Welsh-Ryan arena for-profit event pilot program extension denied

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Daily file photo by Julie Esparza

Welsh-Ryan Arena, 2705 Ashland Ave. Northwestern University will not be allowed to host events like professional sports games and concerts for an additional year as hoped, instead concluding the for-profit pilot program at the end of 2021.

Ilana Arougheti, Senior Staffer

An amendment which would have granted a year-long extension to  a pilot program allowing for-profit events to be held at U2 zoning district locations, including Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena, was voted down 7-2 by City Council on Monday.

The program, which was established in 2019 and is set to expire at the end of 2021, is based on an edit to the city code surrounding special events in the Welsh-Ryan area. By removing a clause requiring temporary events be held for non-profit purposes, the city allowed Northwestern to host six single-day events and one multi-day event, including professional sports games and concerts. 

However, the program has sparked significant controversy among residents. Some have said for-profit events at Welsh-Ryan harm local businesses, increase congestion and give NU too much of a hold on Evanston zoning laws. 

Former 7th Ward aldermanic candidate Mary Rosinski said the pilot program has allowed NU to significantly grow its physical footprint while disregarding the challenges of crowd control and the “integrity” of residential areas nearby. 

“Northwestern is a $12 billion corporation which will find every option possible to bring it additional revenue, even at the cost of taxpaying residents and businesses,” she said.

Alderpeople initially delayed a vote on the extension until both supporters and opponents of the program were able to formally present on the program’s impact. Opponents of the program, who spoke at Monday’s meeting, raised multiple complaints, including reported losses from Evanston businesses outside the Welsh-Ryan area during for-profit events. 

7th Ward resident Yvi Russell said the University has presented zoning challenges to Evanston throughout history. Similar changes to the zoning amendment have been unsuccessfully proposed to the Council at least four times since 1975, and have inspired multiple lawsuits. 

Though this was the first amendment to pass, Russell expressed concern that NU still didn’t conduct parking and traffic studies when planning to expand traffic at the stadium with outside events.

Russell also called for greater transparency surrounding financial relations with NU —  a call that has been repeated within City Council chambers during earlier debates on Welsh-Ryan zoning, as well as on financial affairs including hazard pay proposals for essential workers and the University’s use of the Robert Crown Center. 

“For several months, NU and the city held negotiations,” Russell said. “Is it fair for the city to obfuscate city halls and disregard the comprehensive plan and zoning code?” 

The program was proposed in November 2019, and the University raised the idea of a yearlong extension in late May. Since large public events could not take place at Welsh-Ryan for over a year due to COVID-19, supporters said at a May 26 meeting that the program was unable to be carried out fully or assessed properly. 

For-profit events at Welsh-Ryan could bring in around $1.2 million in additional spending by event visitors annually, according to the University, though opponents of the amendment say that number is lower in light of competition with NU’s own vendors.

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) said the pilot program, along with recent major stadium renovations, have dramatically increased the crowds and chaos associated with sports games and other stadium events. 

“A lot of time people say to the Ryan Field neighbors, ‘You knew you were moving in next door stadium, what did you expect?’” she said. “But the neighbors have really had a front-row seat.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter:  @ilana_arougheti

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