Northwestern University’s announcement of its plans to knock down the existing Ryan Field football stadium on Central Street and build a new $800 million stadium was well produced.
The announcement also claimed that Evanston residents were on board with all that the university was planning. But it became clear on Wednesday that residents had more confusion than agreement on the development plan during the school’s first public discussion with 7th Ward neighbors.
About 80 Evanston community members joined an evening Zoom meeting Wednesday, Oct. 12, to hear more details. There was a very positive spin put on everything by Dave Davis, Northwestern’s senior executive director of Neighborhood and Community Relations. Davis touted the massive, years-long project as an economic benefit for the city and an improvement on the existing stadium’s noise, light and traffic pollution.
A canopy over the top of the stadium will enclose light and noise, according to Senior Project Manager Steven Himes, and an underground loading dock should keep idle trucks out of sight and mind.
The new development will also feature three outdoor plazas that could house an outdoor ice rink in the winter and a stage for outdoor music or theater performances, Himes said Wednesday.
But for many residents and attendees at the virtual meeting, the headline remains that the university plans to submit an application to host a “limited number” of full-capacity concerts at the 35,000-person stadium, and that Northwestern wants to reopen a conversation about selling alcohol to football fans and concertgoers.
Just a few years ago, the city struck down both ideas, with residents opposing entertainment events that could bring in large crowds of people not affiliated with the town or university.
The new stadium and surrounding area will be constructed to address existing concerns about parking, neighborhood traffic, noise, lights and other issues, according to Davis.
“What we presented is a way that we can resolve these challenges in a new stadium design,” Davis said. “So all of the features that Steve [Himes] went through – we’re going to encourage folks to ride their bicycles, we’re going to have fewer seats, we’re going to have an underground parking [area] that should help to resolve some of those challenges. And so all these features increase the cost of this stadium, and that’s the ultimate reason that we have to pursue these limited number of full-capacity events.”
Northwestern incorporated those particular elements of the stadium design through several months of meetings with a 7th Ward working group, which included Council Member Eleanor Revelle, Himes and a resident from each community neighboring Ryan Field, Revelle and Davis said.
Still, some residents of the surrounding 7th Ward, where Ryan Field is located, said at Wednesday’s meeting that they found it “hard to believe” that the university does not yet know how many concerts the stadium would host each year.
According to Northwestern’s presentation to neighbors during the meeting, the stadium will be vacant 95% of the year, with around 12 concerts or full-capacity events annually in addition to six scheduled football games.
In a phone conversation with the RoundTable, Revelle also expressed some frustration with how Northwestern has presented the community’s support, or lack thereof, for these kinds of concerts and entertainment events.
“Part of the PR from Northwestern, and particularly in the article in the [Chicago Tribune], made it sound as though the neighbors wanted to see year-round use of the stadium area, which is definitely not what the neighbors have said, and they have certainly not said they want to have concerts in the stadium,” Revelle said.
“So part of what the messages have been about Northwestern listening to input from the neighbors has been accurate, but then it’s been very misleading to suggest that the neighbors are really excited about the idea of increased use of the stadium.”
But Davis said he and the Northwestern team leading the project “simply don’t know” how many concerts would be held each year, which he described as “the honest truth.” Davis and Vice President for Operations Luke Figora both referenced an economic impact study currently in the works from consulting firm Tripp Umbach that has gathered preliminary data suggesting that Evanston could receive more than $35 million per year in tax revenue from hosting concerts at the venue.
That study, which is not yet complete or publicly available, also estimates that the development could bring more than $600 million in “indirect economic impact” to the city through new jobs, tax revenue and customers for local businesses, for example, Figora said. However some residents at the meeting also expressed doubt about those figures and the overall positive benefit that the development would add for the city.
For local Evanstonians, the good news is that the mammoth development will not require any taxpayer funding. Instead, the billionaire and Northwestern megadonor Ryan family, along with the university itself, will pick up the tab.
“We received a truly transformative gift from the Ryan family, who have a long history of generosity toward Northwestern,” Figora said. “And we think it’s created the opportunity for really a once-in-a-century type investment in Northwestern, but also the City of Evanston, and we’re thrilled to bring forward this opportunity.”
In terms of the project’s overarching timeline, university and city leaders plan to host multiple meetings on specific topics including concerts, alcohol sales, traffic, game day management and demolition/construction, Davis and Revelle both said. The first of those gatherings will take place Thursday, Nov. 3, according to Revelle.
After that, Northwestern is hoping to apply for hosting full-capacity concerts before the end of the year, Davis said. Construction is expected to last more than two years, with the first games being played at the new stadium in the fall of 2026, according to Himes. Revelle also told the RoundTable that the project will likely include a lengthy demolition process involving complicated efforts like removing asbestos from the existing building.
And later in her conversation with the RoundTable, Revelle brought up general concerns about such a large investment in football, which over the last few years has been implicated in serious head injuries.
“There are a lot of concerns these days about football. Ten years from now, are we really still going to be wanting to have people getting concussions on the football field?” she said. “I don’t know. It’s a big investment in a sport that’s got a lot of question marks on it at this point.”