Northwestern University officials have cut by more than half the number of special events the University initially said it would like to host at Welsh-Ryan Arena and included a sunset provision to terminate the arrangement if it does not work out, but neighborhood opposition continues to run strong against the proposal.
At a meeting at Welsh-Ryan on June 25, NU officials Mike Polisky, Deputy Director of Athletics for External Affairs, and Dave Davis, Executive Director for Neighborhoods and Community Relations, courted neighborhood support for the University’s proposed amendment to the City’s permitted uses under the current zoning.
The amendment would allow the University to host up to seven (six one-day and one multi-day) professional sporting and commercial events at 7,000-plus seat Welsh-Ryan, the officials told the audience, estimated at over 100 people.
The University sought the change after the World Team Tennis group approached officials in January about using Welsh-Ryan for its tennis tournament, Mr. Davis said.
“At the time, we realized the City of Evanston had a restriction on professional, commercial and private events here,” he said.
Mr. Davis said the University began speaking with City staff, as well as Eleanor Revelle, the alderman in the Seventh Ward where the arena is located, inquiring if something could be done, “and that began a dialogue,” he said.
University officials met with residents in an April meeting at which a lot of concerns were expressed, particularly over the number of events the University was proposing, Mr. Davis acknowledged.
Since then, officials have revised their proposal, reducing the number of special events requested from 15 to seven.
In addition, the University added a sunset provision, which would require City approval to continue the program beyond two years.
Currently, restricting events such as the University is seeking to hold “deprives the City of Evanston and the University of additional revenues, jobs and positive media coverage” the events would generate, officials said in a release.
Additional events at Welsh-Ryan Arena could generate between $300,000 and $600,000 in new revenues, they estimated.
The revenues would help the City pay for public services and invest in critical infrastructure, and also bolster the City’s reputation as a regional entertainment destination, they maintained.
Officials are looking to host events here, “in a very moderate way – in a way that we hope will not be disruptive, to generate additional revenues. And when we do that everybody wins in our opinion,” said Mr. Davis.
A number of speakers lined up to register concerns at the meeting, indicating they did not share that opinion.
Dana Caspall, who lives on Asbury Avenue, said economic questions are very important. “But my main concern living in this neighborhood is that you are bringing in an amount of traffic into this neighborhood and the infrastructure can’t sustain it,” she told officials.
While she pays high property taxes, “I want a good quality of life,” she said. “I want a safe neighborhood, and I don’t want it to become, even for six or seven events, Rosemont Horizon in our backyard.”
Mary Rothschild, who lives off Central Street, also pointed to the traffic generated by the special events.
“The main exit is down Central Street. When they [vehicles] come off the expressway, they come down Central Street, and that street has all that traffic, especially when they get to our small little business area,” she said.
Lisa Taylor, another speaker, pressed how many events in total the University now holds in the area.
She wanted to know, she explained, because “every resident here knows that when there is a football game you have to plan whether you’re in or you’re out” of your home because of the parking crunch.
One speaker, Judy Bird, offered the speakers some history. In 1996, a neighborhood group, North Evanston Watch, successfully mobilized against a professional tennis tournament being staged at Welsh-Ryan arena. “What has changed since 1996? More traffic, not enough parking, more shuttle buses,” she said, supplying the answer.
Mr. Polisky noted that both sides have to find a comfort level. On the economic side, revenue for the City from ticket sales has climbed from roughly $450,000 in 2010-11 to $1.4 million, he said.
“When we meet with Central business owners and we meet with the Chamber of Commerce, we generally are supported by what is going on, because it is in fact helping a little bit.”
“My concern is not so much the economics,” responded Ms. Bird. “My concern is once you make a change to get U2 zoning, then you guys have your foot in the door to do more and more things.”
Mr. Polisky said he had no idea what to tell her except the ordinance would have to be written in a way “that will not allow our foot to get in the door and then all of a sudden just [stamp down] on the City.
“That not our intent,” he stressed. “Our intent is to test it [the new event schedule] out to see if we handle it the right way, [and] you’re comfortable with it.”
Patrick Hughes, who lives “right next door” to the arena and stadium, was one of the few to offer support to the plan. In the past, he said when he came to Polisky and Davis with issues they have been able to problem solve to reach solutions.
The one word “I hear right now is trust,” Mr. Hughes, acknowledging there have been past issues between the university and neighbors.
Mssrs. Polisky and Davis voiced a willingness to continue to work with residents toward resolution.
“If we need to do this again, we’re happy to do this,” Mr. Davis said.
Ald. Revelle, at the meeting, told residents that the proposal still has to go in front of the City’s Zoning Board, Plan Commission and ultimately in front of the Council.