Why should you go to Europe or elsewhere to enjoy walkable cities and quaint towns, places that preserve their heritage, and make room for the new without obliterating the old? 

Evanston is just such a place, and its Most Livable City Association is working to keep it that way. 

From Howard Street to Central Street, and from the lakefront to Gross Point Road, balance and scale make Evanston magical: how it blends residences and schools, local shops and public transit, restaurants and recreation, entertainment and health care, and a deservedly prestigious Big Ten university.

Evanston these days, with its high-rises and massive lakefront Northwestern University buildings, doesn’t often feel much like small-town America. But watching the sun rise over Central Street with a hot cup of coffee and the twinkling lights of local businesses sure gives that effect. Credit: Asher Miller

The equilibrium of Evanston’s residential and commercial districts testifies to an era of brilliant urban planning. Early 20th century planners, developers, architects and landscapers bequeathed to us a walkable, cyclable, shop-able, accessible, commutable, enjoyable space. 

In north Evanston, for almost a century historic Dyche Stadium’s arched façade has been a hallmark of the city’s human scale and grace. If Northwestern University has its way this Wildcat home could soon be replaced by an ostentatious, for-profit mega-entertainment venue.

Some view NU’s planned venue as exciting. They either haven’t known or won’t miss the town’s fundamental harmony. Crowds, noise, traffic and what in essence will be the city’s biggest tavern will stimulate them. Some believe it will enrich them, or they buy the promise that it will be an economic boon for everyone. Without an independent impact study, and NU refusing to share its data, who can say?

Others might not grasp the frequency and intensity of congestion, pollution and public safety problems when the proposed billion-dollar venue draws up to half a million visitors over the course of a few months. The two-lane access road to this venue may not support this amount of traffic.

Those who cherish Evanston’s unique soul fear the new development will destroy its vibrance, grace, scale and pace. Why should we travel elsewhere to experience what exists here now? Who are Northwestern and its billionaire donors to impose unilaterally a radically different environment for no good reason, other than they want to?

Evanston home and business owners pay the seventh-highest property taxes in America, according a 2018 analysis of U.S. census data. Multibillion-dollar Northwestern University pays no taxes and insists it never will.

With its over $15 billion endowment, annual $80 million budget surplus for the past five years, $80 million athletic media contract and over $6 billion fundraising campaign, NU can build a glitzy arena, and still make a fair share payment in lieu of taxes (roughly $28 million annually).

Rather than helping important causes like reparations in dribs and drabs, the university could help build a more sustainable Evanston that addresses the real problems of systemic racism, affordable housing, education and jobs. Those priorities are more important than selling tickets, alcohol and merch for profit at mega-concerts.

As it now stands, the university’s scheme for Ryan Field will only add environmental insult to economic injury. And it may irrevocably shatter the delicate balance that makes this city so magical.

Aaron B. Cohen
Member, Most Livable City Association

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  1. If opponents to the stadium upgrade are going to bring up the history of Evanston as an argument against the plan they might want to consider that the University predates the City.

  2. Yes to independent impact study.
    Yes what Aaron wrote about better use of funding below:
    “Rather than helping important causes like reparations in dribs and drabs, the university could help build a more sustainable Evanston that addresses the real problems of systemic racism, affordable housing, education and jobs. Those priorities are more important than selling tickets, alcohol and merch for profit at mega-concerts.”
    Thanks for speaking up for a walkable livable Evanston.

  3. As someone having lived in Europe for 20 years, I can say confidently that Evanston is not Europe. It has its charms, but it is not primarily pre/industrial revolution construction. It is hard for people to accept change. However, nothing stays the same, so you can choose to find the advantages in change instead of the disadvantages. The fact is that Mr Ryan’s money is indeed Mr. Ryan’s money. He can and should decide to do with it what he pleases. Many people in his situation may not even donate the money toward such a cause. No one should tell him what causes are better spent, in the same way no one should tell another person what books to buy or shops to patronize. He can easily take the money elsewhere, where he would likely be very appreciated. It is his decision. Finally, Northwestern is not some little 1000 student liberal arts college. Northwestern is one of Americans finest and most well known think tanks. They have pioneered important research, made massive scientific advancements, and are in a yearly competitive for the number of Nobel Prizes won. Northwestern is a lot to a lot of people. All over the world. I suggest those in opposition get out of their bubble and try to see how this stadium could benefit the community with an open mind, and stop getting stuck in the past. Better to put a good faith effort to negotiate like adults rather than these hyperbolic “field of schemes” Soviet style propaganda tactics . The world is going to change, whether you’re ready for it or not.

