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Most Livable City Association files complaint, asks Cook County to invalidate Ryan Field rezoning

Daily file photo by Seeger Gray
The lawsuit alleges that “the approval of Northwestern’s requested zoning changes was arbitrary, capricious and a deprivation of Plaintiffs’ substantive and procedural due process rights.”

The Most Livable City Association and 13 neighbors of Ryan Field filed a four-count complaint against Evanston Wednesday morning, alleging that the rezoning of the stadium for concerts violated several parts of the Evanston and Illinois zoning codes and deprived area residents of due process.

The lawsuit, filed with the Chancery Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, seeks a declaratory judgment to invalidate the city’s approval of the Ryan Field project, as well as injunctive relief and damages for the plaintiffs.

“Our elected officials failed to follow the law and that’s why we’re bringing this suit,” MLCA President David DeCarlo said in a press release Wednesday. “The law exists to protect us all, and it has to be applied impartially — with no exceptions for billionaires or powerful institutions.”

Deprivation of due process

The first count of the lawsuit alleges that “the approval of Northwestern’s requested zoning changes was arbitrary, capricious and a deprivation of Plaintiffs’ substantive and procedural due process rights.” The suit recounts the proceedings that led up to Evanston City Council’s approval of the rezoning of Ryan Field on Nov. 20, in which Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss broke a 4-4 tie between councilmembers to advance the project.

The lawsuit cites several instances in 2023 when stadium neighbors and city officials raised concerns about the project and its potential negative impacts on the surrounding residential neighborhood. The city has rejected past efforts by NU to rezone the area surrounding Ryan Field for commercial activity, the lawsuit notes, and alleges this month’s vote overlooked several studies on noise, traffic congestion and economic impacts to the city.

The suit also includes receipts of email subject lines exchanged between Biss, Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th), Northwestern President Michael Schill, and Northwestern Director of Community Relations Dave Davis. 

The plaintiffs allege that these emails, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, demonstrate  “backroom deals” between the University and city officials in order to push the Ryan Field project through City Council.

Ultimately, the lawsuit argues there is “clear and convincing evidence” the rezoning of Ryan Field to allow concerts will be detrimental to the surrounding area.

The Most Livable City Association, a nonprofit organization led primarily by Evanston residents, has accused city officials, particularly Biss, of negotiating privately with the University on Ryan Field. The four councilmembers who voted against the project have also said that they were left out of discussions with NU representatives about a community benefits agreement, which requires NU to pay benefits to Evanston as part of the Ryan Field rebuild.

The four councilmembers who voted to approve the rezoning ordinance spoke against these claims at the Nov. 20 City Council meeting, saying that the other councilmembers chose not to be involved in negotiations. Biss also released a statement on Nov. 21 explaining why he voted to approve the Ryan Field project, in which he said he “met with Northwestern representatives regularly and pushed them hard to offer more to Evanston.”

Violation of local and state zoning laws

The second, third and fourth counts of the lawsuit allege Evanston violated parts of the Evanston Zoning Code and the Illinois Municipal Code in approving the project.

The second count draws upon a section of the Evanston Zoning Code, which requires a “majority of the Council” to approve all projects. Evanston’s City Council is made up of nine councilmembers and the mayor, so the lawsuit argues this means that six votes, not five, would constitute a majority.

The ordinance to rezone Ryan Field was approved 5-4, with four councilmembers and the mayor voting in favor. Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th) recused himself from matters concerning Ryan Field as he is a Northwestern employee, meaning there were eight voting councilmembers in all Ryan Field-related proceedings.

The third count takes issue with the city’s decision to create a text amendment in order to rezone Ryan Field to host concerts. Performance entertainment venues in the city are typically highly regulated, the lawsuit says, and are only allowed as special uses. 

However, because Ryan Field is currently zoned as a University facility, the city’s decision to rezone the facility for concerts creates a “fundamentally new zoning classification,” the lawsuit alleges. The lawsuit argues the city should have made a map amendment, instead of a text amendment, to allow for the rezoning.

Another section of city code states that three-fourths of the City Council must approve map amendments if more than 30% of residents who live within 500 feet of a proposed zoning change submit written complaints. MLCA submitted a complaint including the signatures of more than 55% of those living within 500 feet of Ryan Field on Sept. 1.

The final count draws on a section of the Illinois Municipal Code, which similarly requires two-thirds of City Council to approve zoning changes that have received written opposition from over 20% of residents directly bordering the property in question.

The last two counts of the lawsuit allege that, because of these local and state laws, Evanston needed more than five votes to approve the rezoning. Therefore, the lawsuit argues, the rezoning should be rendered null and void by the Circuit Court of Cook County. 

With NU set to break ground on the demolition of Ryan Field before the end of the academic year, MLCA’s lawsuit could prove decisive in determining the future of Northwestern’s stadium.

University and city officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This story is developing and will be updated as more information becomes available.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lilylcarey

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