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Evanston City Council members on Nov. 11 approved Northwestern University’s request to host professional sports and for-profit commercial entertainment events at Welsh-Ryan Arena, despite strong testimony from residents that the University failed to make its case that the change wouldn’t affect adjacent properties.
By a 5-4 vote, aldermen approved the University’s request for a text amendment to the City’s Zoning Ordinance.
Under the change, Northwestern will be allowed to hold six single-day events and a multi-day event not to exceed seven days in the U-2 zoned University Athletic Facilities District, where Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan are located.
Voting in support of the text amendment were Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Donald Wilson, 4th Ward; Robin Rue Simmons 5th Ward, and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.
Voting against were Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward; and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward.
The changes are part of a two-year pilot program, which is subject to renewal. One of the standards for the text amendment to be approved is that the change would not have an adverse effect on adjacent properties.
During Council discussion of the issue, Ald. Wilson acknowledged the concerns residents have raised about lack of parking, traffic congestion and other issues related to game-day events.
He called the University’s request “a fairly finite request,” though, saying he thought that the provisions in the request are more restrictive than what is currently in place.
Ald. Wilson pointed out that the existing ordinance allows attendance up to 10,000 people for musical performances.
“There is nothing in there that precludes profit-making concerts. It says they can have concerts up to 10,000 in an enclosed building,” he said.
The text amendment would reduce that number from 10,000 to 7,000 people in attendance, he said. “And if it’s going to be held outside, it further reduces it to 3, 000,” he said.
Similarly, the University is allowed to hold up to 35 days of events under the current ordinance. That figure has been reduced to 13 days under the text amendment, he said.
“So I’m looking at this as a significantly less intensive use scenario than the way it is now,” he said.
But Ald. Revelle, in whose Seventh Ward Welsh-Ryan is located, said that while in theory the University could hold up to 35 days of events under the current ordinance, that has not been the case in practice.
Generally speaking, she said, the University is only holding three temporary one-day events currently, including a “Run For Walk” fundraiser for the late football coach Randy Walker – all “modest in attendance.”
The University’s request to hold 13 days of special events, then, represents “quite an increase in intensity compared to what is happening now in the neighborhood,” she said.
She said the City’s Plan Commission, in a five-hour-plus meeting where it recommended in favor of the proposal, devoted only “cursory” discussion to whether Northwestern’s request met the standards for a zoning change. Meanwhile, the University had not “even attempted to demonstrate that its proposed development” was compatible with the district, she said.
“So, as I stated at our last Council meeting, simply stating that standards have been met does not make it so,” she said to colleagues.
She proposed three amendments to address some concerns raised at the hearings, stressing they would not correct the City’s failure to reject the University’s request.
One of the amendments approved unanimously by the Council would require sponsors of a temporary event to provide written notice to residents living within 500 feet of the event site at the same time they submit an application.
A previous draft required the University to notify residents within 500 feet of the event site within five days. “In my view that kind of notice to the neighbors, for an event that has already been approved,” said Ald. Revelle, “is really meaningless.’’
Another of her amendments would allow no activities related to special events to occur between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. from Sunday evening to Friday morning; nor between 11 p.m., and 7 a.m. from Friday evening through Sunday morning.
The restrictions would include set-up and break-down activities, which are common to concerts.
“I would just mention that in Highland Park they have a lot of conditions around the huge concert series that happens every summer, and those concerts must end by 10 p.m.,” Ald. Revelle said, referring to the Ravinia Festival. She said the same is the case for SPACE, the Evanston music venue, which sponsors a concert at Canal Shores Golf Course.
“So it should certainly be possible for these temporary events to have the breakdown concluded by 11 p.m.,” she said.
In her third amendment, Ald. Revelle asked that a sentence be added at the very end of the text amendment stipulating that the amendment would not create a precedent for future users in the U-2 District.
Several other aldermen, on different sides of the issue, offered suggestions on how the City might control the impact of special events, as well as deal with the university on issues in the future.
Ald. Fiske suggested the City consider establishing a committee, composed of the Ward alderman, neighbors and the University, to meet quarterly to discuss concerns. In the First Ward, the Northwestern University-City Committee has been “really helpful,” dealing with concerns between residents and the University, she said.
Ald. Fleming noted that in her south Evanston ward, residents sometimes voice frustration about Northwestern’s not paying taxes [an exemption granted the University under State law].
“Yes, we would probably all love that [Northwestern paying], but that’s probably not going to happen while I sit in this chair,” she said. She reframed the question “to how we can get them to be a better neighbor,” and “to think about their impact” on the City.
“So there are very tangible things that other universities do in terms of paying, maybe not their full share, but money in lieu of taxes,” she said.
“I would really love to see them [Northwestern] do something in a little more creative way,” she said. “I think that would go a long way in the community – not so much trust-building, but that you [the University] want to make sure residents in Evanston are taken care of.”
During the citizen comment portion earlier in the evening, roughly 30 residents spoke, all but a few of them against the amendment.
A number of their remarks argued that the University had failed to meet the burden of proof needed to support that the change wouldn’t have an adverse effect on adjacent properties.
Michael Vasilko, one of the speakers, recommended Council members pull the item from the agenda, charging University officials “haven’t provided you with the proper materials to make an informed decision.
“There was no parking study, no traffic study, no impact study, no studies for this zoning change application and, apparently no studies for Welsh-Ryan Arena building years ago,” he told aldermen. “Do not set an irreversible precedent that any developer can point to and say, ‘Northwestern didn’t provide these kinds of studies. We don’t have to, either.’’’
Another speaker, Margaret Forst, said “If you read the documents you will see that Northwestern has the burden to prove that there will be no adverse effects to the surrounding residential areas, due to congestion, fan behavior, litter, parking or other infringements.
“Northwestern has provided little text-based information that this is true,” she told aldermen. “The surrounding neighbors have provided much,” she said. “Please consider your duty to fill the obligations of your mission and vote no; and listen to the many voices you’ve heard tonight against the approval of this amendment and the lack of voices you’ve heard tonight for the amendment.”
Representing the university, Dave Davis, Executive Director of Neighborhood and Community Relations, said the pilot project would allow the University to host professional sports events such as World Team Tennis.
“Our students already host concerts at Welsh-Ryan Arena,” he said. He said the current proposal would allow Northwestern to host for- profit concerts similar to the outdoor SPACE concerts at Canal Shores.
“Additionally we’ve included a number of provisions to increase transparency and protect our residents from any negative impacts,” he said.
He noted that the request will not require change to any of the University’s facilities in the U-2 District. “We’re not asking for public subsidies, or for the City to cover costs for police officers, firefighters or emergency personnel that would work at these special events, and most important our proposal is not an unwise precedent,” he told aldermen.
Further, he pointed out the amendment “includes a firm expiration date,” and cannot be extended “unless we prove to the City and our neighbors that we’ve earned the right to submit a new application.”