From Council Member Thomas M. Suffredin’s Sixth Ward Newsletter:
Over the past few weeks, a number of constituents have asked me what my position is on Northwestern’s new stadium proposal. Usually, the question comes in the form of, “Are you for it or against it?” It’s too early to give a final answer. But I can say this: The current Ryan Field proposal is deficient. It asks too much of Evanstonians and leaves too many questions unanswered.
Frankly, I’m incredulous that Northwestern officials think this proposal is adequate and have presented it as a take it or leave it proposition.
Northwestern has chosen to effort this like a political campaign, with slick mailers, a manipulative “push” poll, yard signs and allegedly “grass roots” groups. Let’s unpack what’s on the website of this campaign, rebuildryanfield.com, and use italics to differentiate it from my comments:
The new Ryan stadium campus is possible due to a generous gift from the Ryan Family. The Ryan Family’s gift was the largest in Northwestern history.
Awesome. The Ryan Family’s legacy of civic generosity and support of Northwestern is admirable. Go ‘Cats!
The current stadium lacks many essential features, accessibility and amenities found in modern stadiums befitting a Big Ten school.
True. A new stadium is very much in Northwestern’s best interests. A new stadium will boost athletic recruiting, alumni and donor engagement, and corporate sponsorship opportunities. It will also be an appropriate nationwide television showcase for a world-class university during the 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m., or 7 p.m. television windows dictated by the Big Ten broadcast contract.
Let’s talk about that Big Ten media deal for a minute. According to ESPN, the Big Ten is projected to distribute $80 million to $100 million per year to each of its 16 members. According to USA Today, the league distributed $54.3 million to most of its members during the most recent fiscal year (2019-20) that was not impacted by the pandemic.
That’s a lot of money. But this windfall – combined with the Ryans’ generosity – makes it hard to believe Northwestern’s woe-is-me claim that it needs to have concerts in order to make the stadium financially viable.
Here is how they put it: Since a facility like this cannot be financially viable on just seven football games, the University is considering hosting a limited number of concerts each year.
All that dough from the Ryans and the Big Ten TV contract and you need concert gigs to stay afloat?
The University presents this bogus predicament as if it’s our problem. Moreover, it depicts the new Ryan Field plan as bringing a year-round community asset and that zero taxpayer dollars are needed to build and maintain the new Ryan Field and plazas.
Northwestern’s claim that the Ryan Field plan entails no public costs reeks of dishonesty. The costs would be considerable – and Evanstonians would bear them. They include lost revenue for Central Street retailers, noise from stadium concerts, traffic congestion, lack of parking for residents, and the potential decline of property values near the new arena. What is Northwestern’s plan to cover these costs? We don’t know. The University hasn’t seriously addressed them.
Most galling is the tax issue. From the campaign website: Preliminary market studies indicate that the current interest in concerts in the area could generate over $35 million in new tax revenue for the City of Evanston from Northwestern over the first decade of the new Ryan Field alone.
I bolded and underlined “could” because it is doing A LOT of work here. A lot of things “could” be. “Could” is not good enough. (I’m going to set aside the alcohol sales portion of this discussion, because that piece is soaked in “could.”) One thing I know for sure, though, is that alcohol sales and concerts would bring Northwestern a lot of money.
Northwestern would get to run this money machine under the shelter of a property tax exemption. Whatever sales taxes “could” flow to the city are pocket change compared to what Evanston public schools, public safety and infrastructure would receive if Northwestern paid the equivalent of property taxes on Ryan Field. Northwestern will try to defuse this issue with “coulds” and invent a “community fund” or one-time payment. That’s not good enough.
Despite the many unanswered questions, Northwestern seems to have calculated they can get the requisite votes on the strength of “could.” University officials act like this is a done deal. I think Northwestern needs to go back to the drawing board – and come back when they’re serious.
(The views expressed are those of Councilmember Suffredin and not those of the City of Evanston.)
Well it is sentiments like this that has left us with the Harley Clarke Mansion decaying on the Lake when a private investor was told no. The people that comment that the current stadium is fine have not been to literally any other college stadium lately. Too bad the merchants and residents that are for this project are afraid to voice their opinion. I would love to walk to concerts.
I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Northwestern’s use of the U2 District to visit https://sites.google.com/view/spotlight-on-evanston.
The 2019 pilot was not to allow concerts at Welsh-Ryan—it was to strike the words “non-profit” and “amateur” from the requirements for “temporary events.” In other words, it allowed non-University-sponsored commercial, for-profit, and professional events for a two-year period.
