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In search of new role for astronomy icon

Impending sale of Yerkes Observatory rattles Wis. towns

The University of Chicago plans to close the Yerkes Observatory on Oct. 1 and is weighing what to do with the property. In 2006, it was almost sold to a resort developer. (Courtney Pedroza/Chicago Tribune )

BY TED GREGORY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WILLIAMS BAY, Wis. — Lately, Dianna Colman is recognized and stopped almost everywhere she goes. Her phone buzzes, too, with calls from New York, Texas, Georgia and California, among other places.

But the reason for her celebrity is hardly glamorous. Colman and a few others have taken on the complicated task of trying to save the cherished and renowned Yerkes Observatory — birthplace of modern astronomy, home to a pair of Nobel laureates and now for sale.

“Trust me,” Colman said after walking through the building one recent afternoon, “everybody around here is just saying, ‘Now what? What are they going to do? How are they going to do it? When?’ It’s a little frustrating, but it’s part of the process.”

“They” are the leaders of the University of Chicago, which owns the 121-year-old observatory and an estimated 77 bucolic acres around it in southeast Wisconsin. But for decades, Yerkes has been obsolete as a cutting-edge research center.

In March, U. of C. announced the observatory will close on Oct. 1. For an undetermined period of time, the institution is considering offers for what to do with the property.

The university’s decision to sell ratcheted up anxiety in the five towns surrounding Geneva Lake, a region known as a getaway for Chicago-area residents and sprinkled with extremely affluent families that have vacationed in their opulent homes here for generations.

In Williams Bay, the tiny village where Yerkes is located, the pending sale is making people particularly antsy. A dozen years ago, the university agreed to sell the observatory to a resort developer, but that episode ended with hurt feelings and no deal.

This time, the university and local residents are trying to be more deliberate, respectful and transparent. Yet concerns are emerging about the university’s intentions.

The Yerkes’ grounds, designed by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, include open lakefront footage on highly desirable Geneva Lake, and the observatory is so central to the region that its image is on Williams Bay’s village seal.

Distinctive and ornate, the building’s main feature is what’s touted as the world’s largest refractor telescope — with a 40-inch lens, 63-foot tube and total weight of 20 tons.

Carl Sagan and Edwin Hubble studied at Yerkes. Nobel laureates Gerhard Herzberg and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar worked there, and a third Nobel winner, James Cronin, was affiliated with Yerkes. Albert Einstein visited.

And, despite the university’s emphasis on more sophisticated reflecting telescope projects in Chile, Yerkes remains a welcoming educational and community center that offers tours, “star parties,” chances to look through the massive telescope, even astronomy programs for the blind.

Those who know Yerkes well say its wooded, parklike setting has an almost magical capacity to stir passion for astronomy and all sciences.

“We’ve loved it long enough,” Colman said, “that we figure it must belong to us by now.”

‘Enormous pushback,’ but ‘no secret plan’

The Geneva Lake area being what it is, the group Colman leads includes people with influence, education, experience and acumen. A retired McDonald’s executive, a former university executive vice president, a trial attorney, a psychiatrist and Colman, a Harvard MBA who worked in corporate finance, are the core of the Yerkes Future Foundation.

Packed rooms at public hearings underscore locals’ affection for Yerkes and the ambience of Williams Bay, a town of about 2,600 that three decades ago blocked a proposed golf course, townhouse, condo and convention center plan by purchasing the 230-acre site.

Williams Bay converted it to the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy.

The village could borrow money to buy the Yerkes property, trustee Jim D’Alessandro said. But “there’s little to zero support for doing that” primarily because maintenance of the property alone could total $400,000 to $800,000 a year, said D’Alessandro, who is also president of the Williams Bay Business Association.

At one of those packed public meetings shortly after U. of C. announced Yerkes’ closing, trustee Marsha Engquist reminded university Executive Vice President David Fithian of a “long, arduous process that hurt painfully.”

She was referring to the university’s surprise announcement in 2006 that it had agreed to sell 45 acres of Yerkes land for about $9 million to a New York developer that planned to build a 100-room hotel and 72 homes. The agreement also called for preserving Yerkes and 30 acres around it, creating a conservation zone along the lake and providing more than $400,000 a year to support the observatory, in addition to several million dollars for educational outreach at Yerkes.

But “enormous community pushback” erupted over the university announcing an agreement without public input, said Charles Ebeling, a Yerkes Future Foundation member and retired McDonald’s executive. Residents also were angry with the anticipated traffic increases and changes to the property. In short order, the proposal died.

“We’ve reviewed that history carefully,” Fithian said at the public meeting in March. “We understand mistakes that were made and believe we’ve learned lessons. I want to assure you that we genuinely have no plan in place, no secret plan. There are no sidebar conversations happening. We’re trying to do better this time.”

U. of C. has created a Yerkes Updates website, where it reports that from April to mid-June, the university sought “expressions of interest” for the Yerkes land that balance “the current facilities and continued public programming with responsible financial stewardship of the property assets.”

The university also reserved the right to consider offers after mid-June.

Discussions about any such proposals will be confidential, the university stated, but the institution plans “ongoing engagement with the village board” while evaluating proposals. “What we hear will help guide the decision-making process,” the university stated on the website.

School officials declined interviews and wouldn’t discuss the number, type or origin of proposals they’ve received.

In an email, university spokesman Jeremy Manier said the institution has “been in touch with the (village) board periodically” and “will have more to discuss on the transition timeline in August.”

Weddings at the observatory?

So far, U. of C. has been “a class act, very responsive and helpful” to work with, Colman said. But dealing with a large entity that deliberates so long on each of the foundation’s questions has been “very cumbersome,” she added.

Engquist, the local trustee, is less pleased. She said the university has failed to share information with the village, which she called “a conundrum that doesn’t bode well.” She also criticized the university for leaving what she considered insufficient time to find a new Yerkes owner.

“I think their timing sucks,” she said.

Publicly, village trustees avoid expressing a preferred plan for Yerkes, a position that earned the board grief in a local editorial, which expressed fear that the village will be “steamrolled by some developer or other business concern that looks at Yerkes and sees only dollar signs.”

The preference of the Yerkes Future Foundation, which formed weeks after the observatory’s announced closing, is for the property to become an educational outreach and research center, as well as an event space for weddings and other functions, Colman said.

Whether those uses could sustain Yerkes is debatable. Ebeling and others say upward of $20 million would be needed to purchase the land and observatory and upgrade it. He added that “many local residents, either by themselves or with a few of their neighbors, could take care of this situation.”

“We wouldn’t be messing around if we didn’t think we could do it,” he added, “but I’m not writing the check to take care of it.”

Village President Bill Duncan noted that building on the property’s lakefront would be complicated by its slope and location in an environmentally protected corridor.

Also, Duncan said, residents have made it clear that any plan to build a dense residential development on the property “isn’t going to fly.”

Local resident Nathan Bond, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said he would support development on the Yerkes property, if the observatory and land that immediately surrounds it would be preserved.

Construction of single-family, detached homes might generate tax revenue to preserve and maintain the core of Yerkes, he said. Bond added that he doesn’t like the idea of building on the site but he is “desperate to see it preserved.”

“It’s a complex situation, and it requires a complex solution where probably no one would be totally happy in the end,” Bond said. “That’s how compromises work.”

Residents, he said, must decide what the essential elements of their community are.

Duncan said he expects to hear the university’s ideas for the property around mid-July.

tgregory@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @tgregoryreports

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