Wilmette plans for lakefront’s future
9/4/12 Wilmette Commisioner Jon Olvany talks about the next phase of the proposed Wilmette Lakefront Master Plan being built with Fred Fitzsimmons (left) and Charles Shea while at Gillson Park in Wilmette on Tuesday, Sept. 4. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 13, 2012 9:14AM
WILMETTE — Ask most residents about the Wilmette Park District’s Gillson and Langdon parks, and the word “treasure” almost inevitably finds its way into the conversation.
Between 600,000 and 750,000 people annually use nearly 60 acres of green space and beachfront at Gillson Park by swimming and sailing in the summer, attending programs at Lakeview Center or the Wallace Bowl, and walking or bicycling there all year long. North of Gillson, 3.4-acre Langdon Park and its small beach are equally popular.
Since 2008, district officials have wanted a master plan to address long-term lakefront issues, including aging infrastructure (some of which is more than 75 years old) and the nature of future development.
By late September or early October, park board members should get their first look at the latest phase in that process; three possible master plan visions, developed by Chicago-based landscape architect JJR, the consulting team that has worked on the project since 2008.
JJR began its work by creating a 43-page analysis of Gillson and Langdon’s existing conditions, looking at everything from the condition of park district structures and utilities, to traffic circulation, landscaping and the parks’ composite natural environments.
One building block in all three options will be recommendations received from a 15-person citizens’ advisory lakefront commission that studied lakefront needs in 2010 and 2011.
The commission delivered its report to the park board last December after holding several meetings, including two well-attended 2011 public workshops.
In its report, the commission advised district officials not to expand or add to their lakefront facilities. It emphasized maintaining and enhancing existing amenities, especially Gillson’s and Langdon’s natural landscapes.
In fact, the district should place “an increased emphasis on nature as a reason for visiting the parks,” commission head Terry Porter stated in the report.
“I think that was the general feeling of the whole group to keep it natural and not to disturb it,” member Glen Noren said. The district could update its beach house, for example, or upgrade concession amenities and improve exiting locker rooms, “but we don’t want the park to be overbuilt.”
Member Charles Shea agreed. Safety was more important than expansion. For instance the district needs to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to walk or bicycle through Gillson, particularly at the park’s south entrance, he said.
The commission also tackled parking congestion and debated fencing off a beach south of Gillson’s swimming beach to improve safety and control unpaid access, Shea said. However, those issues may have become less pressing after public outcry last March convinced the park board not to erect fencing, he added.
Not everyone shares the commission’s anti-expansion stance. Wilmette resident Fred Fitzsimmons offered his own vision, which includes a restaurant housed in a new three-story building that would provide administrative and programming space and a gift shop.
Development can be done without destroying the natural beauty that draws visitors to Gillson “but we need to focus on getting a return on taxpayers’ investment,” he said.
Fitzsimmons hopes planners will forge a strategy for the next 50 years, but others question how that could be done.
“Even the shoreline itself creeps and retreats over the years, so it’s hard to think that far ahead,” said Mary Shea, Charles Shea’s wife and a participant in the 2011 workshops and subsequent beach-related discussions.
“So many things can change in 50 years,” Park Board Commissioner John Olvany. “I don’t think the commission should come back with specifics, but should be able to provide concepts that can guide us.”
The board expects to hold at least two more public hearings on JJR’s three options before deciding on one.
Turnout at the lakefront commission’s 2011 workshops – each attracted about 70 attendees – shows how important Wilmette residents consider Gillson and Langdon’s future, and probably reflect the kind of interest the next hearings will attract, Olvany said.
“Probably the most important thing to me is that we have a tremendous asset overall,” he said. “And that’s one thing everyone agrees on.”~.