Justin Ishbia fires back to hash out Winnetka Park District donation
Billionaire’s response comes after a tense meeting when officials questioned terms of planned $3M gift for parks next to his massive real estate project
Justin Ishbia wants Winnetka to know the beach improvement plans he’s set to fund with a philanthropic gift weren’t his idea.
The Chicago billionaire is aiming to clarify how his $3 million donation to the Winnetka Park District came about and why he wants the money to be dedicated to specific projects, following a tense meeting last week with park officials over the gift.
Ishbia’s $78 million land assemblage and home construction project next to the parks he seeks to improve has been the source of much contention in the North Shore suburb. Now, he’s trying to set the record straight surrounding the terms of his donation intended to fund upgrades at the parks, called Elder and Centennial beaches.
Ishbia, founder of Shore Capital Partners, sent a letter this week to the district as well as The Real Deal further clarifying terms of his family foundation’s gift. The letter comes after a November 30 park board meeting where the donation agreement drew criticism from members of the board and public.
The money — which Ishbia was asked to donate by the park district — would go toward beach renovations the district planned at Elder and Centennial that include building a new breakwater structure, fenced dog beach and other features. It was framed as a “peace offering” after months of back-and-forth between Ishbia and the district involving a controversial land swap deal.
Ishbia previously proposed giving the park district the home between the two parks that he bought in exchange for parkland that’s contiguous to his massive lakefront real estate development, where he intends to move his family. That idea has since idled amid a swirl of public controversy, and the donation has since become the focus of disagreement in the town.
Much of the criticism at the meeting was regarding whether or not the park district would be able to change or update plans funded by the donation down the line, or if it would have to stick to the design and plans that Ishbia reviewed prior to agreeing to donate.
Specifically, a park commissioner and residents criticized the proposed agreement for requiring that the improvements funded by the donation stay in place for at least 100 years, which they felt could restrict the district.
Ishbia said the donation comes with stipulations that are standard for gifts of this size.
“I also want to take this opportunity to clear up misunderstandings about the ‘no strings attached’ comment some have referenced,” Ishbia’s letter said. “This donation has ‘no strings attached’ with respect to the dormant land swap agreement. … That has always been the intent and will continue to be true.”
Ishbia cited donations that went toward Winnetka’s Stepan boat house and Nielsen Tennis Center as examples of how similar gifts have worked in the past, and pointed out that the district recently discovered it couldn’t convert some of the tennis facility into a pickleball court because of the agreements regarding the funding.
He said he wants to support the beach improvement plans as outlined by the district.
“When a private citizen donates to a public body, it is customary — and has precedent in this community — that the donation comes with conditions,” Ishbia’s letter said.
The agreement also appoints Gregg Seiler, with Seiler Consulting, as arbiter over the gift’s terms. That proved to be controversial as well because of Seiler’s previous ties to Ishbia.
The letter comes as the land swap agreement between the district and Ishbia has been sidelined.
Ishbia has been building a megamansion on Winnetka’s lakefront next to the parks — construction alone is set to cost $44 million, and his costs to assemble the properties pushed the project’s total price up to nearly $78 million.
Since 2020, he had purchased four mansions on Lake Michigan and began demolishing them to make room for the new construction. Initially, he had tried to strike a deal with the park district that would allow the district to create one contiguous beach with its takeover of an Ishbia-owned property at 261 Sheridan Road, in exchange for giving Ishbia a portion of Centennial Park to unite his parcels.
That drew substantial criticism from Winnetka residents, before the park district and Ishbia backed away from the deal.
In October, a Cook County judge dismissed a lawsuit regarding the land swap, which could theoretically allow the deal to move forward. But a month prior a spokesperson for Ishbia said they considered the land swap issue “dormant.”