“Unbridled development” threatens a “peaceful, tranquil and family oriented
neighborhood” – in fact, the community “appears to be under assault.”
Many in our community were surprised to read those words in the Wall Street Journal on March 29 from Peter Barris, the venture capitalist who chairs Northwestern University’s Board of Trustees. Northwestern, as many RoundTable readers know, is engaged in a blitz to upend decades’ worth of zoning laws and turn its athletics facilities into a mega-entertainment complex, complete with stadium concerts and assorted other commercial events.
As it turns out, Barris had not suddenly decided to stand with the more than 1,100
community members in Northwestern’s home city who already had signed a petition against Northwestern’s plans to update Ryan Field.
Instead, he was grousing about a hotel expansion a mile from his $24 million vacation
home on Martha’s Vineyard.
“The peaceful, tranquil and family-oriented neighborhood in the vicinity of the [hotel]
appears to be under assault,” Barris wrote in the 2021 letter, pleading with Martha’s Vineyard officials to reject the proposed expansion. “[The hotel] is incrementally and methodically transforming itself from an elegant historic hotel in a quiet residential neighborhood to a full-service commercial destination resort. This … is an assault on the very character of the neighborhood surrounding the hotel.”
Barris added: “Frankly, it goes beyond the immediate surrounding area. Besides altering the character of the town generally, it has a more direct impact than one might imagine on homes such as ours. Although our residence is a mile away by road, it sits directly across the harbor. Sounds are very efficiently carried across the water, particularly when the winds are blowing out of the north.”
If Barris can worry about noises floating on an ocean breeze from a mile away, surely he can empathize with Evanstonians – including some members of our community organization, Most Livable City – who live within blocks of the Ryan Field site.
Northwestern’s proposal would mark a drastic change from the current schedule of six
or seven home football games per year. The college wants the new Ryan Field to hold 10 stadium concerts per year (where alcohol would be served), and it also wants an unspecified number of additional large-scale events at the stadium and surrounding athletic facilities. The plan would introduce an entertainment complex bigger than the United Center into the heart of a residential neighborhood. The university has presented no plans to mitigate concert noise, traffic congestion, parking scarcity or public safety issues.
And while we do not know for certain, it is a good guess that, unlike Northwestern, the
Martha’s Vineyard hotel pays property taxes.
Barris declined an interview with the Journal, but in an emailed statement said:
“The surfacing of this personal circumstance, which is distinctly dissimilar to Northwestern’s proposal, is an attempt to distract from our goals – to transform a century-old stadium into a community asset …. ”
Guess what, Mr. Barris? Many, many Evanstonians live within a mile of Ryan Field. For
us, this is also a “personal circumstance.”
It is interesting, to say the least, that Barris considers a hotel expansion a mile from his
resort residence, separated by a harbor, an “assault” on his community but apparently has no problem overturning zoning protections that have served the people of Evanston for decades.
Northwestern’s ill-conceived plans are a recipe for community chaos. It is, to put it
mildly, not what we signed up for when we moved here. Like Barris, we object to our
community being drastically changed by one developer.
“Too many communities across our country are short-sighted in their planning and over time (often incrementally) lose what makes them special,” Barris told Martha’s Vineyard officials in objecting to the hotel expansion.
We couldn’t agree more. Upending zoning laws, as Northwestern is demanding, will
create upheaval for thousands of residents, schools, small-business owners, places of worship and other institutions that make up the fabric of our community.
Evanston officials should apply the Barris Principles in weighing Northwestern’s proposal to turn Ryan Field into a for-profit entertainment complex.
(To read Barris’ letter in full, please see
Sonia Cohen and David DeCarlo, the Most Livable City Association
Susan Kelly asks a valid question. I trust everyone’s intent is positive, so I’ll watch Most Livable City to see if engagement broadens to match the moniker. Meanwhile, let’s all remember that virtue seldom lives on one side of an issue. I understand the temptation to frame it that way to persuade the undecided or disinterested to align. Personally, I’m more interested in what happens here in Evanston than a thousand miles away in Martha’s Vineyard. The new Ryan Field, a block from my home, will make ours a more liveable city indeed.
Barris is right that these are two different situations: one slightly affects entitled billionaires like him, the other severely impacts middle class families who just don’t want to see their peaceful neighborhood used as a staging ground to satisfy the greed of an already extremely wealthy, tax-exempt institution.
Well said! All of the arguments Barris made to the hotel expansion one mile from his home are amplified for residents and business owners in Evanston. Imagine the area being overrun with 35,000 people in 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles coming from all directions converging on Ryan Field and then emerging at 10 or 11 pm ready to keep the party going. And what exactly are economic benefits to the rest of us? In-stadium restaurants and bars won’t help local businesses. In stadium tee shirt and snack centers won’t help local businesses. Increased employment? Our unemployment is very low. Almost every summer weekend folks.
Applying the Barris Principles to the Ryan Field proposal would be the fair thing to do.
This is hilarious! Northwestern keeps showing hypocrisy! I am here for the drag. Get it Peter!
