Tensions ran high once again at the latest Seventh Ward meeting on the new Ryan Field football stadium proposed by Northwestern University.

More than 50 residents joined a Zoom call Wednesday night, Feb. 15, featuring representatives from Northwestern and Levy Restaurants, which is the concessions company now licensed to serve alcohol at games and events at Welsh-Ryan Arena, next door to Ryan Field.

As part of the city’s planning and zoning process, the university is seeking three different approvals leading up to the construction of its new stadium: a zoning amendment that would allow up to 10 full-capacity concerts, a special use permit for the development of the facility itself and a liquor license for the stadium.

Wednesday’s meeting was set as a discussion about potential alcohol sales by Seventh Ward Council Member Eleanor Revelle. But, while some residents asked questions about alcohol service and safety, many primarily criticized Northwestern for trying to host public-facing concerts and for an alleged lack of sufficient financial contributions to the Evanston community.

“Does Northwestern want to become the national poster child of abuse of its nonprofit educational status?” Matthew Grayson asked during a Ryan Field community meeting on Jan. 31. Credit: Duncan Agnew

“By providing that investment, that payment in lieu of taxes, to not just the city of Evanston, but the school districts as well, you are committing and showing the neighbors and the entire city that you are invested. That money does speak volumes,” Fiona McCarthy, a Seventh Ward resident and founding member of the Most Livable City Association, told Northwestern Executive Director of Neighborhood and Community Relations Dave Davis.

“We need your commitment in writing. Otherwise, we’re not going to be able to give you that support that you’re asking for. It’s going to continue to be an animosity relationship.”

Days after Northwestern first filed its application for a zoning amendment, hundreds of residents gathered at a community forum Jan. 31. There, several Ryan Field neighbors vehemently opposed the application not only seeking up to 10 full-capacity concerts per year, but also unlimited events for up to 10,000 people.

But at the Zoom meeting Wednesday night, Davis and Vice President for Operations Luke Figora clarified that the request for 10,000-person events was intended for things like a fall festival, a skating rink, markets and other community gatherings at the new plazas outside the stadium included in the design.

Since residents clearly were not pleased with that request, though, both Figora and Davis said Northwestern would be revisiting the language in the zoning application to provide some more limitations on the number and scale of events.

“I kind of take exception to this notion that this [stadium] is going to be some kind of cash cow, or that Northwestern is simply doing this to generate profits,” Davis said. “And that’s just not the case here. We’re a nonprofit institution. We do not have shareholders, and so every dime we make is simply recycled back into the university to help us advance our academic mission.”

Responding to Davis’ call to work together, rather than against each other, some meeting attendees addressed specific projects that Northwestern could help support, like improved sidewalks and crosswalks for kids traveling to school, for example.

But other residents, like Aaron Cohen and Meredith DeCarlo, still had a major problem with the university not releasing the full contents of a market research study on the stadium development conducted by consulting firm CSL. That research informed the economic impact study commissioned by Northwestern, which estimated $101.9 million in revenue for the city by 2031.

Davis said Northwestern cannot share parts of CSL’s research because of “proprietary information” about the university and other peer schools, but DeCarlo added that she wants to see the estimates that CSL made on how much alcohol would be sold at the stadium and how many construction workers would be hired locally, for example.

Alcohol sales

The conversation did, however, start off covering Northwestern’s desire to sell beer and wine at the new stadium, which is set to open in the fall of 2026, according to the current timeline.

Levy Restaurants owns the license to sell alcohol at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and would also operate the concessions and sales of liquor at the new Ryan Field as well.

At the new Ryan Field, game and concert attendees would be limited to two drinks per trip to the concessions stand, and drink sales would be cut off at least 20 or 30 minutes before the end of any event, according to Levy Division President Robert Wood. Levy has also previously introduced programs to incentivize designated drivers, for whom sodas are free, for instance.

In an attempt to calm any concerns about binge drinking or violent altercations at the stadium as the result of alcohol sales, Wood referenced two studies showing that citations and ejections from games actually decreased after alcohol became available at football stadiums at Ohio State University and North Carolina State University.

But neighbors pointed out that Wood and Northwestern could have simply cherry-picked two positive studies, and others also asked about potential damage to downtown Evanston businesses where people typically go to have a drink before or after a game.

Local businesses would be able to work with Levy to sell their products in the stadium, as well as at popup tents outside the stadium, Wood said.

Levy and Northwestern would also work with the Evanston Police Department and the Northwestern Police Department in the event of a worst-case scenario where a drunk fan or concertgoer ends up wreaking havoc in the neighborhood or at the stadium.

“There’s an incentive for us to do this right, especially Levy,” Davis said. “They can lose their license, and so this is something that we all take incredibly seriously.”

Both the zoning amendment and special use permit for construction are expected to be considered by the Land Use Commission at one of its meetings in March, Revelle said.

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. Clever posters? Evanston averages 2-3 homicides per year. You think a parody showing a gun show coming to the new stadium is funny? Maybe you should ask the parents of slain children how funny and clever it is.

  2. The community will know that the University is serious about working with our residents when it puts decision makers in the room. These are serious issues and sending spokespersons is disrespectful. It is the constant arrogance of the University that is the most troubling. They seem convinced that they can buy the zoning changes and approvals.

  3. I have noticed that there are some clever posters appearing in the Central Street Metra station, presumably from an individual or group who opposes NU’s stadium plan. This morning, while waiting for my train, a man in the station removed the latest poster, folded it in half, and placed it in his backpack. I asked him if it was his. He said no, and that he was taking it to bring home and show his friends. I said that I liked the poster, too, and I had taken a picture of it with my phone. We talked a bit about the controversy and he stated that there was a high “snark factor” to (apparently) the opposition / poster creators. I’ve noticed that the other 3 posters along these lines have also been removed. Please stop removing publicly placed materials like these: they are well-done, humorous and provocative.

    1. Hi there. One of the posters featured pictures of guns and was a faux gun show poster. Whatever legit concerns these neighbors have, they pale in comparison to the gun violence epidemic and the tragedies Evanston families have experienced. I hope this group will recalibrate. Gun violence is not funny. Whereas arguing for school funding is right on. It feels very unjust that a shiny new stadium will go up with local schools are in need of repairs and additional resources.

    2. I guess we have different standards for “well done.” Mine tend to align with the man who described the posters as “snarky.” I’d add deeply offensive to the suggestion of promoting a gun show. If there are cogent arguments to make against the stadium rezoning, make them. These posters aren’t it.

  4. Davis also stated that NU wouldn’t share parts of their economic study because “they aren’t relevant”. If they weren’t relevant, then why would they be in the study to begin with? If they aren’t being transparent about how they came to these supposedly amazing economic benefits for the city, then how can we trust that the study wasn’t baked (or faked) from the beginning to get their desired results?

    It seems to be a very conscious effort to win over the rest of the city with a blitz of marketing hype that isn’t substantiated with any real data or any attempt at honest dialog with the citizens that are directly and irrevocably impacted by this enormous change to their community. NU doesn’t respond to questions about why they are exceeding their record breaking budget to the point that they must hold for profit concerts to justify the additional costs. Why not build a stadium within your means?

    They speak out of both sides of their mouth with declarations about being a non-profit, but yet they are striking any texts that refers to them as such in the land use agreements. All this doublespeak is why there is no trust with those truly engaging with NU to find a path forward for all. NU must be held accountable, and many city council members that are dazed by the promises of more mooney, must wake up and do their jobs rather than being a rubber stamp (or worse) for NU.