at that location. Nearby residents troubled by visions of invading theatergoers won the support of village leaders, who frightened away university officials, who told Northlight sorry, the deal’s off. Now Northlight is scrambling to find a new space as Wilmette tries to contain its spreading reputation as a cultural wasteland run by boors.
“We surely don’t want to give anyone the impression that we are against Northlight or theater,” says village president John Jacoby. “Northlight would have made a welcome contribution to our community if they could have found a place that was more suitable.”
Northlight officials see things differently. “Cities and towns all over the country are bending over backward to woo theater groups, but Wilmette turned art and culture away,” says Richard Friedman, Northlight’s managing director. “They don’t understand what a theater group is.”
Or as Rene Roy, director of the university’s theater program, puts it: “They view [Northlight] as an amusement park. They see the whole thing as bringing Great America into Wilmette.”
Northlight officials didn’t foresee this predicament. National-Louis’s address, after all, is in Evanston, a relatively cosmopolitan community with a supportive attitude toward the arts. But the National-Louis campus actually straddles the Evanston-Wilmette border. Most of the campus, including the theater, falls within Wilmette.
“We never felt compelled to go to the Wilmette neighbors to ask for their blessing,” says Roy. “Wilmette an an entity never entered our consciousness when we were planning this project.”
Roy believed that an alliance between Northlight and the university was “a marriage meant to happen.” The affiliation would enhance the theater program’s reputation, and Northlight would save more than $100,000 a year in rent by leaving its former location at the Coronet Theatre in southeast Evanston.
“It made sense to support one another’s missions,” says Roy. “I never thought we’d have opposition. We’ve always been good neighbors. We’ve staged dance shows here; we filled this theater with kids from the neighborhood for Christmas shows, and afterward we served them cookies and milk. No one complained about parking or traffic congestion then. We thought this was a win-win situation for everyone.”
So in January they signed an agreement, held a reception, and distributed press releases. The Tribune ran an article, which caught the eye of Laurie Marston, Wilmette’s director of community development, who immediately sent a letter to university president Orley Herron.
“The university operates by virtue of a special-use zoning permit with Wilmette,” says Marston. “I wanted to determine whether having Northlight there would violate the terms of that permit. I wanted more information about the project.”
By then word of the Northlight move was spreading and local opposition was mounting. “I don’t know of anyone in the immediate area who was in favor of it,” says David Jacobson, who lives in Wilmette, near the university. “This is a residential neighborhood, and there were two immediate issues of concern: parking and traffic.”
The university is served by three off-street parking lots with about 260 spaces just west of Sheridan Road. There are two entrances to the parking lots from Sheridan, a bustling, well-traveled thoroughfare. The other access is from Wilmette’s Maple Avenue, an east-west street that intersects with Sheridan. “Maple is a quiet, narrow residential street,” says Jacobson. “It would disrupt the neighborhood to have theater traffic.”
Moreover, there was still a residue of bad feeling toward National-Louis in the neighborhood from back in 1988, when the school had won a zoning battle with the neighborhood that allowed it to expand its parking lot. Northlight officials who thought residents would be proud to live near a nationally recognized theater suddenly discovered they didn’t understand Wilmette.
“Wilmette is more of a suburb than Evanston,” says B.J. Jones, an Evanston resident and prominent actor/director who has worked with Northlight on several productions. “Evanston’s a multicultural and diverse city. I can’t imagine people in Evanston reacting with so much hostility to such a proposal.”
On March 22 Marston wrote university administrator David McCreery, informing him that Northlight couldn’t operate in Wilmette without a special-use zoning permit. That meant at least one public hearing would have to be held, zoning lawyers hired, and traffic and parking consultants retained. All in all it might cost $60,000 to fight for a zoning approval with no guarantee of success.
In April, McCreery and Friedman met with at least 50 residents at Jacobson’s house, hoping to ease the opposition with talk of compromise. But the residents remained unyielding.
Some said they felt betrayed, as though the university and Northlight had intentionally kept them in the blind. “They’ve been negotiating this for a long time and they kept it very quiet because they know the neighbors would go nuts,” one resident later told the Wilmette Life. Other residents said the neighborhood would be polluted and pedestrians endangered by the theatergoers’ cars.
“I tried to strike a note of compromise, but nothing worked,” says Friedman. “I said our patrons would park in the lots and off the street, and they said that would overcrowd the lots and force student cars onto the streets. I said most of our shows are on weekends, when there are no students on campus. And they said, ‘Not the weekends, that’s when friends and family visit.’ I said most of our theatergoers are responsible people. They started talking about exhaust fumes and slamming car doors. I said we would ask subscribers to park at Evanston Hospital and walk to the university or we would run a shuttle bus. And they said, ‘No, we’d hate to see a shuttle bus on our block.’
“I truly didn’t understand why they were so concerned. Our subscribers are North Shore residents; many of them are senior citizens. These are not the kind of people who urinate on the lawns outside of Wrigley Field. They don’t drive souped-up cars. They obey traffic laws. They won’t litter. But nothing I said had any effect. One guy said, ‘With all the traffic my wife won’t be able to get here with my sushi order,’ you know, from the take-out restaurant. Another neighbor said, ‘Let’s face it, this will really hurt property values.’ That sealed it. Property values are sacred icons in Wilmette.”
After that meeting McCreery was called to meet with a lawyer who lives near the university. “McCreery told us that he was told that the university couldn’t possibly win the case,” says Friedman. “The neighbors were united. They had lawyers. The university may have won the last zoning case, but it wasn’t going to happen again.”
Then village officials started calling Northlight board members. “We were told very directly by several people who should know that this was a fight we couldn’t possibly win,” says Evelyn Salk, Northlight’s cofounder. “We’re not in this business of fighting zoning battles; we’re supposed to be making theater.”
In the face of such pressure the university decided not to seek the special permit, leaving Northlight scant time to find locations for the 1994-’95 season. The first two shows will go up at the Organic Theater in Chicago, says Friedman. “A third show will be staged at Northwestern University. We still don’t know where we’ll stage the other two shows for next year’s season. I try to be positive, but this is going to hurt us. We’ll probably lose some subscribers.”
Wilmette officials apologize for any unintended inconvenience the matter may have caused Northlight. And in victory the residents have become magnanimous.
“I think village and university officials handled themselves very professionally and courteously,” says Jacobson. “I wish Northlight well. There was never anything against Northlight. One of my neighbors is a former Northlight board member. Many residents here enjoy the theater.”
Not surprisingly, Northlight is looking to Evanston for permanent space. “We have several sites we’re looking at there, though nothing definite,” says Salk. “I don’t think we’ll be moving to Wilmette. I don’t think they have much of a cultural life in Wilmette.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.