Residents from many parts of Evanston have signs opposing Northwester’s request to hold professional events and sell alcohol at Welsh-Ryan arena. RoundTable photo

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After several hours of testimony the evening of Sept. 11, the Evanston Plan Commission approved and sent along to the City Council a recommendation to accept a proposal that would allow Northwestern University to change the nature of “temporary” – or special – events that it holds in the U2 (university athletic facilities) district, which includes the Welsh-Ryan Arena and Ryan Field. The Commission added five conditions to NU’s final proposal. The final vote was 4-2.

The matter had originally been scheduled for discussion the evening of Aug. 28 but had to be tabled when a quorum of commissioners who could vote on the matter failed to attend the meeting. The proposal had previously been discussed on Aug. 7.

The matter has engendered much controversy, as neighborhood residents have cited parking and safety concerns for the additional events and have decried what they say is Northwestern’s abuse of Evanston zoning laws for its own ends.

City Neighborhood & Land Use Planner Meagan Jones outlined at the Sept. 11 meeting the changes that Northwestern proposed to the ordinance.

NU’s proposed zoning changes relate to the type of special events that it may hold in the U2 district. It proposed to delete a requirement that the special events be community or cultural events of a “nonprofit nature” or be “amateur athletic events.” NU proposed to add a requirement that event organizers provide proof of logistic approval from City officials; limit attendance at such events to 7,000 persons; and limit the number of events each year to six single-day events and a seventh multi-day event – which would be subject to City approval – that could last up to seven days.

After the first hearing before the Plan Commission in early August, NU proposed additional requirements: that it provide for free parking in the U2 district until all available spaces are full; that special events or work relating to the events be prohibited from taking place between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. between Sunday evening though Friday morning and between 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Friday evening through Sunday morning; and that there be a two-year sunset provision.

Northwestern University Deputy Director of Athletics for External Affairs Mike Polisky explained, “We are proposing to host a limited number of concerts and sporting events in Welsh-Ryan Arena over a two-year period, allowing us to prove the ability to host such events in a neighborly and responsible manner.”

Mr. Polisky said the changes made in August were made in good faith to show the University’s commitment to the City and residents.

Dave Davis, Northwestern’s Executive Director of Neighborhood and Community Relations, said, “We’ve listened and we’ve adjusted our proposal.”

An audience member asked whether any marketing studies had been done that would back up the University’s assertion that the proposal would enhance the quality of life in the City. Ms. Jones said that there had not been any done.

“Much of what was looked at was at existing events, and City traffic – things of that nature – but no official study was undertaken,” she added.

Resident Christina Brandt said, “There are no benefits that you can cite that offset the negative impacts to your Evanston neighbors. … This particular parcel of land is bordered on all four sides by neighborhoods. That is unique to this Northwestern-owned parcel of land. Their other land does not border neighborhoods on all four sides. This proposal dramatically changes and impacts the quality of life, and poses safety challenges with crowds, possible introduction of alcohol…and further limits options for neighbors to enjoy their homes.”

Ms. Brandt dismissed Northwestern’s assertion that the proposal would bring in culturally beneficial events, noting that City residents have a plethora of cultural options already.

Many residents spoke in opposition to the University’s proposal, saying the special events would seriously disrupt their neighborhoods, decrease their property values and further limit their ability to enjoy their homes. Petitions opposing the proposal were signed by 775 people and 59 businesses.

Mr. Davis said the University had a plan to mitigate the impact on residents, adding, “That plan is similar to what we currently do for basketball games, which we anticipate would be similar size.”

Such a plan entails working with the City to ensure that there are foot patrols before, during and after events, and that trash pickup and parking are well managed, among other components.
“Unfortunately, you can’t litigate trust,” Mr. Davis said. “I feel like that’s the key issue here. Over the years, since 1970, it’s no secret that the University and the City have had a confrontational relationship. I think it’s unfortunate, though there are some trends that [suggest] that things have improved, we still see some residual effects we need to address.”

Commissioner Peter Isaac said during the Commission’s deliberation, “The ‘indoor’ thing [raised by one resident, who noted that no audience-size distinctions had been made at that point between indoor and outdoor events] is an issue for me.”

Other commissioners seemed to agree. Mr. Isaac further emphasized that the University should give sufficient notice of events to area residents, and that professional and multi-day events should not be allowed.

Colby Lewis – who was eventually one of the two commissioners voting against the proposal—asked Mr. Isaac how he would define amateur events. “What is the difference between amateur and professional events? … What about professionalism [in sports] is not a benefit to Evanston?”