And Susan Kelly, not sure what you are on about. Is your issue that this org that sprung up to defend the neighborhood from NU’s crazy development idea too focused on the issue that they are responding to? It’s actually a broad coalition that they are working with along with other organizations like Community Alliance for a better Government (CABG) and northwestern’s own graduate student alliance who are also against this stupid plan.
Seems like you can’t find an issue with pointing out this display of hypocrisy by NU so instead you are trying to criticize the org for what they are not doing which is bizarre. Also I love that threat of maybe 7th ward needs to find some shelter space. Sure – let’s build one at the sight of ryan field – it would make more sense and be less disruptive to the hospital and community than NU’s plan to host for profit concerts there.
Apparently, I’ve hit a nerve. I simply point out that an organization that claims a mission to make Evanston the Most Livable City by “promoting initiatives that advance the quality of life for all communities in and around the city and by advocating for equity and accountability in government policies and programs” yet addresses a single issue in their neighborhood that they oppose.
Any citizen or group should organize to petition their government on their rights and interests. But if “the Most Livable City” organization is truly an organization “that sprung up to defend the neighborhood of from NU’s crazy development idea”, as you write, why not be honest about their single intent? If hypocrisy is the practice of claiming moral standards or beliefs to which one does not conform, in my opinion, the shoe might also fit here.
And, yes, one might reasonably expect any group that self presents to “promote initiatives that advance the quality of life for all communities in and around the city” to actually identify and work towards such initiatives. How would one know what other issues the Most Livable City stands for or advances by looking at their website: https://www.mostlivablecity.org.?
This comment (and others) demonstrates an emerging trend among supporters of NU’s stadium plan: Rather than mustering better arguments in favor of their position, they attack the opponents.
Best of luck with that strategy.
All universities have “town-gown” issues of one sort or another, but Northwestern is staging a master class in how to turn community relations from normal to noxious in record time. Northwestern needs to follow the advice of Councilman Thomas Suffredin: “go back to the drawing board and come back when they’re serious.” Or, easier still, the university can just read its Board chair’s letter to Martha’s Vineyard officials – and apply the true meaning of his words to Evanston.
The issue with Ryan Field is so much worse than a hotel for so many reasons. The first reason of course being that Northwestern is a non-profit educational institution (unlike a hotel)! It has no business trying to capitalize off of anything if they’re not paying taxes. The second reason is that concerts are literally guaranteed to be noisy. And the last is that the population size of Evanston is 77,000. Northwestern is trying to host concerts of 35,000 attendees (again, no hotel houses half a city’s population…). Do you think your home would be as pleasant if half the city’s population got drunk and hung out on your block multiple times each year? Do we really believe this will have zero impact on our community resources and services?
This says it all. No objection to stadium renovation, but this is a huge zoning change being proposed which has the certain outcome (if approved) of radically changing the nature of the surrounding area. Failure of the city powers that be to acknowledge this is stunning.
I read with some bemusement the essay on behalf of the Most Liveable City Association to hurl its accusation of hypocrisy toward NU’s board chair for opposing a zoning change. Why? An association that self labels as “Most Livable City” has never, to my knowledge, addressed any issue other than the Ryan Field rebuild.
The mission statement on The Most Liveable City website states “We are focused on making Evanston the most liveable city in America. We do that by promoting initiatives that advance the quality of life for all communities in and around our city and by advocating for equity and accountability in government policies and programs.” Really? The single issue listed on its website is opposition to rezoning for the Ryan Field rebuild. What’s missing? An open letter asking the City to drop the “three unrelated rule” to open up housing options for Evanston’s working poor? Missed that. A supportive statement for the Fifth Ward School? Doesn’t seem to be there. Neighborhood actions to participate in ANY of the City’s 140 actions for Climate Action and Resiliency? Nope.
Yet, there is time for an essay from the Most Liveable City Association to accuse a NU Board member of hypocrisy. This is rich.
NIMBYism is a barrier to solving our City’s most intractable problems. In my neighborhood, many oppose the transition of the Margarita Inn to transitional housing for the formerly homeless. It has impacted the neighborhood, and those who report problems are not imagining things. But those of us who are not opposed look at the need beyond our neighborhood. Evanston is in desperate need of housing, the unhoused are in desperate need of care, and it is much easier to transition an existing facility than start a new one. Those of us in support will accept some change, even challenge, because of the need to think beyond our inconvenience to the benefit of the Evanston – The Most Liveable City.
The Margaret inn houses homeless people. Is NU planning to house people in the stadium?
My point is that to make Evanston “The Most Livable City,” citizens need to look beyond their personal preferences for a neighborhood to the greatest benefit for the entire city.
Since you raise the issue, Dr. Telly, Evanston does need more shelter space. Perhaps opportunities exist in the Seventh Ward?
Susan, thank you for your comments. I couldn’t agree more.
I remain concerned by the tenor and singular focus of the most Livable group. As a neighbor that shares a fence with Ryan Field/Arena, I have had several productive conversations with NU leadership and remain encouraged by the plan and greater opportunity for our community.
Hi Susan, if the city proposes affordable housing in the 7th ward I would love to see it! We could always use more! By the way, I live in the 5th ward. Not that it should matter, really.