I am asking for property tax justice for Evanston as a “sayer,” and not a “nay-sayer.” I feel compelled to point out the growing and yawning capital disparity between Northwestern University’s $16 billion endowment and the diminutive funds and budget that Evanston squeezes by on, with ever-increasing property taxes resting solely on Evanston residents.

Northwestern University is promoting the economic benefits to Evanston of the proposed new Ryan Field. Credit: Northwestern University rendrering.

This is a gross economic injustice. The increasing property tax burden on Evanston’s citizenry is effectively gentrifying the socio/ethnic diversity, and middle/lower income families right out of our community.

As a “sayer,” I am also very grateful to Northwestern University for the cultural, economic, and employment opportunities that this hallowed institution brings to our community.

In fact, my great, great, grandfather Elhanan John Searle was the valedictorian for the first graduating class of five students at Northwestern in 1859, and my Evanston family benefits from his legacy today.

Yet now the town/gown imbalance swells more as we have NU’s bid to further the commercialization/commodification of Evanston through the demolition and rebuilding of a new stadium complex.

Architectural rendering of proposed new Ryan Field, to replace Northwestern University’s current stadium. Credit: Northwestern University

With this plan comes the scheduling of many more commercial for-profit stadium events, well beyond the half-dozen football games that it was traditionally intended for. And NU reaches for further enrichment as it lobbies our city council for more tax exemptions for these commercial uses for the new stadium!

Why aren’t more Evanstonians asking “What is in it for us?” The juggernaut of NU’s capital plans offer very little to Evanston residents as we continue underwriting the university’s property tax exemption and its city services. Ask your Evanston City Council Member about this.

The cost and stress of the new stadium plan would impose environmental, physical and mental health deficits upon residents in the neighborhoods via traffic, noise and air pollution.

Significant stress and damage will also be inflicted upon the town’s infrastructure and services by the demolition and construction of the proposed stadium. This is certainly not what Evanston residents signed up for. It’s also inaccurate to compare this situation with Wrigley field, as the demographic and zoning of north Evanston is a far cry from that of the Wrigleyville Chicago neighborhood.

The new stadium’s carbon footprint also flies in the face of NU’s bold and laudable new campaign to have a zero carbon footprint by 2050. By replacing Ryan Field, NU will create a carbon footprint deficit that will span a half century and more, erasing and trivializing Northwestern’s new “green campaign.”

As I mentioned, Northwestern happens to have one of the largest private university endowments in America, greater than $16 billion.

Rendering of proposed new Ryan Field, to replace Northwestern University’s current stadium. Credit: Northwestern University

And yes, for the record, many (other) universities DO pay property taxes. Yet we Evanstonians passively underwrite Northwestern’s expenses for their city services with our property tax dollars. For reference, this Time magazine article discusses how major universities burden communities by not paying property taxes.

While Evanston is grateful for the kind municipal compensations that NU occasionally makes to our town, these offerings are virtual pocket change compared to the immense savings on property tax exemptions the university enjoys in our town.

Change NU’s founding charter. NU was able to handily change one of its founding charters prohibiting alcohol to be served within five miles of its campus. NU can now change its charter to finally abolish its property tax exempt status, and give E-Town residents a break.

Evanston is also part of a bigger picture, an existential global crisis (climate change and mass extinction) that is caused by unsustainable and wasteful human consumption practices.

As a 50-year Evanston resident I continue to expect our community to have a higher-than-average consciousness and wisdom to put human and environmental values to the fore, by bringing balance and restraint to the often unsustainable and destructive impulses for convenience, comfort, consumption and commerce – forces and mentalities that clearly imperil our town and planet’s future.

Property tax justice between Northwestern University and Evanston residents will bring our community into a wonderful new era of parity, cooperation and sustainability.

Mike Kelly

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  1. I completely agree with Mike Kelly’s well-reasoned and balanced argument. The commercial aims of this new stadium are particularly galling. IF the construction is allowed to go through, the City should benefit with some kind of fee structure from every ticket sold, and the University should be made responsible for all damage and clean-up needed resulting from every event.

  2. Thank you Mike for putting into well said words something my grandmother railed against for as long as I can remember. And I have carried on as family tradition. I am third generation Evanstonion and have always felt helpless watching NU take property off Evanston tax rolls. Mike , guide me ,what can I do more directly to get NU to pay their fair share.

  3. The non-profit tax exemption was intended to help churches and small charities, not multi-billion-dollar institutions. Why does NU get to keep all the money? Where’s the fairness in that? The rest is just slick PR.