The existing zoning code allows for University-sponsored musical performances “held within an enclosed building,” as well as seven temporary events (of up to five days each), all subject to a 10,000-person cap. Northwestern can and did have concerts at the 7,039-seat Welsh-Ryan before the 2019 zoning change, and continues to do so now that the pilot has expired. For example, A&O Productions’ most recent annual “Blowout” was October 22, 2022.
Councilmember Suffredin’s letter addresses the claims that Northwestern has been making—if you find them irrelevant to the criteria set by ordinance, I think your quibble is with Northwestern. For my part, I appreciate Councilmember Suffredin’s leadership in addressing some of the misinformation Northwestern has been spreading.
Councilmember Suffredin. Thank you for speaking succinctly, and cutting to the chase on this issue. This should be be required reading for the mayor, other councilmembers, members of the zoning commission and citizens of Evanston. This is an example of good governing.
Praise to Councilmember Suffredin! Please keep fighting this gross project with sane analysis! Other non-financial arguments include why are we promoting sports (football) as an essential part of a college education. Why would we support a project that offers only minimum-wage employment? Why would we want more alcohol drenching the city of Evanston?
I have to ask the obvious question: What exactly is wrong with Ryan Field? It is a handsome stadium that doesn’t need to be demolished and dumped into a landfill. What exactly is “green” about that? Concessions? Is it really so hard to figure out a way to improve these things? As far as tv broadcasting is concerned, they broadcast games now. How much is a new stadium going to change that? For that matter, why couldn’t there be an occasional concert at the current stadium? This money could be well spent on other things. Let’s stop tearing down perfectly good buildings.
I likethe idea of the concerts and do not believe they will adversely affect neighboring homeowners or businesses. (In fact, I find it easier to believe the opposite.) I think Suffredin raises some very good and fair questions. But I hope we can find a way through all this posturing and public negotiation through op-ed to actually make the new stadium happen in way that is fair to both the city and the university. The Evanston way tends to be “Kill Anything New.” I hope this is the exception. If it comes to a vote, this Evanstonian will vote for the new stadium plan—as long as the city and university can be fair partners in the revenue.
So true! Thank you for writing this. Also of note the ten “mega concerts” will compromise the majority of weekends from May through August, followed by another 7 weekends from September through November for home football games. 17 weekends between May through November, then an unlimited number of additional for profit events of 10,000 or more. This is nothing more than a money grab by Northwestern, on top of being one of the most richly endowed universities in North America. Northwestern should lose their non-profit status if they move forward with this planned commercial entertainment venue. It is about a far removed from their charter as an educational institution as they can get. Bravo for your courage, Councilmember Suffredin. If we don’t prevail we will have an entertainment venue in a residential neighborhood that is larger than both United Center and Allstate Arena in Rosemont. 35,000 people arriving mostly by car will have a horrific impact on the region and especially every road within 3 miles of the stadium.
Thank-you Mr. Suffredin. Those expensive 4-color mailers NU has been sending out contain information that is highly questionable i.e. Was the 7th Ward adequately represented in their survey that determined the majority of Evanstonians want stadium concerts? On what assumptions is NU using to determine how much tax revenue will accrue to the city? Where did they get those assumptions? How much involvement from city workers will be needed to maintain safety, control traffic, parking, and road repair? How many other universities use off-campus stadiums to conduct concerts during their off-seasons? Why are profits not being taxed? At least we know of one Council Member who will ask the right questions before going along to get along with Northwestern.
Completely fair to ask NU to cover its share of direct costs (security, traffic control, cleanup), but some of the arguments Suffredin makes against the stadium are hollow. Lost revenue for Central Street retailers??? Declining property values??? I challenge anyone to find examples of these in the vicinity of a large entertainment venue. There’s simply no reason to believe either of those claims and in fact the opposite is far more likely.
As a nearby resident, I welcome the idea of concerts within walking distance. Traffic, parking…come on. Those are minor annoyances on game days and we neighbors can certainly tolerate those a couple more days a year.
“As a nearby resident.” I think I see the problem here.
Thank you, Council Member Suffredin, for a powerful letter that captures the concerns of many Evanston residents. Massive projects of this nature and profound changes in zoning laws require transparency, genuine public engagement and careful study. None of those have been the case here. Now let’s hope that other members of the Council follow your lead.
Thank you, council member Suffredin!
