About 75 sign-toting, slogan-chanting protester stated their opposition Tuesday evening to Northwestern University’s current plan for an $800 million, privately financed rebuild of Ryan Field.
“Hey Northwestern, what do you say? Time to negotiate a CBA” was one of the frequently repeated chants, as the demonstrators walked from Lighthouse Beach to the Civic Center, where they rallied outside before going in for the City Council session. (Along the way, the protesters also stopped in front of university president Michael Schill’s house).
A CBA, or Community Benefits Agreement, would lock NU in to spending a currently undefined amount of money on social and infrastructure projects in the city.
One of the speakers, former mayoral candidate Sebastian Nalls, said, “Our community is hurting,” and accused NU of “empty promises and false commitments.”
The demonstrators are part of an umbrella group called the Northwestern Accountability Alliance, composed of six organizations with overlapping and potentially conflicting agendas.
Some are trying to leverage NU into kicking in more money for community programs, while others, at least those representing Ryan Field neighbors, are more concerned about noise and parking problems which could come from holding concerts at the new stadium.
Which raises political questions for the opponents: what’s more important, getting more money from NU for projects, or stopping the concerts? Because what incentive is there for Northwestern to agree to millions of additional dollars, unless opposition to the concert rezoning is dropped?
Besides demanding a CBA, the Alliance’s news release says that “Northwestern’s request to rezone the new Ryan Field stadium as a for-profit entertainment complex would significantly disrupt the livability of Evanston and surrounding communities …”
Sonia Cohen, one of the speakers, asked “Why is the city seriously considering this proposal? Why has no one considered what these events will cost the city for infrastructure, public safety, and … congestion….”
Cohen added that “it is imperative [that] the city must first negotiate a legally binding Community Benefits Agreement [with Northwestern] before discussing any changes to Ryan Field.”
While not accepting a CBA, Northwestern has given in to public pressure, reducing the number of concerts from as many as 12, down to 10, and now to six.
The university has also said it will “guarantee a minimum of $2 million in annual tax and fee revenues to the City of Evanston tied to events at the new stadium,” and says a concert ticket surcharge will generate another $500,000 per year for local schools.
But for some of the protesters, that’s not anywhere near enough.
One sign said there are “Better Uses for 480 Million: Fund Our Schools, Develop Affordable Housing, Fund On Campus Child Care, and Expand Affordable Mental Health.”
The $480 million is from NU donor Patrick Ryan, who’s decided the stadium is the best use for those funds.
The Ryan family has since committed an additional $10 million for workforce development and training related to the project.
On the other side of the stadium debate fence (or other side of the 50-yard line) groups backing the rebuild issued statements of support.
The Evanston Chamber of Commerce formally endorsed the plan, which came as no surprise.
In a news release, the Chamber said the project would bring an “incredible economic boost” and would benefit “businesses and community organizations throughout Evanston.”
“It would be foolish to let a privately funded gift like this pass us by,” said Chamber Executive Director Garrett Karp.
Another pro-rebuild group, Field of Opportunities, issued a statement specifically against the demonstration.
“Today’s march,” the group said, “is nothing more than a stunt intended to pressure the City Council and distort the facts. This project is a no-brainer for Evanston ….”
A report from a consulting firm hired by the city concluded this month that the costs of having the new stadium here “pale in comparison to the benefits received.”
City Council has final say, but even though many of the protesters attended Tuesday night’s meeting (and even disrupted the session with chants for several minutes), stadium zoning and development matters were not on the agenda.
The project gets the second of what’s expected to be three hearings before the Land Use Commission Wednesday night. After that it the City Council will get to toss around what has become a political football.