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Audience members hold up signs during Evanston’s City Council meeting Monday protesting a proposal for concerts at Northwestern University’s Ryan Field. City Council members voted to table the item.

Audience members hold up signs during Evanston’s City Council meeting Monday protesting a proposal for concerts at Northwestern University’s Ryan Field. City Council members voted to table the item.

Anthony Jackson

Evanston City Council calls a timeout on Northwestern’s Ryan Field plan

With its plans for a rebuilt Ryan Field football stadium clinging to narrow support in the Evanston City Council, Northwestern University sweetened its offer for public benefits if the city accepts its concert proposal.

The university’s offer prompted the council Monday to defer for one week a final vote on zoning authorization for the $800 million project. By a 6-2 vote, the council agreed to table action until Nov. 20.

The delay gives alderpersons time to review a new memorandum of understanding, or MOU, that Northwestern reached with city officials. The agreement was first posted on the city’s website Saturday.

The university, which wants zoning authority for up to six outdoor concerts aside from football games at the new venue, has agreed to community donations totaling at least $157.5 million over 15 years.

The proposed annual donations include $3 million to Evanston’s Good Neighbor Fund, $2 million to help high school students in Evanston afford college and $1 million to Evanston nonprofit groups. The university also said it would guarantee $2.5 million in annual tax revenue from Ryan Field events once the stadium is complete.

Certain funding would increase annually based on changes to the Consumer Price Index, which measures changes in the prices of goods and services purchased by households.

But any Northwestern donations are a flash point for some residents, as the university pays no property taxes.

Ald. Devon Reid (8th) called the new MOU “a strong agreement” that reflected improvements residents called for at a town hall he and two other alderpersons had last week.

“We pushed for a lot of the things that were asked for there” and Northwestern responded favorably, Reid said. He opposed deferring the matter for a week.

But Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said they need time to review the agreement because the process hasn’t been transparent. “I feel disenfranchised. I think many residents do too,” she said.

Northwestern’s demand for concerts has divided Evanston, with many seeing it as an economic gift to the suburb while others, especially those living close to the stadium, oppose it because of noise and traffic from the events.

Ryan Field, 1501 Central St., is surrounded by many single-family homes in north Evanston and Wilmette. The 97-year-old stadium would be replaced with a smaller venue that has a 35,000-seating capacity for football versus the current 47,000. But it would be equipped for concerts seating up to 28,500.

NU’s pattern of proposing benefits just before council decisions has fueled criticism that Mayor Daniel Biss and city officials are negotiating with the university in secret. NU did not respond to requests for comment.

Its latest benefits offer supplants an earlier pledge of $100 million over 10 years. The previous pledge was made public two weeks ago, hours before the council was set to cast a pivotal vote to consider the project.

After hearing hours of public testimony on Oct. 31 that mostly assailed the concerts, the council voted 5-4 to take up the zoning proposal for consideration. Biss had broke a 4-4 council deadlock to advance the $800 million project to a final vote, which was expected Monday.

Biss has proposed city tax increases based on future events at Ryan Field, raising liquor and amusement taxes for large-scale gatherings.

At Monday’s meeting, an alderperson asked Biss if he was satisfied with the new NU agreement. Biss said “my expectation is yes” but he would take suggestions for improvement.

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th), who supports the new stadium, praised the deal and said he supported the delay just to review the MOU’s language. He said the agreement compares favorably to a pledge Brown University made to its hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, for $175 million over 20 years.

“Purple is better than Brown,” Nieuwsma said, referring to the color of the Northwestern Wildcats. He added, “I am looking forward to approving this in a week.”

Opponents were undeterred. “The way the mayor has set up this process is really behind closed doors,” said David DeCarlo, president of the Most Livable City Association. His group has coordinated opposition to the stadium.

He criticized the new benefits memorandum, saying that while it raises financial aid, it also appears to protect NU’s rights in case Evanston ever wanted to tighten concert regulations.

“The only way to view that MOU is that Northwestern is trying to make this a forever deal,” he said.

Asked what his group will do if the project passes, DeCarlo said, “The fight goes on.”

Lawsuits over the process Evanston used in its zoning deliberations are expected.

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