I feel like NU’s slick marketing and PR campaign assumes Evanstonians will be easily manipulated, which I find offensive in the extreme. (Oh, we MIGHT get a bunch of hazy -sounding benefits from their new stadium? Wow, sounds like a great deal for us! —NOT)
I agree 100%. NU has not fully or clearly answered the question: What’s in it for Evanston? I think with an ask this big, we are entitled to some solid numbers, a substantial and on-going financial commitment from the university, and serious plans for parking and congestion management.
I beg the City to stand up for itself here. If we are ever going to get NU to kick in something more than its occasional voluntary contributions, now is the time. They want this stadium, and it could end up being, on balance, a good thing for the City. But we have leverage here, and we should use it to insist on quantifiable municipal benefits, not these vague rosy projections.
Well put, Mr. Suffredin. Come back when you’re serious, Northwestern.
Thank you Tim for highlighting some very important issues. Instead of ‘could s’ northwestern university needs to commit to Evanston yearly minimum annual revenue. This amount should be provided to Evanston even if sale taxes are insufficient. Still we agree than we do not have the whole story about the proposed stadium and NW should respect the city by providing all details about the stadium plan
Come on folks. You purchased homes near a stadium. What did you expect? Pity the folks who own condos over near Oak Street and Davis Street where the city is parachuting in a homeless shelter.
How about a swap? I’ll take your $1 million dollar house near Ryan Field (and have a great backyard party when Bruce Springsteen comes to town) and you take my $1 million home next to the new Margarita Inn Regional Homeless Shelter. Deal?
Saying “come on, you purchased near a football stadium, didn’t you expect it to become a concert venue?” is like someone saying to you, “you purchased near a hotel, didn’t you expect it to become a homeless shelter?” I am near neither so I have no stake in the game, but I have lived next to Albany Care and I’d take that over living next to a major concert venue any day.
Thanks for sharing this with readers. It seems well-thought-out.
Dear Councilmember Suffredin, thank you for speaking truth. How encouraging when an elected representative cuts to the chase. NU’s arrogant stadium campaign is beginning to reap what it has sown— fundamental questions about the relationship between Evanston and Northwestern. The university’s unethical approach to the stadium is a symptom of a deeper problem.
In my life, I’ve lived near four other universities including the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. No other school has hosted large events in their stadiums for the public. Probably because…. they’re schools! What’s next? Rebuilding the dorms then claiming in order for it to be “profitable” the school also has to offer hotel rooms on top of the dorms? Let’s not forget that they don’t have to rebuild the stadium. But they’re always trying to trick us by framing the conversation as if they have to rebuild the stadium.
Universities don’t pay taxes because it used to be the case that universities were a public good (since they provided an education) and had hardly any money. Clearly this isn’t the case here if Northwestern can afford to send mailers out for their vanity stadium project. If we decide to prioritize Northwestern over residents, at the very least, Ryan Field should be taxed as a business because one thing that is clear is that this new stadium has NOTHING to do with education.
Alderman Suffredin – I’m happy that you’ve offered your POV here so others outside the 6th ward, like me, hear your voice. I appreciate the concerns you raise and agree that more “coulds” need become “sure things.” Missing from your guest essay, however, is what you personally are doing to optimize community outcomes while securing – rather than scaring off – this massive private investment. Now is the time for such leadership.
As an immediate neighbor to Northwestern’s athletic campus, my family and I were “eyes wide open” when we moved so close. Our quality of life is enhanced by walking distance access to D1/B10 athletics and we welcome the prospect of a new, more versatile Ryan Field. We’ve never perceived an implicit promise that all would remain static in our neighborhood or that we would have disproportionate veto power over our institutional neighbor’s use of its land.
Please lock arms with Eleanor Revelle here in the 7th ward, your other colleagues on the Council and the City’s professional staff to rise above the din. Time to roll up sleeves and hammer out a workable deal with NU. I offer this respectfully and thank you for your consideration.
Maybe you haven’t perceived an implicit promise, but Northwestern made an explicit one in 2019, the last time it sought a zoning change to allow commercial events (resulting in the pilot for Welsh-Ryan Arena). The University’s representative went out of his way to say that Northwestern would not be returning in a couple of years to expand the commercialization to the stadium: “That is not going to happen. I’m saying that on the record. So, that is, NO, that’s not going to happen.” See 2:11:19 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CasYwPwVK84.
No one is asking for “disproportionate veto power”; the simple ask is for the City to follow its own procedures for evaluating a planned development and proposed zoning change as it ordinarily would. Councilmember Suffredin is 100% right that Northwestern is failing to meet its burden.
