Northwestern University has asked the City to amend its zoning code so that NU can hold for-profit events such as concerts and  professional sporting events on 13 days each year at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Ryan Field or its other fields in the U2 (University athletic facilities) zoning district.

We think granting this request would significantly change the nature of the special events currently permitted in this district. Possibly Coupled with an ordinance (pending) permitting liquor to be sold at Welsh-Ryan Arena and Ryan Field, we think allowing this to go forward would reduce the quality of life, increase traffic and raise safety concerns on days the special events are held, and have an adverse effect on property values in the area.

Currently, Section 6-15-7-2 of the Zoning Code permits NU to hold special events if they are “community and cultural events of a nonprofit nature intended primarily for residents of the City and amateur athletic events.” (Emphasis supplied.) There are other conditions, which include the following: Sponsors of the event must obtain a “certificate of zoning compliance”; attendance at any event must be limited to 10,000 people; adequate University parking is provided to all people attending the event; no more than seven such events may be held in any calendar year in any one facility; and each such event shall not exceed five consecutive days.

Northwestern is proposing to delete the requirement that the special events be community or cultural events of a “nonprofit nature” or be “amateur athletic events.” If their proposal is approved, it would allow Northwestern to hold for-profit events such as concerts and professional sporting events in the U2 district.

In light of concerns voiced by nearby residents, Northwestern proposed to reduce the impact on neighbors by adding a requirement that event organizers provide proof of logistic approval from City officials; prohibit crews from working on the site in preparation for or cleaning up the event after 10 or 11 p.m. or before 7 a.m.; limit attendance at such events to 7,000 people; 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 and which could last up to seven days; and that the proposed zoning change have a sunset provision of two years. 

NU argues that the zoning change would reduce the maximum number of days for special events from 35 per year to a maximum of 13 per year; that the maximum number of people who may attend special events would be reduced from 10,000 to 7,000; and that NU has a plan to mitigate the impact on residents, saying the plan would be similar to what it currently does for basketball games at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

At a hearing before the City’s Plan Commission, many residents spoke in opposition to NU’s proposal, saying the special events would seriously disrupt their neighborhoods, decrease their property values and further limit their ability to enjoy their homes. While acknowledging that NU’s proposal would reduce the number of events permitted in any given year, they pointed out that NU has historically held only a few special events each year – due to the requirement the events be of a non-profit nature or be amateur athletic events. In reality, the neighbors argue, the proposed change will enable NU to significantly increase the number of special events it holds adjacent to the residential neighborhoods.

The neighbors submitted petitions opposing NU’s proposal that were signed by 775 people and 59 businesses.

On Sept. 11, the  Plan Commission decided to recommend approval of NU’s proposal by a 4-2 vote, but its recommendation was subject to additional conditions, including: all events obtain specific City Council approval; attendance be limited to 7,000 persons at indoor events and to 3,000 persons at outdoor events; the University provide 2,000 free parking spaces, 1,300 of which must be within the U2 district; tailgating and loitering be prohibited; there be a clear expiration date of Dec. 31, 2021.

We appreciate having this wonderful University in our community. We also appreciate that many of Northwestern’s faculty and staff make significant contributions to the community and its schools.  

But we think that its current proposal goes too far. The current Zoning Code expressly states that the requirements and conditions contained in the code to hold a special event are “to ensure that temporary [special] uses shall not impose an undue adverse effect on neighboring streets or property.”

Among the requirements to hold a special event are that the event be limited to “community and cultural events of a nonprofit nature” and that athletic events be “amateur” athletic events. City Council previously determined that these requirements were essential to help ensure that special events do not have an undue adverse effect on the neighborhood.

Northwestern should be required to meet a high burden before these requirements are eliminated. NU can continue to use Welsh-Ryan Arena for its basketball games and Ryan Field for its football games. NU has not demonstrated a need to hold more events at these facilities.

On the other hand, many neighbors testified that the increased traffic and crowds from for-profit events such as concerts and professional athletic events would disrupt their daily lives and reduce property values, particularly since NU may be authorized to sell liquor at the events. 

The neighbors bought their homes knowing they would live near college athletic fields. But they did not choose to live there with the expectation that NU would be able to hold 13 for-profit events of professional athletic events at Welsh-Ryan or in any other facility in the U2 district. Rather, they had the expectation that such events would not be allowed, because the City had precluded them to “ensure that temporary [special] uses shall not impose an undue adverse effect on neighboring streets or property.”

We think that expectation should be honored.

Already Northwestern is encroaching on the quality of life around the athletic fields by holding a night football game at Ryan Field on Oct. 18.

St. Athanasius School, less than two blocks from Ryan Field, may close early that day because Northwestern is allowing partying and parking to begin at 3:30 p.m. St. A’s is not the only school in the area that might be affected by mid-afternoon football partying. Orrington, Kingsley and Haven may also be affected and School District 65 may also have to cancel school that day – or allow an early dismissal.

Institutional intrusion into residential areas has not gone unnoticed at the City level.

In August, Community Development Director Johanna Leonard, Planning and Zoning Manager Scott Mangum, Zoning Administrator Melissa Klotz and Planner Cade Sterling recommended that the Zoning Board of Appeals deny a request by St. A’s to increase its parking spaces from 14 to 26. 

They wrote, “City staff believes the proposal does not meet the Standards for Special Use. Specifically, the proposed expansion of the legally nonconforming use is not consistent with the goals and policies of the Comprehensive General Plan regarding institutional land uses in residential neighborhoods. Additionally, the continued expansion of institutional land use has caused a negative cumulative effect on the surrounding neighborhood, evidenced by continued erosion of the residential fabric fronting the east side of Eastwood Avenue between Lincoln Street to the south and the alley north of Harrison Street.

“City Staff did not see evidence that the proposal adequately mitigates adverse effects related to extant traffic congestion and circulation on the campus and public alley, and believes the proposal would make these concerns more severe.”

The matter was referred to the Design and Project Review Committee, which recommended denial of the project.

The impact that would be caused should NU’s zoning proposal be approved – to add 13 special events with each potentially attracting 7,000 people – will be far greater than would the addition of 12 parking spaces at a local school.

We realize that Northwestern will be able to collect taxes on the ticket sales and remit that money to the City – perhaps a half million dollars per year. And in these uncertain times, these additional dollars could be appealing to aldermen, who are looking for new revenue streams, as well as to the University, with its competitive athletics, high-quality academics and cutting-edge research programs.

Money, however, is not the currency here. Quality of life is. Safety of our children is. Peaceful enjoyment of the neighborhood is. Northwestern surely understands this. We ask that the University withdraw its proposal and be the good neighbor it says it aspires to be.

If Northwestern does not withdraw the proposal, the City Council must firmly reject it.