More than 40 people who had crowded into a room at the Morton Civic Center on Wednesday night walked out of a meeting with Northwestern University and city officials after about an hour of public comments at which Northwestern representatives refused to answer questions on a plan to overhaul Ryan Field.

First Ward Council Member and Committee Chair Clare Kelly looks out at nearly 50 residents, city officials and Northwestern representatives gathered for Wednesday’s meeting. Credit: Duncan Agnew

The Northwestern University-City Committee was created nearly 20 years ago as the result of a consent decree mandating cooperation between the two entities.

Technically, that committee has direct purview over the T1, T2 and U1 business districts in Evanston, but Julie Johnson, a community representative on the committee, pointed out that conversations at meetings have involved issues extending far beyond just those district boundaries.

Nonetheless, when pressed by community members about committing to a community benefits agreement or a payment in lieu of tax, Northwestern representatives repeatedly said they could only discuss the three business districts and nothing more about the Ryan Field renovation project, even though the districts are involved in things like parking and tailgating for events at the stadium.

“We wouldn’t have come here if you had said, ‘These are the things that we can’t talk about.’ You didn’t do that, so you, in a sense, covered your being here,” Evanston resident Robert Hopper said. “I’m not taking it out on you. You’re being paid to do that job, but maybe you need to talk to the people that pay you, and tell them that, if you really want to work with [us], you need to be honest and transparent, and you need to have somebody here who can talk to us about what we’re asking.”

Dozens of Ryan Field neighbors and students representing the Northwestern Graduate Workers union, environmental justice group Fossil Free Northwestern and Students Organizing for Labor Rights spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting in favor of a community benefits agreement between the city and university. That contract would create a binding mechanism for accountability and transparency from Northwestern when it comes to their development projects in the future, activists said.

At a meeting of the same committee last month, Northwestern’s Executive Director of Neighborhood and Community Relations Dave Davis did not rule out the possibility of negotiating a community benefits agreement. But Wednesday night, Davis, along with Vice President for Operations Luke Figora and Vice President for Facilities Alex Darragh, would not address any elements of the stadium project.

At the end of public comment William Tong, a student journalist for The Daily Northwestern, asked university officials in attendance about a statement he had received from Assistant Vice President of Communications Jon Yates.

“There are no current plans to move forward with the stadium redevelopment unless the university can obtain these entitlements,” Yates wrote to The Daily Northwestern, suggesting that Northwestern will not pursue the new Ryan Field project without all of the zoning amendments it is seeking, including the provision for hosting full-capacity concerts.

But Darragh, Figora and Davis would not talk about Yates’ statement. City and university officials are meeting next week to talk about the jurisdiction of the committee, Davis said, and he described Wednesday’s gathering as “not the appropriate forum” for answering Tong’s question, as well as questions from residents about a community benefits agreement or payment in lieu of tax.

Later in the meeting, residents expressed other concerns around the take-down and setup time required for each concert that the university is seeking to host at the new stadium.

Hana-Lei Ji, a representative from Students Organizing for Labor Rights, told attendees that their concerns “are completely justified from our experiences” with Northwestern.

“I have asked questions, directed to you [Davis], President [Michael] Schill, to the trustees, to Mr. Yates. How many of those questions have been answered? Absolutely none. A big, round zero,” said Seventh Ward resident Aaron Cohen. “I understand, having worked for Northwestern, for Kellogg [School of Management] in public relations myself. I get how it works. You’re doing an admirable job, according to the standards of your job description, which has been to absolutely obfuscate … to lack even one iota of transparency.”

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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. This whole thing is stupid and needs to stop right now—-there’s been two renovations to Dyche stadium (yes, I still call it that) and one renovation being in the late 90s as I recall was highly extensive—-there’s nothing wrong with Dyche Stadium—-especially considering NU is coming off a dazzling 1-11 season and attendance is always spotty unless there’s a big fan base team in town—-its rather embarrassing visiting teams outdraw NU fans at many games…If the university wants concerts they could have them at present stadium, even though it’s a dumb idea—-the neighbors don’t want them and they don’t deserve to be insulted as NIMBY’s for it—-the city isn’t set up for large crowds wandering around drunk, dazed and confused after such events…Mr Ryan, donate your vast amount of wealth to any number of issues in far more in need of funding—-for one, think of how many scholarships could be given to underprivileged students with this kind of money?…the athletic complex disaster at north end of the landfill should be the end of NU-Ryan Construction Company projects…Leave Dyche Stadium as is, a grand beauty of a stadium that fits NU’s needs quite nicely—-as for a state of the art drunken playpen, we don’t need that—-and yes, respect the Dyche family and go back to calling the stadium as such

