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Welsh-Ryan Arena, 2705 Ashland Ave., where neighbors have been complaining about an “obnoxious” whining sound for years. (Photo by Bob Seidenberg) Credit: Photo by Bob Seidenberg

Northwestern University officials, still in the early phases of a Ryan Field stadium project, did not have many details about the plan at a recent 7th Ward meeting.

But a university official did have information about a noise issue, ongoing for four years, troubling neighbors in the stadium area. A “whining” noise apparently emanates from Welsh-Ryan Arena’s mechanical equipment, including from the chiller yard north of the arena. Chillers are part of the air-conditioning system.

At the March 23 meeting, which was held over Zoom, Steven Himes, the university’s Senior Project Manager, spoke of the university’s plans to bring in more experts to conduct tests around the arena, 2705 Ashland Ave., concerning the noise.

“We’re going to first set up a channel of communication with our neighbors, a reporting mechanism where when they hear it, they can report it,” he said. 

Once that system is in place, he said, university officials will be able to use that real-time data to compare it to what they find through more testing in the hope of pinpointing the source of the sound, he said in a brief report.

Residents listening in for the stadium update were surprised to hear the issue addressed, with one person saying that was the most detail they’ve had from the school about a plan for handling the noise issue.

Like a leaf blower, only on all day

Residents of Evanston and Wilmette who live just north and east of the stadium and Welsh-Ryan Arena have complained about a whining mechanical sound from the north side of the arena since its renovation in 2018. 

“This irritating sound has been compared to a neighbor’s leaf blower, lawnmower, car alarm or siren, but in our case, the sound is usually on all day,” wrote Mike Miller, a Wilmette resident who has led the neighbors’ efforts to bring the concerns before officials.

Miller forwarded to the RoundTable some of his email correspondence with officials.

“It can be intrusive enough for neighbors close by to force them inside, and [the situation] has not substantially changed since the summer of 2018,” he said.

Chillers outside on the north side of the arena stand perhaps eight feet tall and sit behind a six-foot wall, he said, so “the sound emanates from the part that is exposed, hits the hard wall of the arena, then spreads out to Evanston and Wilmette to the north and east.”

Miller and other local residents have contacted a number of officials to draw attention to the issue, including both athletic and administrative officials from Northwestern, Evanston’s Seventh Ward Council member Eleanor Revelle and then-Wilmette Trustee Joel Kurzman. Miller said both elected officials have been supportive.

In 2018, the university hired a third party to measure the decibel level, Miller said.

“We were told it was within city code limits,” he wrote. “The next four days in August, the sound was back up like a car alarm. There were continued emails with little change that year until the chillers [with the advent of cooler weather] were not needed anymore.”

He said Northwestern made a number of adjustments during the period, such as installing “acoustical panels in the chiller yard” that resembled blankets to reduce the sound.

“The sound still continued as unabated as it is today,” Miller said. In a July 27, 2020, email, he said that the noise was “not always unbearably loud, but it is still an obnoxious presence.’’

Noise has been difficult to capture: NU official

At the March 23 meeting, Himes, the university’s Senior Project Manager, presented an update on the university’s efforts regarding the noise issue.

“We’ve had previous noise analysis, most recently in fall of 2021. In the course of doing that, it’s been difficult to capture what we call a nuisance noise,” he said.

“In other words, the noises that are concerning our neighbors are not just the quality of the sound or volume of sound but also the quantitative character of the sound,” Himes explained.

“There’s some dissonant noises that come out of the building,” he said. “As it turns out, it’s occurring in mostly hot weather.”

Because of that, he conceded, an effort to capture noise information last fall, when cooler weather had already set in, probably was not effective. He said officials, after a discussion with the affected residents, now plan to be back out when the weather warms later this year to take noise readings.

He said the channel of communication that Northwestern officials and Revelle have worked on will ask residents “to identify what time they’re hearing [the noise], where it’s coming from and what they’re hearing.”

Officials say they hope to take that information and cross check it against the data the university’s operation teams obtain from direct digital controls placed on Welsh-Ryan’s mechanical equipment.

Once the noise is pinpointed, he said there are a number of possibilities to mitigate it, including enclosures or insulation, “but until we know where the noise is coming from, it’s premature,” he said at the meeting.

After Himes’s report, Revelle opened the meeting to questions, “particularly from our Wilmette residents or residents on the very north end of the Seventh Ward, who have been hearing this noise. I know we’ve been struggling with this for, what, three years now. It’s a long time.”

Then, she said, “It would be really great to get it solved and demonstrate that when we build the new stadium, we won’t let something like that happen.”

Steven Himes, Northwestern University’s Senior Project Manager, spoke at a recent Seventh Ward meeting. (Screen capture of meeting) Credit: Screen capture of meeting

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. I notice d a high pitched noise last week after being away for several months that seemed to be coming from outside. I’m far enough away on Ridge that it did not disrupt me, but I did wonder what it was. Mystery solved!

  2. How hard can it be to pinpoint the cause of the sound?
    If the university is reticent to spend money on a solution, then get some engineering professor to get their students involved on a project to figure it out. I’ll be a solution will be found in less than a semester.