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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Ahead of final Ryan Field vote, residents, city officials remain divided over rezoning

Shun Graves/The Daily Northwestern
On Monday, Mayor Daniel Biss could again face the political calculus of breaking a tie at the final vote on the Ryan Field concert zoning.

Daniel Biss earned his position as Evanston’s mayor with a resounding victory, claiming 73% of the vote in 2021.

But, just two years later, Biss is facing a campaign that vows to topple him in his next election, spurred by recent debates over whether Evanston should allow Northwestern to rebuild and host concerts at Ryan Field.

City Council will make its final decision Monday on three ordinances: one for Ryan Field stadium reconstruction, another for rezoning the site to allow for concerts and a third authorizing a memorandum of understanding between the city and NU.

Last Monday, the council voted 6-2 to postpone the vote by a week. Since then, dozens of residents expressed their frustrations at another town hall, and opposition group Most Livable City Association released a letter demanding greater clarity from the city and the University.

Since NU announced its $800 million Rebuild Ryan Field plan last fall, some residents — particularly stadium neighbors — have expressed concerns about noise and traffic, as well as NU’s potential to profit from concerts despite its tax-exempt status. Other residents, however, have said concerts could bring much-needed economic benefits to Evanston. 

NU has said its latest benefits package will provide $175 million for city initiatives over 15 years. Residents who oppose the agreement believe it offers little commitment from NU itself and fails to address the concerts’ impact. Some residents also said Biss and the city have excluded community input from negotiations with NU.

Still, city officials said, the current version of the MOU is the culmination of months of negotiations.

“Even at this point, in advance, I can say we’ve pushed Northwestern really hard, and I’m proud of that work,” Biss told The Daily. “What’s already been voted on, for instance, reflects that. Clearly.”

Biss, council face criticism

Parielle Davis, who opposes the concert rezoning, said she felt the Ryan Field debate reached the tipping point on Oct. 30, when Biss broke the council’s tie in favor of advancing the concert rezoning to a final vote.

The Evanston resident founded “Better than Biss” the following week.

“Watching this whole thing play out has been really infuriating or betraying for me,” Davis said. “I just found a complete lack of leadership on his end.”

Biss said he saw pictures of the campaign materials. The “Better Than Biss” website features a form asking residents how Biss “let you down” and a red “X” superimposed on a portrait of Biss.

“It’s fine. I think that it’s really healthy for people who want to see a change to try to make that change and see if the public agrees,” he said, adding that the opposing campaign has not distracted him from leading the city.

Davis, however, said she felt Biss blew off residents who brought these concerns to him — a complaint shared by Ald. Clare Kelly (1st), who has opposed the rezoning process. 

“Under Biss’ leadership, our city code and roles are being bent at every opportunity to favor NU’s zoning change requests,” Kelly said. “It’s set the lowest possible bar to accommodate their requests.”

After the Land Use Commission voted on the Ryan Field ordinances in October, city staff decided to mark the ordinances as special orders of business. This sent them straight to City Council for deliberations, rather than to the Planning and Development Committee as is typical of large developments. Monday’s meeting will also mark the second special City Council meeting held for this topic alone.

Some residents who previously supported Biss also said they have soured on him after he voted to advance the rezoning ordinance. Biss has not yet announced a reelection campaign.

“I was a big supporter of his,” resident Geoffrey Baer said. “I think he’s so articulate and impressive on social justice issues. So, I’m obviously incredibly disappointed.”

If the council’s vote splits again on any of the Ryan Field ordinances at Monday’s meeting, Biss will have to weigh in once more. At Thursday’s town hall, Ald. Devon Reid (8th) told residents that “five folks with a vote” intend to approve the MOU but did not comment on the rezoning ordinance.

“It’s not so obviously to his political advantage to take this step,” said Dick Simpson, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago. “I think it has to be because he thinks it’s the correct thing to do (for Evanston).”

NU negotiations: Calls for transparency

Last Monday, Biss said he supported the MOU. Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) called the agreements a “very good deal” and lauded NU for negotiating in “good faith.” 

In the days before, Biss and some councilmembers worked with independent counsel to revise the memorandum — conversations from which Kelly alleges she was excluded. Emails shared with The Daily by Kelly show she emailed Biss and city staff about the discussions, but she said she didn’t receive a response.

“There’s been no process,” she said. “That’s the most serious aspect of this whole thing. There’s been no transparent or democratic process to this.”

NU officials have said hosting concerts will bring financial benefits to Evanston. They also said NU’s community benefits will deliver $175 million to the city — increased from the original Oct. 30 plan for $100 million — though Chief Operating Officer Luke Figora said Thursday he would not attach a specific price tag.

Davis said she has concerns that NU has too much power over where these funds will go.

“Northwestern has allowed the city to have a say in it,” Davis said. “But they still have a puppet master’s role in where this money goes.”

Thursday’s letter by Most Livable City brought up complaints about NU’s tax-exempt status, lack of “significant penalties” for concert impacts and more. It also accuses Biss of making a “deal” for his tie-breaking vote with the University and its Ryan family donors.

As the final vote looms, Davis said she launched the anti-Biss campaign hoping to bolster representation of residents’ perspectives in city government.

“I’ve found every citizen that I’ve interacted with to be so reasonable and compassionate and understanding,” Davis said. “I just don’t see how that’s not translating to our government.”

Email: [email protected]

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