Highland Park, News

Not The Lot? Highland Park councilmembers share concerns of permanent event venue

A narrowly divided Highland Park City Council expressed a lack of support for a permanent build-out of The Lot, a makeshift downtown venue that has hosted numerous events over the past few years.

Mayor Nancy Rotering, however, said that discussions will continue.

City staff and design firm The Lakota Group provided councilmembers with an update on The Lot — including a preliminary design concept, costs and a potential project timeline — during the committee of the whole meeting on Monday, May 13.

Staff members also said they were looking for guidance from the council on whether they should further pursue a build-out.

In 2023, the council approved a nearly $70,000 agreement with The Lakota Group to create plans and designs for a potential build-out of The Lot.

Located at Central and St. Johns, The Lot has hosted several high-profile events since its inaugural season in 2022 and is scheduled to host more this summer. According to the board packet, 50,000 people have visited The Lot since it opened, with a reported 18,000 visitors in 2023. Events have included the Taste of Highland Park, Oktoberfest and an Artisan Market.

A packed event at The Lot in Highland Park. | Photo from City of Highland Park

Last year, The Lakota Group worked to gather feedback for a potential build-out, using stakeholder meetings, community-wide surveys, and conversations with visitors to The Lot and open houses.

Kevin Clark, with The Lakota Group, said there were initially five design concepts that, through feedback, were narrowed down to one, which he shared with councilmembers Monday.

In the concept, The Lot would include a permanent stage, permanent restrooms and a lawn area that includes shade. The northern side would include what Clark called a “tree grove,” where smaller events could be held, and walking paths that would connect The Lot to the downtown area.

Clark said Lakota is recommending a full build-out, which he estimated would cost about $8.3 million. But if the City decided it would rather do a phased approach, he estimated the first phase would cost $6.6 million.

While all councilmembers praised the work of The Lakota Group in collecting feedback and preparing the designs, three of the five present said they did not think the City should go forward with an expansion.

Councilmember Yumi Ross shared several concerns with the idea, including that she feels it won’t be utilized all year round. She also said she’s talked to business owners who feel The Lot would not benefit them.

Ross also expressed concerns about the expected cost of expansion.

“I feel quite agitated about it,” she said. “That this is the wrong place to invest $6-8 million, that we could use the money in other ways.”

She also suggested that there may be other opportunities, such as housing, for the space on which The Lot is located.

Councilmember Kim Stone, who voted against approving the contract with The Lakota Group in 2023, said there are several upcoming city projects, including a new fire station and public works building, that should take priority.

“I wish we had unlimited funds, but we don’t. So this concerns me,” she said.

She added that she would rather see Port Clinton Square utilized more before an investment in The Lot.

Councilmember Anthony Blumberg said he was concerned that the plans for The Lot are “inconsistent” with its location.

“I’m not comfortable with these uses because this isn’t really the heart of our downtown,” he said.

The build-out plan did receive support from Councilmembers Andrés Tapia and Annette Lidawer.

Tapia compared The Lot to Chicago’s Millennium Park and said he believes it will make Highland Park a destination for both residents and visitors.

“I would trade a big, huge, low-used parking lot for a beautiful park with music that gathers people and it inspires people and is imaginative,” he said, adding that he believes The Lot will “inject economic vitality as well as artistic expression and imagination to our city.”

When asked by councilmembers what she thought of expanding The Lot, Rotering said she will save that for the next time the plans are discussed.

“I will be back and share my opinion next conversation,” she said. 

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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