On and off for three years, Winnetka residents and park district officials have sparred over plans to renovate the beachfront at Elder and Centennial parks.
And that’s nothing $3 million would change.
A multimillion donation offer from polarizing property owner Justin Ishbia created an unsurprising stir at the Winnetka Park Board’s meeting on Thursday, Sept. 21. Commissioners Colleen Root and Warren James again traded statements and disagreements, while residents questioned the sincerity of Ishbia’s offer.
Eventually, the Park Board will need to vote on whether to accept the donation and any attached terms; however, no such vote was taken Thursday. Commissioners selected a negotiation team — featuring Board President Christina Codo and Vice President Eric Lussen with James as an alternate — to come to a tentative agreement with Ishbia on how and when the donation would be executed, among other details.
“There is no downside to a negotiation,” Codo said during the meeting. “We are not committing to an outcome, not committing to terms. We will hear what he has to say and you (commissioners) decide whether to accept those terms or not.”
“This is not a commitment in any way shape or form. We are going into this conversation with our eyes wide open,” Codo added, referring to past collaborations with Ishbia, including an accepted but not unexecuted property exchange agreement.
The Ishbia family owns multiple parcels of land along Winnetka’s lakefront, including four consolidated parcels just south of Centennial Park where the Ishbias are constructing a large single-family home.
They also own 261 Sheridan Road, which separates Centennial and Elder parks and is the subject of the contentious property exchange with the park district. The agreement was influential in early iterations of the park district’s Elder-Centennial improvement plans. Included louvred barriers and planter pockets drew the ire of residents, public-access advocates and local leaders before the plan was scrapped by a shorthanded Park Board.
Ishbias’ new donation offer was made public during the Sept. 7 Park Board meeting. Its reported purpose is to accelerate the beachfront improvements in Phases 1 and 2.
After the initial Elder-Centennial concept was axed, and with the land swap in flux, the park district developed a new three-phase beachfront plan in which two of the phases could be completed without the property exchange. But district officials said funding was only currently available for Phase 1, or $10.2 million of improvements. And about $3 million was needed to execute Phase 2, which includes an ADA accessible path, fenced dog beach and more.
Ishbia was quoted in other media outlets as claiming the donation came with “no strings.” But residents and at least one commissioner, Root, expressed skepticism. And during Wednesday’s meeting, strings already began to appear.
In a discussion introduction, Park Board attorney Adam Simon revealed that Ishbia is interested in naming rights to the proposed fenced dog beach that would border Ishbia’s property. James said in a statement that Ishbia expressed the interest in a phone call to him on Sept. 19, and later stated that in a March meeting, park district officials solicited the donation from Ishbia.
Root also provided a prepared statement prior to the board’s discussion, asserting her belief that Ishbia’s donation is problematic for the district and its lakefront plans.
“I don’t believe that the donation offer is in the public interest,” she said. “My objection to this contribution is that it is not an unconditional gift but rather it is a quid pro quo where Mr. Ishbia is paying us $3 million to implement a beach design for Centennial that provides him with a buffer.”
With Commissioner Cynthia Rapp, a regular Root ally, absent, no other commissioner expressed support for Root’s concerns. But several residents, speaking at two points in the meeting, also shared their concerns.
One resident used air quotes when saying the word donation. Another called the commissioners “tone deaf” if they do not consider the angst within the community related to Ishbia and the beachfront plans.
The Park Board did not provide a time line for when the negotiation team would meet with Ishbia or when the issue would return to the board.
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