It took nearly seven hours of debate, discussion and commentary, but early Tuesday morning, a divided Evanston City Council granted Northwestern University’s divisive request to host concerts at a rebuilt Ryan Field.
The council split on two of its three votes during a special meeting that began on Monday, Nov. 20: one amending the city’s zoning code to allow for concerts at the stadium and one approving a memorandum of understanding between Evanston and Northwestern. Both were approved on 5-4 votes, with Mayor Daniel Biss casting the swing vote in favor.
The result mimicked the voting totals when the council held its introductory vote on Northwestern’s proposal during an eight-hour meeting that ended in the early morning hours of Oct. 31.
Councilmembers were initially scheduled to hold their second vote on Nov. 13, but it was tabled until Monday to give the elected officials a chance to review the latest documents, which had only been provided to the council that afternoon.
Northwestern announced in September 2022 its plans to rebuild Ryan Field and its proposal to allow concerts in the new stadium. Almost immediately after the announcement, opposition began to form. The opposition included the Wilmette Board of Trustees and neighbors who live in southeast Wilmette.
In Evanston, the community and council have both been divided on the issue, with proponents saying it would bring jobs and money to Evanston, while opponents say it would cause more harm than good, such as noise pollution and traffic congestion.
That division was present at Monday’s meeting, with more than 40 people speaking up both in person and virtually. Most spoke up against the concerts, while about 10 voiced support for them.
Most of the council’s time was spent discussing multiple amendments offered up by councilmembers. One amendment sought to make it clear that, in the event of a violation during Northwestern’s concerts, Evanston would not be liable.
Councilmember Thomas Suffredin, an opponent of the rezoning, asked that if Evanston could be held liable if the Village of Wilmette filed a lawsuit related to the noise coming from the stadium. Derke Price, an attorney with Ancel Glink who has been hired by Evanston as outside counsel, said the City could not be held responsible for any potential violations from Northwestern.
“I don’t know what Wilmette’s theory (would) be that Evanston should be liable for something Northwestern does on its property, creating whatever violation of law there is there,” he said.
Many of the amendments were filed by Councilperson Clare Kelly, another opponent of the concerts. None of her amendments were approved.
After unsuccessfully trying to add language to define the term “unreasonable restraints,” mentioned in the memorandum of understanding, Kelly moved to table the vote until the Dec. 11 regular meeting.
“I think we should be going back to the table with some professional expert negotiators to determine what, in fact, would be a reasonable restraint,” she said.
Her motion to table the vote failed 5-4, with Biss again casting the swing vote.
Kelly, who said at the council’s previous meeting that she felt “disenfranchised,” criticized the process for how NU’s proposal has played out. She said that she was “ignored” when she asked to participate in discussions and negotiations.
“This process was wrong,” Kelly said. “We have really subverted — I’d even say under Mayor Biss’ leadership, he subverted — the city’s leverage in the situation by allowing this to transpire this way.”
Councilperson Devon Reid, a concert supporter, admitted that “the process wasn’t the best,” but he added that he also didn’t wait to be told when to start meeting with Northwestern officials.
“I didn’t wait for the city manager, I didn’t wait for the city attorney, I didn’t wait for anyone,” he said. “I did my job and reached out to Dave (Davis, NU’s executive director of neighborhood and community relations) … And that’s how we got to this point.”
Despite multiple splits among the council during Monday’s meeting, the group exercised occasional moments of unity. Three amendments received unanimous support, including one that eliminated a sentence that would have allowed vehicles to idle on private property.
And the proposal to rebuild the stadium itself was approved 6-2, with only Kelly and Suffredin voting against it.
At the end of the meeting, Biss called Northwestern’s plan to hold concerts at Ryan Field “a tremendous investment in our community” while also discussing what concerts could bring to Evanston.
Biss also praised the “historic” community benefits package NU agreed to, which includes, starting in 2024, an annual $3 million payment to a Good Neighbor Fund that will last 15 years. That money, according to documents, will be used to fund “projects of interest” to the city and university. A minimum of $1 million will be placed in the City’s Affordable Housing Fund, while at least $500,000 will go to the City’s Climate Action and Resiliency Fund.
But the mayor also acknowledged that the process has been “really hard for a lot of people, it’s been really frustrating for a lot of people, and very painful for a lot of people.”
Biss said disagreement is healthy, but said it needs be done without questioning one’s motives, which was brought up several times by multiple councilmembers during the meeting.
He said Evanston needs to be willing to embrace change.
“Change is uncomfortable and change is difficult,” Biss said. “And as we work through the difficult process of determining what changes are appropriate and good for our community, I think it’s really important for us to treat each other with the assumption that we’re all asking the same question, which is ‘What’s best for Evanston,’ knowing that we may get different answers, and that’s actually healthy and positive and part of what makes a democracy function.”
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.