  2. Nothing would make the NIMBYs happier than destroying the entire project. That has always been the goal of many of them. They prefer a city and neighborhood cast in amber and thick with nostalgia. I hope that many other Evanstonians will not succumb to their self-interested fear mongering and unwillingness accept reasonable changes in pursuit of a brighter future for Evanston. Let’s pass the zoning changes, build the arena, invite the athletes, musicians and visitors and make this arena a success!

    1. Who is “them”?

      The meeting had people from the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and I believe also the 1st and 9th meetings. As listed in the article, three different Northwestern student groups showed up to share concerns.

      Everyone has the shared goal of opposing radical rezoning and asking NU to act in accordance with their professed ethics by coming to the table and making a good faith effort to negotiate PILOT or a Community Benefits Agreement, but we’re all individuals.

      Also in what universe is changing zoning to allow a non-profit university to profit reasonable?

      I wish you had attended to the meeting to share your viewpoint there and to hear others speak.

      The truth cannot be uncovered from behind a keyboard.

    2. Interesting Chris that you continue to peddle the “fear monger” accusation. Sorry that residents (not just in the 7th ward) are concerned how NU is scamming the city into believing all the “positives” that concerts will bring when yet, they are currently allowed to host concerts for 35 days a year with 10,000 people and they have never requested to do that. More justification to those of us paying attention that this isn’t about concerts but as a way to make more money for themselves, sell us all a lie, and hide the pain and financial costs that will unduly burden the city. Until NU commits to a Community Benefits Agreement that will guarantee the benefits to the city, yes we will continue to challenge this project and demand that the city reject zoning changes.

      1. Interesting Mar that you conceive of Northwestern University as an institution intending to “make more money for themselves.” I did not attend Northwestern, nor do I work for the university, but I certainly don’t see ‘them’ as separate from us. The wellbeing of NU is in the interest of every Evanstonian. I would never have ever considered buying a home in Evanston without the presence of NU and the cultural, financial and social stability that NU provides. Every homeowner benefits from NU even if, for some, they don’t realize the benefit until they retire or die. But when they do retire or die, they take all of the capital gains they have earned from their smart residential investment in a town with NU, including a half million dollars tax free for married couples (who isn’t really paying their taxes?), and they (or their beneficiaries) walk away happy as can be. If NU determined that it needs ten musical events a year to keep the investment feasible, then I am happy to trust and I suspect many other Evanstonians feel exactly the same way as I do. In fact, I know many of them do.

          1. Hi Judy,

            Please let me explain with an example. Consider a house bought in a hypothetical Evanston neighborhood. Let’s call the neighborhood NIMBY-Central and let’s imagine the house is on Asbury Street. The house was purchased by a wise young, married couple in 1993. They purchased the house in 1993 for $350000.00. In 2023, the house is worth $950000.00. One can locate many such examples of such houses The couple has nearly tripled their investment. Of course, few neighborhoods in America have realized such gains, but neighborhoods like NIMBY-Central, in the warm shadow of vibrant universities surely have. When the hypothetical married couple sells their house this year and retires to Florida, the federal and the state governments empower them to avoid taxes on most of their investment gain. To be exact, one half million dollars of the gain is tax free. Governments do this as part of a strategy of creating both financial and social stability, although not everyone gains, but the homeowners in NIMBY-Central certainly do. Further, if the hypothetical married couple dies and leaves the house to their descendants, the descendants are also able to avoid taxation via the lovely “Step Up in Basis” provisions afforded them by the IRS. Such lucrative tax sheltering benefits also happen for non-profits (e.g., Northwestern University) and for similar reasons. Hence, I stand by my observation that Northwestern is not the only party in this debate that benefits from tax sheltering and/or not paying taxes.

