For years now, a pending property exchange agreement between the Winnetka Park District and the Ishbia family has riled Winnetka community members and officials. Thousands of documents and hundreds of hours of discussion centered on the land swap are part of the public record. But now, for all intents and purposes, it is kaput.
Justin Ishbia has presented the park district with a new arrangement: a donation of $3 million to support efforts to renovate Elder and Centennial beaches. The contribution needs formal documentation and Park Board approval to come to fruition, according to district Executive Director John Peterson, but if it goes through, Peterson said, it will enable an ADA boardwalk, fenced dog beach, shoreline protection measures and more as part of the district’s first two phases of beachfront improvements.
The donation also puts to bed the controversial land swap, Ishbia said in a statement that David Williams read to the Park Board on Sept. 7 on Ishbia’s behalf.
The second phase of the Elder-Centennial planned improvements could be funded by a donation from Justin Ishbia and his family.
“At this time, we think it is best for us to call that agreement dormant and look to a new and different chapter for Elder and Centennial Parks and beaches,” the statement reads.
Peterson confirmed that the swap, though still a legal agreement, is not active at this time. He added the Ishbia’s donation would be the single largest donation in the park district’s 119-year history.
In recent years, the park district has accepted donations from the Stepan family in 2021 to fund the boat launch at Lloyd Beach and the Winnetka Woman’s Club in 2023 for a gazebo at Dwyer Park.
“Mr. Ishbia has always given consideration to the expenses associated to the Elder-Centennial beach project,” Peterson said, “and we are remarkably grateful for his intent to offset a significant portion of those costs.”
The Ishbia family owns multiple parcels of land along Winnetka’s lakefront, including four properties in succession just south of Centennial Beach. The Ishbias are constructing a large single-family home on the site.
They also own 261 Sheridan Road, which separates Centennial and Elder parks and is the subject of the property exchange agreement with the park district. The agreement was influential in early iterations of the 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.
The reported purpose of Ishbias’ new donation offer is to accelerate the beachfront improvements in Phases 1 and 2, and Peterson said Ishbia has seen the designs and “there is no information that would suggest any changes to Phase 1 or 2.”
“We have been in communication with Mr. Ishbia since around July 2020 and continue to be and those communications are no different than any other neighbor to any of our park parcels or any resident the park district serves,” Peterson said.
Justin and Kristen Ishbia address the Winnetka Village Council in 2022.
After the initial Elder-Centennial plan 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. The third phase, which includes a stone island breakwater, would need ownership of 261 Sheridan Road and cost up to $21 million.
According to Ishbia’s statement, his family’s donation is to enable the first and second phases, which would add breakwaters, a viewing platform and pier, a boardwalk, dog beach, accessible pedestrian path and more to the beaches at a total cost of about $13.5 million.
Ishbia’s statement says, “Making the Elder-Centennial lakefront accessible and enjoyable for all Winnetka residents has been a long-standing aspiration of the community. I am hopeful that this donation will enable the park district to move forward with the first phases of the Master Lakefront Improvement plan that they have been working diligently to bring to fruition for several years. By accelerating the execution of these plans and creating an off-leash dog park, Winnetka families, children and their dogs will be able to sooner access the lakefront and enjoy our beautiful beaches for years to come.”
Peterson said the donation could close within two months if it gains proper approval.
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