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Northwestern University is drawing closer to kicking off a major multiyear renovation of Ryan Field, with the goal of making the stadium one of the top venues of its kind in the country, university officials said in an initial preview to neighbors.
Some key members of NU’s administrative team who will be overseeing the project spoke at the Dec. 16 virtual meeting hosted by Council member Eleanor Revelle, in whose 7th Ward the stadium is located.
At the meeting, Denee Barracato, Northwestern’s Deputy Director of Athletics for Operations & Capital Projects, said the university will begin holding meetings within the next few weeks to determine the design firm for the project, which was labeled a “rebuild” on the university’s website.
From those meetings, officials hope to learn more “to give us a better understanding of what’s possible,” she told neighbors.
Officials said the project was set in motion in September when university alums Patrick and Shirley W. Ryan committed $480 million, the largest philanthropic gift in Northwestern history, to accelerate breakthroughs in biomedical, economic and business research, and also begin the process to rethink and rebuild Ryan Field, at 1501 Central St.
The Ryans’ gift will “really enable us as a university to reimagine a stadium that was built in 1926,” Barracato said.
At the time the stadium was built, she said, “it was considered one of the premier college football venues in the country,” but almost 100 years later, after expansions in 1949 and 1997, “it’s time for us to take a look at what we potentially can do with this space.”
“One hundred years presents many challenges,” Barracato added, “and one of the main things this project is looking to do is that it will improve [the stadium’s] physical condition and appearance and also add amenities that many of today’s modern-day fans expect.”
“Some of the other things that we know are important to our fans, is what they witness on a daily basis or on a weekend when they watch football on national TV or in person,” she said, including new technologies such as LED ribbon boards.
An important goal is to exceed the standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act “to make the stadium exceptionally accessible and welcoming to all fans,” Barracato said.
Officials envision the changes will improve student athletes’ experience from a health and wellness standpoint, she told residents, “with improved game-day sports medicine and sports facilities, and it will help us improve site developments and aspirations of creating space all of you enjoy.”
She said an additional reason the university is embarking on the project is “our commitment to remaining among the few universities that offer the very best in academic and athletic support for student-athletes, which means a strong football program with world-class facilities that are key pieces of maintaining excellence.”
When questioning opened up for those attending the virtual 7th Ward meeting, Laurie McFarlane Davies said her concern was less on how wonderful the new stadium would be for an athlete, “but what the stadium itself will be like.”
“The neighbors are very impacted by things like light levels that would be generated by LED things,” she told the administrators. “They are affected by heightened noise, by [the building’s] footprint.”
Another resident, Ken Proskie, noted that many Big 10 football stadiums, including Ryan Field, were built in the 1920s. Most of them “have undergone multiple multimillion modernizations and renovations of their existing outdated facilities without rebuilding,” he said. “Why does Northwestern need to construct a brand-new facility from the ground up? Why not just renovate and modernize like everybody else?”
Mary Rosinski, a longtime 7th Ward resident, noted that in contrast to the other Big 10 stadiums mentioned by Proskie, Northwestern’s stadium “is probably the only larger stadium that is so close in proximity to five residential neighborhoods, “and we just went through a two-, three-year sort of fight-struggle with neighbors trying to maintain quality of life” with the Welsh-Ryan Arena renovation just north of the stadium.
Plans beyond football?
Another participant at the meeting, John Twohey, observed that the university, “as an organization that’s going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on an upgrade to this facility is going to be tempted, I would suspect, to regain some of that investment through revenue-generating opportunities.”
He asked officials about any plans to include other events along with football, such as music concerts and professional sports.
Derrick Gragg, named the school’s new Athletic Director in July, fielded those questions. “We haven’t had any discussions about allowing professional sports to come into the venue,” he said.
“I guess I would have some hoops to jump through to have a concert,” he said. “We haven’t talked about that at all. … We’ve talked mainly about improving the stadium for our current and future student athletes.”
To a question about the capacity of the new stadium, Barracato said officials are looking at creating a more intimate feeling with the new design. University officials did not confirm a question from Revelle about the team’s playing elsewhere for two years after the 2022 season while construction was at full throttle.
Dave Davis, the university’s Executive Director of Neighborhood and Community Relations, said university officials “just don’t have enough information right now” to answer that question.
“And so anything that we say tonight about a specific time frame could be largely inaccurate,” he said.
His advice to residents was “remain engaged.”
The university has created a website, rebuildryanfield.com, to answer questions and provide updates about the project, he said.
Barracato added that Northwestern’s commitment to residents is “to keep them apprised of developments, even before we develop any design concepts or any more specific plans. We are committed to transparency, collaboration with all of our Evanston neighbors and the campus community throughout the construction process we are embarking on.”