        1. This whataboutism misses the mark. During the 30 years that your hypothetical married couple owned their home, they paid annual property taxes (now well over $10,000 per year) to Evanston and local public schools. Northwestern, meanwhile, paid none.

          1. Hi Meredith,

            Just think of how much that $10000 per year meant for every public good that I hope you and I care about. It was spent on public safety, public parks, fire safety, and an an animal shelter, among so many other things that matter. Please step back, take a breath, and realize that a few concerts a year will not change your life in the way that the fear mongers suggest. It won’t be perfect, but for the city overall, it will be good.

    3. Once again, I’m struck by the tendency among some (though certainly not all) stadium proponents to attack those who oppose the project instead of amplifying their own reasons for supporting it.

      Both sides in this debate have every right to express their views. Why do you find this so infuriating?

  3. Northwestern University has stated they cannot go forward with their Ryan Field project unless they they are allowed to conduct concerts where alcohol will be sold. NU has claimed revenue from concert and alcohol sales is needed to pay the remaining balance for the new stadium beyond Ryan’s $800 million donation. When twice asked to clarify this issue at last night’s neighborhood forum, NU representatives refused to answer claiming this was not part of the meeting agenda. Nevertheless, this issue remains central to understanding why concerts are a must. Additionally, there are a number of questions related to the alleged need for concerts that remain unaddressed:

    First, will NU pay federal and state tax on concert profits, much like profitable business enterprises? Universities qualify as tax-exempt charitable organizations because they meet the requirements of IRC Section 501 (c)(3), which includes “Any community chest, fund, or foundation organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary or educational purposes….” As such, does NU consider their plans for music concerts to be literary or educational, and if not, why would any generated profits be tax exempt? Furthermore, why would NU’s concerts be considered any different than the OUT OF SPACE concerts conducted at Canal Shores each summer?

    Second, NU is projecting sell-out crowds to attend 10 music concerts each year. Clearly, this is an aggressive projection. If not met, where will the money come from to pay the balance owed on the stadium rebuild? If NU has back-up funds, how serious is the “need” for concert revenue?

    Finally, last November, a Northwestern news release cited their study asserting the Ryan Field project “will generate nearly $1.2 billion for the city of Evanston. Apparently, Northwestern is quite confident this will happen given the publicity they’ve disseminated to Evanston property-tax payers. As such, would NU consider guaranteeing lump sum payments to Evanston each year? If not, why not?

    If neighborhood community groups cannot get answers to these questions, it is my fervent hope our elected officials and their staffs will go to bat for us.

  4. Northwestern continues to run a master class in bad community relations. Its condescension toward its home city and Evanston residents grows more obvious every week – they are literally demanding ‘entitlements.’ There is absolutely no reason its existing stadium can’t be renovated – it doesn’t need to be torn down – and the zoning laws that have served the city and university very well for almost a century should remain intact. A ‘non-profit’ university that pays zero in taxes has no business running a professional and commercial entertainment enterprise. Northwestern’s demands are a recipe for community chaos and ill-will that would last for decades if Evanston city government signs off on the “Field of Schemes.”

  5. I want to thank Council Member Kelly who chairs this committee for giving residents space to ask questions and state concerns. At Kelly’s meetings the residents have a voice which is not shut down with an arbitrary 2-3 minute buzzer. It’s nice to have committee meetings should be spaces for public dialogue otherwise where does that happen.

  6. Thank you for your accurate reporting on a truly disappointing meeting. When it became apparent that Northwestern representatives intended to yet again stonewall the citizens and alders by refusing to answer legitimate questions, the residents walked out.
    Despite the fact that a committee member initially recited a long list of issues that have been previously discussed by the committee, the Northwestern representatives chose to hide behind their lawyers and claim that the meeting was not the appropriate venue for answering resident’s questions. This was a ridiculous position which is the antithesis of the reason that committee was created. Northwestern’s actions at the meeting last night continue to demonstrate that Northwestern University will not be transparent with their intentions for the stadium or any other project that they contemplate. The actions of the Northwestern representatives at the meeting only inflamed an already toxic relationship between the City and Northwestern. Their lack of responses did nothing to allay residents’ fears.
    The City Council should not give Northwestern more freedom to act poorly. The city should reject all currently proposed zoning amendments. No one knows or trusts what Northwestern would do if granted the ability to hold an unlimited number of events.