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Evanston meeting about Northwestern University

A community member against the construction and rezoning of Northwestern University’s Ryan Field attends an Evanston city council meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. A new lawsuit opposing the construction has been filed.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Opponents sue the city of Evanston for approving Northwestern’s stadium plans

Alleging elected officials bent laws and sold them out for “monetary contributions,” opponents of Northwestern University’s stadium renovation plans filed a lawsuit against the city of Evanston on Thursday.

The complaint in Cook County Circuit Court seeks to overturn last month’s narrow vote in favor of allowing concerts and other commercial events at the rebuilt Ryan Field, near single-family homes in the northern suburb and neighboring Wilmette.

“The city acted unlawfully, harming residents and violating the public trust,” the opponents allege in a suit.

The most pointed criticism in the case targets first-term Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss, a former Illinois state lawmaker who cast the tie-breaking vote on Nov. 20 to permit Northwestern’s rebuilt stadium to be the site of concerts.

Northwestern has argued it needs revenue from the concerts to help pay for the estimated $800 million stadium project, and supporters of the plan say the university’s agreement with the city will funnel $157.5 million from Northwestern to local schools and community causes over 15 years.

But the plaintiffs in the newly filed and widely anticipated suit said Biss and City Council supporters of the plan “cast aside basic principles of zoning and, instead, chose to confer special advantage” on Northwestern, opening the way for “commercialization” of the stadium site.

They added, “Mayor Biss and certain council members cut a backroom deal … in exchange for monetary contributions from Northwestern.”

Critics said the litany of problems that the renovated Northwestern stadium allegedly would cause are “intensive traffic congestion, lack of parking, noise pollution at levels violating state and local laws, litter, and public safety concerns, as well as adverse impacts on nearby property values.”

The plaintiffs include the Most Livable City Association, a nonprofit group in Evanston, and 13 homeowners who live within 500 feet of the stadium. Eight of the plaintiffs are Evanstonians and five live near Ryan Field in Wilmette, according to court documents.

Biss said he could not comment. A Northwestern spokesman also said they had no comment. On Friday, the city of Evanston issued a statement saying it couldn’t comment on pending lawsuits. But, the statement noted that " the inclusion of public or community benefits when approving major projects is a standard practice in Evanston and in municipalities throughout the country.”

On the morning after the contentious council meeting where he sided with Northwestern, Biss sent a long letter to his constituents, defending his decision and expressing his belief that the Ryan Field project would be a “generational investment” for the town.

Biss noted the community benefits agreement and said concerts would bring business to the city of 77,517 people on Lake Michigan, which has been roiled for months by the “town versus gown” controversy.

“I think Evanston needs to be willing to embrace change right now,” wrote Biss, who was elected in 2021. “Our economic challenges won’t be solved by staying the same as we’ve always been or trying to return to 2019. Finally, our progressive values and ambition require funding to realize, and we won’t be able to access that funding without unfairly burdening those who can least afford to pay — unless we embrace growth and new ideas.”

Northwestern wants to demolish the 97-year-old Ryan Field, home of the Big Ten’s Wildcats, at 1501 Central St. It would rebuild the stadium with modern sound and lighting to accommodate concerts and other events. Its seating capacity would be 35,000 for football and 28,500 for the maximum of six annual concerts the zoning would allow.

A new stadium solely for Northwestern football and other university events would be fine, but concerts should not be held at the stadium, said retired Cook County Judge Andrew Berman, who is a member of the Most Livable City Association and supports the lawsuit against the city.

“Concerts are a whole different animal than football games,” said Berman, a 32-year resident of Evanston. “We’re sorry it’s come to this. We wish Mayor Biss had done the right thing.”

He said Northwestern is a wealthy university that wants to maximize profit from the stadium by holding concerts, and Berman took issue with the city’s handling of the matter.

“We feel like we’ve been railroaded,” Berman said. “They essentially sold our rights — literally sold them.”

Court records show the plaintiffs in the case are Most Livable City Association and Evanston property owners Judith Berg, David Berg, Susan Davis Friedman, Margaret Forst, Richard Forst, Allison Farnum, Deidre Robinson and Andy Crossen. The Wilmette homeowners suing Evanston are Alla Rusz, Elizabeth Deady, Tracy Pintchman, William French and Colleen K Caughlin.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs are Robert N. Hermes, John T. Shapiro and Michael J. Kelly of the Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur LLP law firm in downtown Chicago. The suit asks the court to force the city of Evanston to pay for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.

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