Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss discusses Northwestern partnership, government overreach in State of City address

Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss tackled several topics at the 2024 State of the City address including the city’s response to pro-Palestine protesters at Northwestern University, the future of the city’s relationship with the school and building up the city’s affordable housing stock.

His speech began with an anecdote in government overreach. He cited the example of a proposed public restroom in a San Francisco park where preliminary costs grew out of control and reached $1.7 million at one point, with blame falling in part on bureaucratic systems put in place in the name of environmentalism. Biss stated situations like this arise when government systems make bold action difficult.

This hit home when Biss discussed the struggles to build affordable housing with Evanston’s single-family home zoning laws getting in the way.

“I look at our zoning code as a system of rules that makes it hard to do what we say we want to do,” Biss said Wednesday night at SPACE. “It’s hard to build high and it’s hard to build without adding parking. There are so many ways in which we make it difficult to add to the supply of housing and then we act puzzled about the fact that with demand high and supply not going up, the cost keeps going through the roof.”

He and his family live in an adjoining town home on Central Street but, according to Biss, zoning regulations prevent a similar-style home from being built just around the corner because only single-family homes are permitted. These zoning regulations were often put in place decades ago in an effort to promote racial segregation.

Biss hopes to kill two birds with one stone by replacing vacant downtown storefronts with residential density, saying his most commonly heard complaint from residents concerns the empty spaces. He pointed to the Envision Evanston 2045 project, a new comprehensive plan for the city, as a path forward.

“What an opportunity to do both?” he said. “It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be painless and it’s not going to be uncontroversial. Change is hard … so I am asking myself and I’m asking all of us to be willing to be bold.”

A 15-year community-benefits deal between the city and Northwestern is one of Biss’ proudest accomplishments of 2023. The deal, which Biss said would “fundamentally transform” the financial relationship between the city and school, would bring $150 million in funding to the city. His tie-breaking vote at the Nov. 20, 2023, City Council meeting brought the deal to fruition.

Northwestern existed 12 years before Evanston became incorporated in 1863 and Biss described the relationship between the two as filled with tension over the university’s use of land, city services and lack of tax payments. According to Biss, this community-benefits package marks a change in trajectory for the partnership.

He stated it would be difficult for Northwestern to step back from collaboration with the city when the agreement runs its course because residents will have grown accustomed to the funding and the university had shown there is space in its budget to provide more.

“If we look around the country, these kinds of agreements have expiration dates. Usually less than 15 years,” Biss said. “When they get re-upped or when they expire, they tend to be re-upped at a higher level. That’s not a guarantee.”

He also stated how proud he is of the city’s response to pro-Palestine protesters on Northwestern’s campus in the past few weeks, reflecting on how other communities responded following these protests and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Evanston police communicated with Northwestern police throughout the protests but did not end up getting involved or arresting any protestors.

“We, the city of Evanston, should not be involved in interfering with protests or arresting protesters unless there is an absolute essential reason to do so,” Biss said. “We believe to our core that it is not our job to police protesting because of what the protests stand for, for how they call for it, for what they say, or who they make uncomfortable — even for who they offend. Even if they offend me.”

Despite this, Biss remained opposed to seeing City Council adopt a cease-fire resolution for the war in Gaza, arguing the city shouldn’t get involved in issues outside its purview unless the action brings the city together and makes the city stronger.

Biss said passing such a resolution would be picking at wounds from previous discussions that would lead to further division and make it harder to tackle future issues directly impacting Evanstonians.

However, Evanston residents have been directly impacted by the war in Gaza. Two residents, Natalie and Judith Raanan, were taken hostage for nearly two weeks by Hamas following the initial attacks on Oct. 7, 2023, and have since returned home.

Evanston City Council has taken stances on issues outside its purview in the past including an 8-1 vote in September 2005 on a resolution to pull United States troops out of the Iraq War and another resolution in May 2008 stating the city’s opposition to U.S. military intervention in Iran.

The mayor hopes focus in the coming year can be placed on assistance the city can provide to migrants who have been shipped from Texas to the Chicago area by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. City Policy Coordinator Alison Leipsiger has been searching for properties that could be retrofitted with county grant funding as shelters.

“We’re Evanston. We don’t see a crisis like that and conclude it’s someone else’s problem,” Biss said. “We’re gonna figure out what we can do to help and if we can’t help it’s not going to be for lack of trying.”

Other focuses for the year include passage of a healthy building ordinance to bring the 500 most emission-producing buildings more aligned with the city’s Climate Action Plan, finding a solution for deteriorating city properties including the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center and continued efforts to build affordable housing.