Northwestern University has requested an amendment to Evanston’s zoning code to allow professional sports events and for-profit entertainment events on its athletic campus on Central Street. The Evanston City Council should deny this request.
Allowing professional sports and for-profit events would undermine the protections that our zoning code is expected to provide to area residents.
These residents bought their homes with the understanding that the athletic campus was used for collegiate sports and commencement events. They have learned to cope with the crowds, the traffic congestion, the parking hassles, the noise, and the bad fan behavior that come with having a Big Ten athletic facility as their neighbor. They did not bargain for an additional set of major events attracting a non-collegiate audience with unknown regard for NU and its neighbors.
It should be noted that uses on the U2 campus have increased significantly since the stadium was built in the early 1920s, in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Over the years, area residents have had front row seats to the construction of additional facilities for more and more sports teams, each with its schedule of practices and games and each with its own set of fans. The U2 campus is already a tight fit in the surrounding residential neighborhoods.
Approving the amendment would set an unwise precedent.
A two-year pilot sounds reasonable, but Northwestern could use the pilot events as precedent in arguing for additional and bigger events in the future. Indeed, NU-City history is replete with examples of pro-sports events held on the U2 campus (most in violation of Evanston’s zoning code) that were later used as precedent to argue for still others.
In 1970, for example, Evanston sued NU, unsuccessfully, in an attempt to stop a professional tennis tournament at McGaw Hall. Meanwhile, NU and the Chicago Bears reached an agreement for the Bears to play the Philadelphia Eagles at Dyche Stadium. The Bears sought an injunction to prevent Evanston from enforcing its zoning ordinance to stop the game, and the Bears’ attorney used the earlier tennis match as evidence for the injunction.
It was this concern about precedent that led then-7th Ward Alderman Steve Engleman to oppose a 1996 application for a zoning amendment and special use permit to allow an Ameritech Cup Tennis Tournament at the Welsh Ryan Arena. As he wrote to a resident: “While a women’s tennis tournament may appear to be benign, its allowance would eventually make it easier for other events which would have a more drastic impact upon you, your neighbors, and the residents of the Seventh Ward.”
In a unanimous vote, the City Council denied the zoning application.
The proposal does not meet the Standards for Amendments in our zoning code.
• It is not consistent with the goals, objectives, and policies of our Comprehensive General Plan. In the section on Institutions, the Plan sets as a goal that “Evanston should support the growth and evolution of institutions so long as the growth does not have an adverse impact upon the residentially-zoned adjacent neighborhoods.” The Plan goes on to note that “enforcing the standards of the City’s Zoning Ordinance is essential if proposed changes would disrupt the residential character and environment of surrounding neighborhoods.” [pages 57-58]
• It is not compatible with the overall character of the existing development in the immediate area. Given this concern, the City has pushed against repeated efforts by the University to host commercial events on the U2 campus. In denying NU’s petition for a variation to permit professional tennis matches, for example, the City Council in 1977 found that the proposed variation “would alter the essential character of the locality by increasing the intensity of the use so as to detract from the essential character of the surrounding residential neighborhood.”
The Illinois courts have agreed with this sentiment. When NU brought suit against the City, claiming that Evanston’s ordinance prohibiting commercial activity in the U2 district was unconstitutional, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal of the complaint and noted that “there would appear to be substantial differences between the impact of a predictable number of intramural or inter-collegiate athletic events and an unpredictable number of commercial athletic events.” (74 Ill. 2d 80 1978)
• It is likely to have an adverse effect on the value of adjacent properties. As the City Council noted in 1977, NU’s proposed variation “would be injurious to and depreciate the value of other property and improvements in the neighborhood in which it is located due to increased traffic congestion, pedestrian traffic, noise and litter, all of which would be an unavoidable consequence of the proposed intensification of use of the property.”
Our U2 zoning provides safeguards “to ensure that temporary uses shall not impose an undue adverse effect on neighboring streets or property.” The City Council should hold fast to the existing standards.
Ms. Revelle serves as alderman of the Seventh Ward.