For the first time, Northwestern University officials responded publicly to calls from Evanston residents for a community benefits agreement, and NU officials did not rule out the possibility of making a deal.

The meeting on Thursday, March 2, at the Morton Civic Center was not specifically called to discuss the NU reconstruction of Ryan Field. The quarterly get-together of the Northwestern University-City Committee has been going on for nearly 20 years, providing a place for both institutions to talk.

Northwestern officials (foreground, from left) Alex Darragh, Dave Davis and Peter Braithwaite listen to public comments during the Northwestern University-City Committee meeting on March 2. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Northwestern officials participating in the committee included Alex Darragh, vice president for facilities, who announced his retirement less than a week ago; Peter Braithwaite, director of procurement diversity and community engagement; and Dave Davis, executive director of neighborhood and community relations.

They sat across the table from First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly, the group’s presiding member; as well as City Manager Luke Stowe, who staffs the committee. (Community representative Julie Johnson joined via conference call.)

Meeting focus

Surrounding them were about 20 people from local activist groups, including people from the Community Alliance for Better Government, Students Organizing for Labor Rights and the Northwestern University Graduate Workers union. The three groups organized and hosted a Feb. 19 rally where about 125 people discussed and pushed for the community benefits agreement.

What was on the agenda Thursday did not really matter, because the meeting became all about public comments and committee responses. And the focus was on what Northwestern can provide for the city in the future.

First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly (left) listens to Northwestern Graduate Workers union member Emilie Lozier (standing), who spoke in support of a community benefits agreement. Credit: Duncan Agnew

“We started some of those conversations with a working group in the Seventh Ward,” said Northwestern’s Davis. “We’ll continue to work with the council, as well as some of the residents that are most impacted by that [Ryan Field] stadium project because a community benefits fund would be attached to some of the other activities that are within the stadium project.”

He added, “I wouldn’t say that’s completely off the table, for now, but these are very early conversations.”

The push for P.I.L.O.T

What does not seem to have made it to the table thus far, though, are any payments in lieu of tax money from Northwestern. This is the idea that the school would write a check to the city every year as a substitute for the many millions of dollars in property taxes that, as a nonprofit organization, the school is exempt from paying.

Northwestern does cover about $7 million in other taxes and fees annually, according to Davis, a big part of which are reimbursements for Evanston Police and Fire Department services used by the university for big events or emergency responses.

But those who spoke made it clear they wanted a written, binding deal with the university that would pay out more money for local services, maintenance and community programs.

“Nobody here is a Northwestern hater. We’ve got people who are alums, people who are students,” said Community Alliance President Lesley Williams. “My father was a Northwestern student, graduated from the history program in 1959, and he was not allowed to live in Northwestern housing because of the color of his skin,” she said.

“So another way that Northwestern could show a meaningful concern about the African American community would be to contribute to the city’s reparations program, in recognition of Northwestern’s role in the redlining and racial segregation that my father and many other people experienced.”

Williams, along with most people in the audience, held up a sign saying “NO commercial re-zoning. YES to P.I.L.O.T” (Payment In Lieu Of Tax).

Michael Wonderlich, a Third Ward resident and former researcher at the University of Illinois Chicago, said he had some issues with the community survey conducted by Northwestern to gauge support for the redeveloped stadium. Wonderlich was approached by survey callers three different times, he said.

“The second and third time I was contacted, I said to them, ‘I’ve already been asked, and I should only take the survey once. Otherwise, your results will be questionable,'” Wonderlich said. “And the person, both times, said ‘Oh, that’s OK. We’re told it doesn’t matter.’ So that raises some questions to me.”

Ultimately, the audience settled on the community benefits agreement as their main priority and the hope for a seat at the table with university and city officials.

“I think the best way to continue the conversation is to start getting some of the concessions we talked about in terms of a community benefits agreement,” said Adam Goldsmith, a Northwestern graduate worker. “From my point of view, that’s the best way to move forward.”

Editor’s note: Peter Braithwaite is on the RoundTable’s board of directors and previously served as a Second Ward council member.

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. My family and I live less than a block from Northwestern’s athletic campus and we were deliberate in our decision to move so close. As a neighbor, involved community member and fan, I believe the new Ryan Field will benefit all in quality of life and as an engine of our local economy. While I personally believe this project should NOT be held hostage to other agendas (i.e. PILOT, graduate worker labor relations, etc.), I also understand the political process and appreciate the use of leverage to maximize outcomes. I trust Ald. Eleanor Revelle, her fellow Council members and the City’s professional staff will negotiate in good faith with Northwestern to reach a positive and proud result.

    1. “While I personally believe this project should NOT be held hostage to other agendas (i.e. PILOT, graduate worker labor relations, etc.)”

      Accusing a union with concerns you happen not to share of holding the project “hostage” is both mean spirited and an ad hominem argument that attacks the grad students motivations rather than their actual arguments for supporting PILOT. I’m suprised the Roundtable allowed it to be published as it violated their own commenting guidelines.

  2. As a lifetime Evanston Resident, a former student at Northwestern and a activist for lots of things in Evanston, I am impressed with the determination of Councilwoman Kelly and pleased to learn that our City Manager, Mr. Stowe too were engaged with Northwestern officials last night. I agree 100% with CABG President Lesley Williams that nobody in the community is a ‘Northwestern hater”.

    Still, the University and the community have to find some common ground as the University ,founded in 1851, should realize that their ancient covenant as a Tax Exempt entity is just no longer valid in a world where tuition there is +$60,000 / yr. Payments In Lieu of Taxes is the right and equitable thing to do.

    Respectfully submitted, Brian G. Becharas

  3. How right to question the survey, which in my book NU uses unethically. No one knows better than university executives why I say this. My 40 years in communications, including five at Kellogg, makes it clear their strategy is to be heavy handed, opaque, and lavish in spreading disinformation. Hey NU, we don’t need an outsized, commercial entertainment complex. We need an honest partner who doesn’t walk on us.