  4. Right on, Mike Kelly! Underground parking should be required as well. I previously lived in the stadium neighborhood and the overload of cars everywhere in the area, especially on the golf course and all over south Wilmette’s streets is an impossible situation.
    Lynne HEIDT
    34 Knox Circle
    Evanston 60201

  5. Agree, 100%! Good letter! When this plan came to light, my first thought was, as another person commented: what’s in it for us?

    I urge our mayor and city council not to swallow this whole, but to take their time and do their due diligence in examining this proposal from every angle. Personally, I’m not buying the glib sales pitch that promises all kinds of economic benefits and jobs and … whatever. We need concrete numbers and tangible commitments from the University, not rosy projections and glib “partnership” babble.

    Further, I agree that NU should not be completely tax exempt in our community anymore. Maybe that made sense at one time, but with our aging infrastructure, struggling student populations, and increasingly painful property tax burden, it doesn’t now. There must be a path to negotiating a more equitable foundation for our town/gown relationship and I hope our mayor and city council use this golden opportunity to make it happen.

  6. Mike Kelly for Mayor!! We need a movement to give Evanston more of a balanced economic return from its relationship with NU. This is one of the most important issues facing our community, and our government isn’t doing anything to achieve parity in the relationship.

  7. A thoughtful letter by Mr. Kelly, and the comments are helpful, too. Thank you all. In addition to the excellent points already made, I ask the following: is a middle ground not possible here? To NU, respectfully: you seek to expand non-football events. Understood. Couldn’t you renovate the existing stadium and enhance the surrounding property for these events? In fairness, you already have a steeper climb with football these days (read: the transfer portal). Why not be realistic with your football prospects, limit your expenditure, and avoid community outrage, all at the same time?

  8. Excellent post Mike Kelly. I fully support the idea of NU becoming a greater contributor to the tax rolls of Evanston.

  9. NU is distributing outside Whole Foods expensive, glossy, card stock quality brochures promoting the new stadium . Residents are asked to sign a petition on a tablet computer.
    Contrast with the clipboards and pens, community center meetings, the photocopied flyers residents use to draw attention to grassroots neighborhood concerns. This reflects the monied power disparity of NU v. we who pay the taxes.

  10. It is sad to me that even some of Evanston leaders are not at the helm, asking more from this institution to make this a much more beneficial arrangement for our wider community. Here we go, once again, the community will be out in droves asking the city council to not slide NU variances galore until some real financial benefits are given to us – that we can see – not just promises. The sales pitch promises of jobs and meeting minority hiring (we’ve seen how that has been a false promise in the last few years). Show us the money, Northwestern. Pay to play.

  11. The NU Board of Trustees couldn’t care less about Evanston residents, any more than Amazon stockholders care about the Amazon hourly employees whose backs their creamy dividends are carried by. I am afraid the only way Evanston will ever get Northwestern to pay fair & pay their fair share will be to change the tax law for some or all non profits. Evanston’s appeals for Town Gown tax justice have gone on for generations. This must of course start first with a city council that cares about how this gross inequity screws their constituents and their town, and then would likely need to move to county and state legislation. A heavy and worthy lift, but then justice always is.

    1. Mike , Amazon doesn’t pay ANY dividends to shareholders. I encourage you and others to stick to facts as the debate about the NU football stadium continues. Thanks

  12. What a sensible letter Mike! NU is posturing to the community via a costly, no-holds-barred PR campaign that it’s presenting a big gift to Evanston on a silver platter, courtesy of the Ryan family. I’m amazed that anyone is buying the hype. If I were a tax-paying business owner, I would be concerned about NU entering into competition with me at the new venue, which will include food and alcohol sales. If NU wants to host major concerts and other events, and benefit downtown businesses, they have plenty of space on campus and don’t need to destroy the character of the Central St. corridor. The bigger issue, of course, is the University’s arrogant financial attitude. It believes Evanston should be content with table scraps from its financial feast. Our city council shouldn’t bend an inch when it comes to changing zoning and ordinances, and should, instead, begin negotiations with the University to begin paying its fair share.

  13. I totally agree with Mike, why isn’t NU paying some taxes on all events they have on campus? They have basically free property, so they should pay taxes on the income from events.

  14. Well said Mr. Kelly. As both a graduate of NU and 40+ year Evanston community member, I have a love/hate relationship with the University. I am very grateful for the education and benefits I have received as a result of my NU degree – but this current project runs so far afield of the University’s mission I hate what is being proposed – and I played football at NU.

    1. A billion is a thousand, million. A sixteen billion dollar endowment (16,000 million dollars) suggests you should now be able and oblicated to change your charter to pay Real Estate tax.