Long wooden tables and high stone ceilings reminiscent of the Great Hall at Hogwarts juxtapose with the sleek modernity of flat screen TVs. Here, friendly kitchen staff serve up mozzarella sticks and made-to-order burgers for students studying and socializing in Northwestern’s newest hot spot, the Great Room.
Students who have grown to love the Great Room’s late night comfort food and ambiance may be in for a bit of a shock. Due to challenges from neighboring residents claiming that the Great Room is in violation of zoning rules, its future is uncertain.
Evanston officials will decide the Great Room’s fate — whether or not Northwestern will need to make changes to appease neighbors’ complaints or be allowed to keep the venue as is — at the January 19th Zoning Board Commission Meeting. The meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m. at Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center (2100 Ridge Avenue) and is open to the public.
This past November, Evanston residents Andrea and George Gaines filed a petition with the city of Evanston, stating that the Great Room oversteps the boundaries permitted by the zoning rules. The Great Room, at 610 Haven Street, is in Northwestern’s recently acquired Seabury-Western Theological Seminary located within a T1 residential area.
“If you look at zoning rules, having a dorm and food service for the dorm is not a permitted use in a T1 area,” says George Gaines. “The only reason it was permitted was because Seabury was running it that way when it became a T1 zoning area. Once you have a grandfathered use, the existing owner is not allowed to make it more intensive.”
ASG President Mike McGee plans to attend the zoning board meeting and encourages students to come. ASG currently has a petition to save the Great Room circulating on NUlink. McGee has also created a “Save The Great Room!!!” Facebook group in an effort to consolidate student support of the Great Room. Both the petition and group have well over a thousand signatures and members, respectively. While student support is strong, McGee says it “won’t provide any legal sway with the zoning board.”
Northwestern officials claim that the Great Room functions as a dining hall for students. However, the Gaines’ consider it to be akin to a restaurant, an intensified use that is not permitted under the zoning rules. The Great Room is open until 2 a.m. five days a week and is listed as a retail dining location as opposed to a dining hall on the NUCuisine Web site.
Gaines would prefer that the Great Room close by 8 p.m. and only serve residents of the nearby dorm. Noise, loitering, food smells and flashing flat screen TVs are a few of the neighbors’ complaints. Gaines claims that the university has taken advantage of the grandfathered food service permission and intensified the use of the Great Room.
“The city and university are taking the position that this is not a more intense use because they are not physically enlarging the area,” says Gaines. “That is what they are using as a definition of intensity but I think most reasonable people would agree with me. What’s most important is how many people are in and out, the hours it keeps and how it impacts the neighborhood.”
Communication junior Makda Fessahaye and McCormick senior Jonathan Bragg are frequent Great Room visitors. The two were the first students to ever set foot in the Great Room in a sneak preview prior to its grand opening, and they have been fans ever since. Neither student views the Great Room as a restaurant, instead seeing it as a welcome alternative to the dining halls.
“People are here longer to study because it has a nice quiet environment,” says Fessahaye. “Besides Lisa’s Cafe, this is the only place on north campus where you can study without making the trek to the library.” Fessaheye has used the Great Room specifically for studying, sometimes without even ordering food.
“I hope it blows over,” says Bragg. “[The Great Room] has been a big part of my experience this year.” Bragg lives next door at Seabury and says that it has never been excessively loud.
Senior management at Northwestern is confident the Great Room will remain standing.
“I believe the University is in complete compliance with the zoning regulations and their requirements,” says Northwestern’s Senior Vice President of Business and Finance, Eugene Sunshine. “Our expectation is that the zoning appeals board will affirm our decision and actions and deny the appeal.”