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City Council will soon vote on a zoning amendment that would allow Northwestern University to hold for-profit concerts and athletic events for up to 7,000 attendees within the “U2 University Athletic Facilities District,” which includes Welsh Ryan Arena and Ryan Field. 

The property is situated in a residential neighborhood immediately surrounded by 500+ single-family homes and 20+ multi-family units.  In addition to the negative impact on adjacent residents, more than 50 Central Street merchants have signed a petition opposing the amendment, citing negative impacts to their businesses.  Pro-events could also include the possibility of liquor sales if another ordinance under consideration were to pass.   

In 1960, Evanston followed the example of other university towns, and created the U2 District to prevent nuisances and other activities potentially damaging to the neighborhood.  In fact, the first sentence in Evanston’s U2 zoning code makes that abundantly clear:

“The U2 university athletic facilities district is intended to permit the utilization of university facilities within the district in a manner that is compatible with the surrounding development, which is predominantly residential.”

Since then, Northwestern has repeatedly attempted to bring for-profit events to these facilities.  In fact, the City has fought and won numerous court battles against this very same prospect, including before the Illinois Supreme Court, which upheld the City’s right to regulate itself through its zoning ban on professional events in the U2 district.  These court battles have cost the City many thousands of dollars in legal fees. 

The City may try to convince itself that its budget deficit will benefit from taxes on tickets sold.  But a local economist says the math doesn’t work.  The revenue to the City will not offset the downside of depreciated property values caused by pro-events in a residential area. 

Regardless, budget gaps shouldn’t be closed on the backs of residents who pay taxes on $330 million value of private homes within five blocks of the district, year after year.  Northwestern is a not-for-profit institution and enjoys tax-free status on its more than 240 acres of property.  Northwestern is one of the top-ten wealthiest universities in the nation, with a $12 billion endowment and athletic department revenue of $93 million per year.

Yes, our aldermen have the power to amend zoning ordinances, but the City has formally adopted guidelines and standards for deciding the merit of proposed changes in a non-arbitrary manner.  Below are the standards and our responses on each.    

Is there a need for the proposed zoning amendment?

No. There have been no changes in conditions, circumstances, or development that justifies the need for a zoning amendment, since the intent and purpose of a U2 district is to hold intercollegiate and intramural events, and not for-profit events. 

Is the amendment compatible with the surrounding residential neighborhood?

No. Northwestern’s athletic campus is a virtual island in the middle of an overwhelmingly residential neighborhood.  Mega pro-sports and entertainment events have no place in the heart of a neighborhood with hundreds of adjacent families and children within 1,000 feet.   

Are there adequate public facilities and services?

No. City officials already know that the U2 district has woefully inadequate access roads and parking facilities.  U2 events create gridlock on the primary thoroughfare used by the hospital and two fire houses, even when there are only a few thousand spectators.  There is enough parking for only 3,500 – 4,000 spectators, not 7,000.  Northwestern’s proposal will increase the number of large events by 45% compared to the current number actually held.

Is the amendment consistent with the goals, objectives, and policies of the Evanston “Comprehensive General Plan”?

No. The amendment doesn’t preserve the quality and integrity of residential areas, or guard against spill-over nuisances into residential neighborhoods.  It doesn’t provide parking that considers the impact on the neighborhood or minimize the impact of spill-over parking into residential districts.   It harms the pedestrian-oriented local businesses that contribute to neighborhood strength.

Will the amendment have an adverse effect on the value of adjacent property?

Yes. Multiple studies show negative impacts on property values near professional sports arenas.  Professional sports and commercial entertainment would be a radical departure from existing uses of the U2 district, and property values will likely be negatively affected.

Clearly, the proposed U2 zoning amendment does not meet these standards and should not be approved.  Let your aldermen know that you expect them to adhere to these standards, which were adopted to protect all Evanston residents.  No matter which ward any of us live in, we all benefit from (and trust in) stable, consistently enforced zoning laws.   

Tell your alderman to “Vote No To Pro At NU.”

Ms. Berg, an Evanston resident, writes on behalf of Asbury Northwestern Neighbors, Evanston Neighbors Against Pro Sports, North Evanston Watch, and Evanston Economists for Growth, Northwestern Neighbors.org and Spotlight on Evanston.