BEYOND THE BARGAIN NU says it benefited from settlement, even if money does not go where hoped

Sheila Burt

Northwestern will receive several benefits from the lawsuit settlement reached between Evanston and NU on Tuesday, university officials say. But some outcomes of the agreement still remain unclear.

The university will pay the city a $700,000 contribution as part of a settlement that removes 14 previously included NU properties from the Northeast Evanston Historic District.

NU sued the city in 2000 over the creation of the historic district because officials said it was designed to pressure the university, which is exempt from paying property taxes, into making financial contributions to the city.

Eugene Sunshine, NU’s senior vice president for business and finance, said the one-time contribution is based on the university’s estimate of the money necessary for the city to complete lighting improvements near campus. University officials said they hope the contribution will be used for the improvements.

“It’s something that we’re comfortable in putting money toward, because lighting close to campus or on campus is a big deal for us,” said Sunshine, who was one of several university officials who negotiated the settlement. “If we can help them do the process faster and help them make sure it gets done, it gives them a bit more to move funds to other areas of the city.”

But Ald. Gene Feldman (9th) told The Daily on Thursday that the money will not be used to improve lighting.

“The city is straddled with lawsuits that are very difficult to pay for,” Feldman said. “It’s so transparent — what (NU is) trying to do is say they were so beneficent in giving money to the city.”

Sunshine later told The Daily he was disappointed but unsurprised that the city might not spend the money on lighting.

At a budget meeting last month, a city official said new bulbs will be installed this spring in locations that include areas west of Sheridan Road. The official estimated the project would cost nearly $3 million over three years.

Attorneys for both sides participated in a conference call Wednesday to notify U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Aspen, who presided over the suit, of the settlement, said Thomas Cline, NU’s vice president and general counsel. He said lawyers and Aspen will on Feb. 17 sign the consent decree — the official document order of the court outlining the agreement.

“I think that both parties, as we got closer to trial, believed that there were risks going forward,” Cline said. “Northwestern has been anxious to try and resolve this case amicably.”

NU’s contribution is the only difference between Tuesday’s settlement and a proposed agreement in August that the city rejected, Cline said. University President Henry Bienen wrote in an e-mail to The Daily on Thursday that he thought eventually the legal costs weighed in on both sides’ decision.

“The new thing was money so perhaps that was key,” he wrote. “But we offered non-recurrent help early on. I am past trying to understand the City Council.”

Many ideas were mentioned during negotiation suggestions, Cline added, and the money was one factor that helped the parties “find the right combination of things.”

Cline called excluding buildings from the district and exempting some university buildings from the city’s possible binding appearance review significant gains for the university. The binding appearance review would allow the city to reject a building based on appearance.

“In the event it became official, it would be one further process by which university interests in constructing new buildings would be subject to an additional layer of review,” Cline said. “And those building projects could be accepted or rejected for reasons that could relate to aesthetics.”

Sunshine also said exclusion from binding review was important.

“We always had the concern that it would be a burdensome process for us and wouldn’t always be done with the greatest amount of objectivity because of town-gown problems,” he said.

Bienen wrote in his e-mail that he could not predict in what direction those relations would head in years to come.

“As for the future,” he wrote, “time will tell.”

The Daily’s Chris Kirkham and Matt Lopas contributed to this report.