City Council meeting heralds conversations concerning Ryan Field, cashless ban

Ethan Ravi, Assistant News Editor

On Jan. 23, 2023, the City of Evanston held its second council meeting of the new year, and many of the topics that have been heavily debated in recent weeks in Evanston were once again discussed.

First on the agenda was a special presentation by the City’s Economic Development Manager, Paul Zalmezak. To start off, he highlighted the sentiments that many in the community were expressing concerning vacant retail spots.

“There are a lot of negative feelings right now in the community, and we have to address them,” said Zalmezak. “It’s serious, and we have to listen.”

In an attempt to abate the previously mentioned concerns, Zalzemak presented data demonstrating quite the opposite of what a lot of residents had come to believe, showing that there has actually been a decrease in the amount of Downtown Evanston retail vacancy rates. As of right now, only 10 percent of available retail spaces in the downtown area are vacant, which is a significantly lower amount than one might think. He went on to show that many private companies have decided that Evanston is a place to invest in, as there are many new retail and housing developments in the works, and that overall, the City’s economic situation is much better than some make it out to be.

“I’m asking for a collective breath,” said Zalmezak.

This feeling was echoed by Devon Reid, the Eighth Ward Councilmember.

“We need to highlight that we’re doing well, we’ve got some really important developments coming,” said Reid. “I think that in a certain segment of our community, there [is the feeling] that things are falling apart, but when we get out of our Evanston bubble and look at other municipalities both nearby and across the nation we’ll see that either we’re in a similar boat, or that Evanston is actually doing better in many cases than other places.”

Mayor Daniel Biss was in agreement, but wanted to acknowledge that there was still work to be done in that regard.

“This is a national issue that’s going to require smart local solutions and I think we need to be at the forefront of finding those solutions as the economic transition continues.”

Next on the agenda was public comment, and many of the speakers centered their complaints around Northwestern University’s plans to build a new, state of the art football field (Ryan Field).

Tim Guymond was the first speaker to address the issue. He brought up a conversation he had conducted with Allen Sanderson, a professor specializing in sports economics at University of Chicago. After talking extensively with Sanderson, who was instrumental in working with the City of Boston to determine that it would not be financially viable for them to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, Guymond concluded that the new stadium would do much more harm than good to Evanston in the long run.

“The net effect is negative,” said Guymond.

Ray Freidman, another disgruntled speaker during public comment, also agreed with Guymond. He analyzed what other Big Ten schools have done with their stadiums over the years, and came to the same conclusion, that the current plans for Ryan Field are not beneficial for Evanston residents.

“To me, these findings strongly suggest that Ryan Field could be extensively renovated or even replaced for half the cost,” said Freidman. “It would be far more consistent with the scale of what is occurring at other universities. Most of us agree, including me, that Ryan Field needs an upgrade. However, given Evanston’s limited infrastructure and urban density, shouldn’t we be evaluating the economics of a more affordable, less intrusive and community-friendly facility that doesn’t require concerts or private events to make it financially viable?”

Later on in the meeting, an amendment to City Code 9-5-10 by Councilmember Reid came up for discussion. This ordinance, if passed, would make it legal to carry previously opened containers of alcohol or cannabis in public. Reid’s concerns stemmed from the fact that the current law in Evanston could discriminate against the unhoused. Additionally, Reid brought up the point that it would create a more welcoming atmosphere, especially with the potential for a new cafe being put into place near the Arrington Lagoon that would sell alcohol.

“I think making this simple change would still give the police department the power that it needs to enforce our community standards,” said Reid.

Evanston police sergeant Scott Sophier countered that point by explaining the difficulties that it would create for police officers on the job.

“By way of the proposal, if we saw an open container of alcoholic beverages next to a group of individuals we could take no action until we see them drinking from it, and it’s common sense that when the police are there, they’re not going to do so,” said Sophier.

In the end, the ordinance was neither passed nor rejected, and will be brought up and reviewed again by the City Council on Feb. 13, with the possibility of further revisions.

Towards the end of the meeting, the topic of the proposed cashless ban came up for discussion. This ban would make it unlawful for commerce establishments to only accept non-cash payments. It had been brought up initially during the public comment section of the meeting where Alan Moy, owner of Viet Nom Nom, expressed his concerns about using cash in today’s world. His restaurant has been open since the summer of 2017, and since then, they have already had one break in and half-a-dozen other incidents of people taking tip jars and attempting to steal money in other ways.

“[Cash] presents a major safety issue when it is known to be on site,” said Moy.

He also highlighted other problems when dealing with cash, such as recent struggles with amassing enough coins to use as change for customers. As a result, he pushed the councilmembers to avoid passing the cashless ban, but instead to reconsider how to make banks more accessible for those in the community who are unbanked.

Sue Loellbach, Manager of Advocacy for Connections for the Homeless, confirmed that many Evanston residents don’t have access to non-cash alternatives, such as credit or debit cards.

“We serve several hundred people each year who live on the street, and most of them are not banked,” said Loellbach.

Councilmember Krissie Harris of the Second Ward expressed support for ensuring that there were multiple ways to pay for bought goods.

“We have to be open to allowing people to pay the way in which they can pay,” said Harris.

Councilmember Jonathan Nieuwsma, representing the Fourth Ward, was one of the main voices who brought up concerns about the proposed cashless ban.

“We’ve got a number of small businesses who have expressed serious concern about this ordinance including small businesses where for the most part it is sole proprietorship,” said Nieuwsma. “That doesn’t even get into the Covid era impact of going cashless for public health reasons, so I’m not prepared to move forward with this because of the impact it would have on small businesses.”

Many in the council agreed that there were positives and negatives to both sides of the debate, and some called for alternative solutions such as machines that turn cash into credit on a prepaid debit card for limited extra cost.

Eventually, the council voted to send the ordinance for the cashless ban to multiple committees for further review.

The Jan. 23 City Council meeting contained pressing discussions about a multitude of different issues that many Evanston residents would feel the impact of on a daily basis, but nothing conclusive was decided on any of them yet.