Northwestern drives toward goal line on $800 million Ryan Field project

Facing opposition in Evanston, university officials want to see action soon on the plans to make the stadium suitable for concerts and other events.

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Rendering of the rebuilt Ryan Field in Evanston.

A rendering of the rebuilt Ryan Field in Evanston.

HNTB, Perkins & Will

You could call it the Chicago area’s “other” football stadium furor.

While the Chicago Bears make Naperville an eligible receiver in a scrimmage involving Chicago and Arlington Heights, there’s another gridiron clash going on.

It’s the situation with Ryan Field in Evanston, where Northwestern University’s Wildcats play.

There’s a complicated and mutually beneficial relationship between Evanston and Northwestern. The elite school brings prestige to the community, raising home values because professors, staff and graduates want to live there, while the suburb bestows beauty, character and retail options around the campus. Not incidentally, it’s a community with high property taxes while Northwestern enjoys a property-tax exemption.

So these partners get on each other’s nerves. Northwestern touched a lot of them with its plan to rebuild 97-year-old Ryan Field, an estimated $800 million job the school will fund without direct taxpayer subsidies. NU has a $480 million pledge from its biggest benefactor, business leader Pat Ryan.

Chicago Enterprise bug

Chicago Enterprise

The school wants to reduce the stadium’s seating capacity and lower its overall profile, plans it cites as benefits for the surrounding residential area. But it also wants to change zoning so it can host up to 10 concerts per year and an unspecified number of events. It could mean crowds, traffic and liquor sales that would disturb a neighborhood of single-family homes.

While the Bears situation is a long-running civic soap opera, key decisions about Ryan Field could be weeks away. Northwestern is pushing its plan aggressively in hopes of starting work after the next football season.

Details of the plan have been out there since last year and some reactions fall along familiar contours. The chamber of commerce loves it. Ryan Field neighbors and others in town, who think the school owes more to Evanston for the right to build a profit center, have organized against it.

One big unknown is the view of the city’s mayor, Daniel Biss, a mathematician by training who has found politics to be a slippery equation. He took my call last week, but offered no concrete position.

“It’s just premature,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of information to get through.”

He added that it would be “irresponsible” to weigh in until the city completes its own economic analysis in a few weeks. It has hired Chicago-based Johnson Consulting for a job that includes reviewing Northwestern’s own projections of economic benefits. Biss said he wants the consulting firm to be a “straight-shooter.”

Opponents “are raising concerns that are real and legitimate,” Biss said. “Otherwise, approving this would be just a slam dunk.” He also said he expects NU’s position to “evolve over time.”

Asked if he’s discussed Ryan Field with NU, Biss said, “As the mayor of Evanston, I’m in touch with Northwestern all the time.” But he added, “I can’t negotiate on behalf of the City Council.”

City officials have posted documents related to the proposal and a tentative schedule for action, starting with a Land Use Commission hearing Aug. 9, then a City Council vote Sept. 25.

Northwestern is open to negotiations over hosting 10 concerts, a number it has already whittled from 15, said Dave Davis, the school’s senior executive director for neighborhood and community relations. “We are trying to put together the best possible proposal for Evanston and for the university,” he said. Davis cited the inclusion of plazas and a park for various events.

Biss’ neutrality won’t satisfy the critics. Some suspect city officials have worked back channel deals with NU, something Biss denies. A few were amused by a “State of the City” speech Biss gave last month in which he ducked any mention of Ryan Field while promising to speak out on “important questions.”

Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss during a news conference in downtown Evanston on June 13, 2022.

Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss speaking during a news conference in downtown Evanston on June 13, 2022. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“We’d like more of our public officials to take a stance on this,” said David DeCarlo, co-founder of Most Livable City Association. “They have plenty of information.”

His group and others formed the Northwestern Accountability Alliance, bringing together north Evanston residents worried about the concerts with others whose interests include minority hiring and money from Northwestern to defray community costs. Some private universities help their towns with something called PILOT — payment in lieu of taxes.

Biss said putting PILOT on the table would “invite difficult discussions.” Davis said the university is opposed to PILOT but wants to support Evanston in other ways.

On the grassroots side, you’ve got a hyper-organized community that knows how to exert leverage. The institutional side also has leverage with a $16 billion endowment and an infusion of money from a Big Ten TV contract.

Some observers believe Northwestern’s decision to cut Ryan Field’s capacity from 47,000 to 35,000, eliminating seats the Wildcats weren’t selling anyway, just makes the stadium a better TV studio.

And whether it’s a pro or college game, isn’t that what a football stadium is?

A rendering showing the outside of Ryan Field on a non-game day.

A rendering showing the outside of Ryan Field on a non-game day.

HNTB and Perkins & Will

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