Northwestern Accountability Alliance gathers support for community benefits agreement at town hall


William Tong/Daily Senior Staffer

Five panelists spoke about calls for a community benefits agreement between Northwestern and Evanston during a Saturday town hall.

William Tong, Staff Editor

Panelists at Northwestern Accountability Alliance’s town hall Saturday encouraged NU students and faculty and Evanston residents to support a community benefits agreement between the city and University as NU seeks approval to rebuild Ryan Field. 

During the town hall, hosted at the Norris University Center, panelists outlined requirements they would like to see in the agreement.  

Lesley Williams, NAA member and president of Community Alliance for Better Government, said the agreement should require wage guarantees, labor benefits and equitable hiring for the stadium’s construction. It should also mandate minimizing disruption of surrounding residential areas and require increased financial contributions from NU to Evanston, she added.

“This is not just an issue for one neighborhood,” Williams said. “It’s an issue for the whole city.” 

The NAA comprises community groups such as CABG and Most Liveable City Association, in addition to NU student groups like Students Organizing for Labor Rights, Northwestern University Graduate Workers and FossilFreeNU. The coalition obtained co-sponsorships for the town hall from around a dozen other campus organizations, including Kaibigan, Alianza,  Undergraduate Prison Education Partnership and more.

NU announced plans for renovating Ryan Field in September, following an announcement of a $480 million donation to the University from the Patrick and Shirley Ryan Family. If constructed, the new stadium would have reduced seating capacity. NU also plans to host concerts and sell alcohol at the venue. The University is seeking a planned development, zoning text amendment and liquor license from the city for the project. 

Williams said the NAA opposes approval of the zoning text amendment, which would allow full-capacity concerts to take place at Ryan Field. These events would cause traffic congestion and make it more difficult for residents from the area to access NorthShore Evanston Hospital, located on the corner of Central Street and Ridge Avenue, she added. 

A community benefits agreement should also include healthcare, childcare and accessible housing options for student and campus workers, said Parielle Davis, an MLCA and NAAmember. 

Student group representatives at the town hall said they agree with Davis’ concerns and are worried about how the Rebuild Ryan Field project would impact campus workers and the environment. 

“These massive universities have unpaid obligations to their students, their neighbors (and) their communities that they have been able to strong-arm and ignore for far too long,” NUGW co-Chair and fourth-year Ph.D student in history Esther Kamm said. 

Another set of provisions in a community benefits agreement would include specific requirements for contracting minority- and women-owned businesses while rebuilding Ryan Field. NU has said its target for minority-owned, women-owned and local business hiring is 35%. 

However, the city’s residents require stricter language that holds the University accountable to those goals, Davis said to the Daily. NU should disaggregate the minority-owned, women-owned and local business targets to ensure the project contributes to each category, she added. 

Pointing to how the city’s emergency services and public schools rely heavily on property taxes, NAA panelists said a community benefits agreement should include more direct monetary contributions from NU to the city. 

From 2015 to 2021, the University paid $1 million each year to Evanston as part of its Good Neighbor and Good Neighbor Racial Equity funds. Still, Davis said, NU should pay the city if it hosts concerts at Ryan Field. 

“They are basically using their nonprofit status to run a business and then avoid paying taxes,” she said. 

Northwestern is not required to pay property taxes due to its nonprofit status. 

Panelists and audience members also discussed the importance of coalition-building in obtaining a community benefits agreement. 

Because universities often stall students’ demands for change until they graduate, student-resident partnerships are essential in securing an agreement, Davis said.

“If you ever feel like you don’t have a voice or you have more options or you have anyone to talk to, we’re here,” she said. 

SESP freshman Anusha Kumar, a member of NAA and FossilFree, said she encourages students to advocate for a community benefits agreement by writing to the city’s elected officials and attending city meetings this summer. 

McCormick Prof. Luis Amaral, who is a faculty senator, said it’s important to note many members of the NU community don’t support Rebuild Ryan Field. 

Amaral said many faculty members think University administrators and donors have misplaced their priorities by backing the new Ryan Field. 

Instead of focusing on improving spaces students and faculty use for education, NU administrators are funding athletics and Pat Ryan “to have his name in big letters,” he said. 

“The vast majority of faculty and staff are not in favor of this spending,” Amaral said.

In an updated zoning amendment request submitted in early May, NU said it is committed to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding to address “operational issues that are outside of the purview of zoning.” 

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