Mr. Isaac replied, “I tie the multi-day events and professional events together, mainly because the applicant seemed to. … A multi-day event –a seven-day event, for example, just tennis – where you’re having a tennis crowd coming in for seven straight days, would be significantly more disruptive to the neighbors and property owners than it would be if people were just showing up for a Saturday evening concert at six o’clock and leaving by 11.”

He further suggested that Northwestern see if it could successfully “navigate” single-day events, and “come back after two years.”

Commissioner Jane Sloss noted that he seemed to be addressing multi-day events more than professional ones, and asked if he would be amenable to professional single-day events.
“I think I’d be open to that, but in that case I’d definitely err on the side of City Council approval on all events,” Mr. Davis answered.

The Commission discussed a number of amendments to the proposal. Among those that passed were conditions that:

• the University give notice of events to residents within 500 feet of the venue within five business days of approval by the City;

• the University provide 2,000 free parking spaces, 1,300 of which must be within the U2 district;

• tailgating and loitering be prohibited;

• a clear expiration date of Dec. 31, 2021, be implemented;

• all events require specific City Council approval; and

• attendance be limited to 7,000 persons at indoor events and to 3,000 persons at outdoor events.

The amended proposal now heads for the Evanston City Council, and a number of residents questioned why City Staff and the Plan Commission advanced what they say is an especially impactful change with a minimum of justification from Northwestern.

Resident Kenneth Proskie later told RoundTable that the University gave relatively little explanation of why it wanted to make the change, and it was not being held to the same standards as other community members and stakeholders.

In its May 4, 2019, application for the zoning change, the University was asked a standard question: “In what ways is the proposed amendment compatible with the overall character of existing development in the immediate vicinity of the subject property?”

The official submitting the application, who works in the university’s athletic department, answered: “N/A.”

Mr. Proskie said, “There are codes standards you are supposed to comply with. When you [propose] an amendment, you’re supposed to indicate, with evidence, why this is happening. Not only did they not submit any evidence, they said it was not applicable.”

Resident Mary Rosinski said that, with the Plan Commission’s passage of the amendment’s recommendation, “The equity of the process has been violated.”
She added that, not only do the extra events hinder the neighborhood’s quality of life, the proposal, if passed by the Council, sets unfortunate precedents for local zoning.

“The concern I have about the zoning is that, there are 80-plus events in the U2 district,” Ms. Rosinski said. “They’re all collegiate. If zoning changes allow permitted uses that are only allowed in commercial districts, it’ll be a difference. It’s not only that it’s 13 more events on top of collegiate events, it’s 13 commercial events in a residential neighborhood, where they don’t belong.”

Ms. Rosinski said concerned residents can email info@northwesternneighbors.org as she and other community members prepare for the City Council to hear the proposal later in September. They also are encouraging residents to contact their aldermen about the matter.

In a Sept. 17 statement to RoundTable, City Planning and Zoning Manager Scott Mangum emphasized that the process has been undertaken impartially.

“All requests to amend the text of the City’s zoning ordinance must undergo the same review process regardless of the person or organization initiating the request,” said Mr. Mangum. “This process includes a noticed public hearing before the Plan Commission, which makes a recommendation to the City Council. 

“At its meeting on Sept. 11, the City’s Plan Commission considered the application filed by Northwestern to modify the text of the zoning ordinance regarding permitted temporary events within the U2 Zoning District. As part of its review, the Plan Commission considered the standards for a text amendment contained in the City’s zoning ordinance and as responded to by Northwestern in its application, and recommended approval of the University’s request with several modifications.

“The proposal will next be considered by the City Council, which will make a determination on the request.”

Jeri Ward, Northwestern’s vice-president of global marketing and communications, added in a Sept. 17 statement that NU “respects the Evanston community and appreciates the views of the residents.”

Ms. Ward added, “Northwestern University presented at three community meetings [two of which NU hosted] on April 25, June 25, and Aug. 5.

“The proposal allows Northwestern University to host different types of events in our athletics facilities. We already host sporting events in our athletics facilities; this proposal would allow Northwestern to host professional sporting events. Our students already host concerts at Welsh-Ryan Arena; this proposal would enable hosting for-profit concerts.

“The proposal does not modify any facilities in the U2 district. There will be no construction, no changes to the structure, no renovations, and no change in services as part of this proposal.

“The proposal reduces the number of days NU can host special events each year from 36 to 13. The proposal reduces the maximum number of people that can attend special events in the U2 district from 10,000 to 7,000. 

“Given the neighbor’s concerns about trust, we decided to add a sunset provision to provide the community with an extra layer of protection.”