  4. I share the writer’s concerns, and especially that of Northwestern’s refusal to support an independent impact study. Without that, and without a clearer sense of how profits from the proposed entertainment events would be used, Northwestern’s use of its tax exempt status appears questionable. Let this project proceed only with a sense of clarity and transparency.

  5. This is a weird vanity project for Mr Ryan. His monument to his monumental ego is truly amazing.
    If he really cared about NU, he would donate the dollars to reduce the tuition for all students or, actually give raises to the hardworking NU employees who received wage increases that didn’t keep up with inflation. Better yet, how about funding inner city private schools in Chicago that would actually offer an alternative to the CPS that are failing their students? This is a vanity project for an incredibly rich man and should be seen accordingly.

  6. I think the key point is that NU can and should rebuild the stadium and use it for football events as intended. It can also utilize the space the other 358 days a year within the existing zoning (not for profit and amateur events of < 10,000 people, talks, graduations, basketball games, ice skating, holiday and farmers markets) all are welcomed and continue to support the academic mission of the university while maintaining that balance with the residential neighborhood around it. All of those events can bolster local businesses by providing a means to market and sell their products which all result in benefits to the city and taxpayers.

    1. While this article discusses publicly-financed stadiums, which the expanded Ryan Field will not be, there’s no reason to believe that the following still won’t apply:

      “The average stadium generates $145 million per year, but none of this revenue goes back into the community. As such, the prevalent idea among team owners of “socializing the costs and privatizing the profits” is harmful and unfair to people who are forced to pay for a stadium that will not help them.“

  7. Ironic that the photo that accompanies a Most Livable City editorial shows an empty street devoid of any human life. Not my vision for Evanston.

  8. Wow! Evanston is a magical city? How fortunate you are to experience it that way! There are many others who live daily with noise, pollution and safety concerns. How is the Most Livable City Association advocating for them? The 7th Ward ( which I live in) members who started this group should do a walking tour of all of Evanston with family members. You may understand how this rebuild could positively affect others outside our mostly safe, quiet and debris -free bubble!

  9. Dear Most Livable City Association,

    I really must object this article. The notion that a new arena with 10-12 musical concerts per year constitutes some sort of threat to the “magical” qualities of Evanston defies common sense and the assertion that those Evanstonians who support the arena “… haven’t known or won’t miss the town’s fundamental harmony” is downright offensive. I fail to see what is ‘magical’ about the empty store fronts that increasingly dot Evanston’s business districts, particularly its downtown. I fail to see the ‘magic’ of Evanston restauranteurs struggling to get by in a post-pandemic world when we have it within our power to create a new entertainment venue that will draw to people to Evanston and create some real magic. And what is so ‘magical’ about an antiquated sports stadium that is both an eyesore and an under-utilized space that could be put to much better use? I support Northwestern’s proposal to build a new arena and offer new cultural attractions, including musical performances a dozen times a year. Let’s build it and create some new Evanston magic!

  10. I support Aaron Cohen’s analysis and rejection of Northwestern’s proposed venue.
    I think that most of Evanston’s residents—and certainly those who live near the university—care greatly about the “most liveable” qualities that brought them here in the first place and led to their decision to make this city their home.
    The university will counter, I’m sure, with claims that it brings prestige and culture to the mix, and that it’s plans for “revitalizing” the stadium area will bring more of the same, but on the face of it, such claims falter when “liveable” is factored in—as it must be when decisions of this order of impact are being considered.
    Minimally, there needs to be transparency—and a vote.