Residents living around Welsh-Ryan Arena are mostly urging a no vote on Northwestern’s request to add professional sports and commercial events.RoundTable photos

The Evanston City Council voted Oct. 28 to introduce Northwestern University’s request to hold professional sports and other commercial entertainment events at Welsh-Ryan Arena, bringing the controversial issue closer to a deciding vote.

With City Council chambers filled with residents in opposition to the move, aldermen voted 6-3 to introduce the University’s request for a zoning change to allow the special events.

Voting in support of the proposal were Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Cicely Fleming, 9th.Ward.

Voting against were Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, Thomas Suffredin. 6th Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward.

Aldermen could now vote to approve the matter as soon as their next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 11.

Under the request, Northwestern is asking the City permission to run a pilot project that would allow six single-day events and a multi-day event not to exceed seven days in duration in the U2 University Athletic Facilities District, which includes Welsh-Ryan.

The proposed zoning amendment would allow the University to host a limited number of professional sports events, concerts and other public events at Welsh-Ryan with no modifications “whatsoever” needed for the facility, said Dave Davis, the University’s Executive Director for Neighborhood Community Relations, at the Council’s Planning & Development Committee meeting, just before the Council meeting itself.

Mr. Davis corrected himself immediately and said “Sorry, our facilities were specifically designed to host sporting events.”

Northwestern already hosts sporting events at Welsh-Ryan and Ryan Field, he noted.

“Our athletic facilities were specifically designed to host professional sporting events as well as other special events,” he said.

“Our proposal simply allows us to host different types of events in our venues.”

Another University representative, Mike Polisky, Northwestern’s Deputy Director of Athletics, said the new Welsh-Arena “is a state-of-the-art facility [that] was made for these types of events. That’s why we haven’t done 35 events in the past,” he said, “because we didn’t have the facility for it – but now we have the facility to be able to do things in a responsible, professional manner.”

He said some of the measures the University will be taking include security policing, foot patrols on-site before and during special events.

The University has 1,500 spaces for parking in the area, including some ancillary spaces adjacent to the building, “and we will also make sure that we reserve ample space on campus so that we will be able to commit to at least 2,000 complimentary parking spaces for each of these complimentary events,” he said.

But an overwhelming majority of the speakers at the meeting, spoke of the disruptive effect of large events already staged in the area.

 Ald. Revelle, in whose Seventh Ward Welsh-Ryan is located, noted the current City ordinance allows up to seven temporary events per year, with a five day limit for each one, adding up to a total of 35 days of temporary events per year.

In actuality, she said, the University typically hosts just three events a year – “low key, with very modest attendance” on behalf of amateur and non-profit groups.

The University is now looking at “increasing from that to the possibility of 13 days of professional sports and commercial events, with as many as 7,000 attendees at each, which is indeed an increase in the intensity of use in the U2 District,” she said.

She maintained the City’s advisory Plan Commission, which voted in support of the proposal, failed to take into account the City’s Comprehensive Plan which states “the City should support the growth and evolution of institutions so long as the growth does not have an adverse impact on the adjacent residential neighborhoods.”

 “We’ve heard from residents that the events of the size contemplated in the proposed zoning amendment already do disrupt their lives,” she said. “And the comparison really is with men’s basketball games, which attract up to 7,000 people and take place in the Welsh-Ryan Arena.

 “When there is a men’s basketball game, residents come home from work and they can’t find a place to park near their homes,” she said.

“And when there are special events, the setup and takedowns are typically accompanied by trucks and trailers with work crews and beeping backup alarms, depending on the event. This often happens early in the morning or certainly late in the evening,” she said.

Other aldermen pointed to the safeguard measures the University says it will take as well as a sunset provision in the ordinance that would allow the City to terminate the agreement in two years.

“In communities, things evolve,” observed Ald. Wilson. “Things aren’t the same way [as] when they built the original stadium. The basketball facility is different than it was when they first put it in. There’s a different baseball stadium. The neighborhood evolves – the different business that are there evolve, and my preference is to take that evolution forward, but do it in a measured and controlled way.”

As an example, he pointed to the acceptance of outdoor dining. “When I started in this job, we had almost no outdoor dining and the first people who wanted to have outdoor dining were met with an extremely strong amount of resistance,” he said. “Now we have outdoor dining all over the City.”

Also speaking in support, Ald. Rainey said, “I’m looking at this as 7,000 seats, 1,500 parking places, three blocks from the train station. One person referred to Soldier Field and Allstate Arena. That’s not what we’re talking about.”

But Ald. Suffredin, who had issued a newsletter before the meeting with the headline “It’s OK to say No to Northwestern,” said he was “not surprised by the Council’s willingness to roll over.”

“Only two years, that’s true,” he said of the sunset provision allowing reconsideration, “but it’s two years of lives that we’re playing with.”

During public comment, a majority of speakers spoke of the disruption to their lives already because of large events in the area.

Judy Berg, a 26-year resident of the City living in the area, spoke about the impact on Central Street businesses adjacent to the stadium-arena area.

“Many businesses in the Central Street area are just deserted on large event days. At a previous meeting one business owner expressed that on large-event days all there is is a sea of purple [fans going to the game]. The traffic is congested, there’s no parking, pedestrian traffic is doubled and there are no customers coming to their businesses.”

Speaking earlier, though, Roger Sosa, Executive Director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, declared he did not think there was “such a thing as a crowding out effect, where people stay at home because other people are in your community.”

He projected the sales of tickets for the special events will generate roughly $475,000 in tax revenue.

That impact does not include “items like hotel rooms for teams, visiting performers and things like that,” he said.

But another speaker, economic consultant Tim Guimond, whose background is in economics, said a review of economic literature shows “that these kinds of things are losers for cities. And in some cases, they’re [of] negative impact.

“This would be the economic equivalent of Evanston imposing a tax on itself, its residents and its businesses – all for the benefit of Northwestern,” he said.

Oct. 31, 2019: The original version of this story, posted on Oct. 30, did not contain the sentence: Mr. Davis corrected himself immediately and said “Sorry, our facilities were specifically designed to host sporting events.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.