Hi, Meredith. Thanks for bringing up the Welsh-Ryan pilot. It’s a shame that it didn’t survive the pandemic as any learnings would have some relevance to proposed usage of the new Ryan Field. Not sure why the basketball arena needed any test run at all as there’s a long and non-controversial history of big concerts at McGaw Hall.
I agree with you100% on the City following its established protocols for evaluating planned developments and proposed text amendments. Within the YouTube link you shared, the Plan Commission lays out their criteria for evaluating the merits of proposed amendments. Unfortunately, Ald. Suffredin’s guest essay doesn’t speak to these criteria directly.
We are none served by a dismissive “no” from an officeholder as it intones the veto sentiment that troubles me. Always best when our elected folks encourage calm and promote a better understanding of process and particulars. Effective leadership here skips the ‘pot stirring’ and focuses on substantive actions that’ll produce a workable solution.
Mike, Council Member Revelle has been very neutral about her stance on NU at 7th ward meetings, and when I’ve communicated with her. I’m curious what makes you believe she is Pro-Rezoning the stadium? Have I missed a statement she has made?
Hi, Emily. Thanks for asking me to clarify my comment. I didn’t mean to suggest that Ald. Revelle was either for or against the project. Rather, I’m exhorting all of our elected officials to work proactively toward a solution that preserves the investment. I welcome Ald. Suffredin giving voice to what he finds wrong with the proposal but would also like to hear what he’s doing to make it his vision of right. On a matter of this importance, aldermanic leadership cannot stop at the problem statement alone. A far better headline here would read: “Ald. Suffredin to NU: Come see me. Let’s figure this out.”
On a different note, it seems I have a doppelganger in this comments section. Just want everyone to know that Michael O’Connor who’s also commented is a different person. Such is life with a common name.
Meredith: I replied to you yesterday but I don’t see that it posted. Really appreciate you sharing the YouTube link to the 2019 Plan Commission meeting. Regarding the pilot program for Welsh-Ryan arena, it’s a shame it didn’t survive the pandemic as some learnings would have relevance to the new Ryan Field proposal. Not sure why a trial-run was even necessary as there’s a long and successful history of big-name concerts at McGaw Hall.
You and I are in lock-step on the City following established review and approval procedures for the planned development and the proposed zoning text amendment. In the YouTube video you shared, the Plan Commission lays out its evaluative criteria for text amendments. Regrettably, Ald. Suffredin doesn’t speak directly to any of these criteria within his guest essay. Rather, his issuance of a dismissive “no” intones the veto sentiment that troubles me.
Stirring the pot may win praise in the moment from partisans, but it’s not effective leadership. Always best when elected officials lower the temperature, keep the focus on process and state clearly what they themselves are doing to achieve best outcomes.
Well said Council Member Suffredin! Northwestern University has an unfinished and unserious plan. I don’t think their students could pass any course related to planning or public communication by turning in the plan Northwestern has presented to Evanston. It’s time for them to go back to the drawing board.
Thank you Council member Suffredin for the excellent letter. So good to finally see some Evanston leadership questioning Northwestern’s extremely questionable claims.
If Northwestern was serious about the claims of wanting to make Evanston better they could start the negotiations by offering to make payments in lieu of taxes to the city as many of its peers do. That should be the bare minimum to start negotiations to request the zoning change NU is looking for and any Evanston leader who sells Evanston out for less is doing a huge disservice to their constituents.
Also – I think its worth noting that today the workers for Levy Group (northwestern F&B partner for the stadium) at United Center are on strike. “I’ve been here for over three decades. April will be 33 years for me. And they do not give me health insurance.” said Jamie O’Neill, concession stand manager at United Center. But please NU – tell us how you are going to create “generational wealth” for the citizens of Evanston. Not how this “could” create generational wealth.
Bravo to Suffredin for calling out Northwestern’s use of “could”.
It is so hypocritical for the alderman to so purposely cite the potential decline of property values near the new Ryan Field when the city council is nearly united in putting a homeless shelter – the Margarita Inn – in a residential neighborhood and just down the street from the great stores on Davis Street. Does the alderman think that prices for condos near the Margarita Inn are going up?
Evanston needs the revenues from a new Ryan Field and does not need more homeless expenses (tangible and intangible) in its downtown. Why does the alderman hate the new revenues Ryan Field would bring but supports adding more homeless to our already overwhelmed city?
Thank you Council member Sufferdin for exposing many of the fallacies in Northwestern’s arguments. We need several more council members to recognize these and vote against this boondoggle stadium project. Also a groundswell of the community to demonstrate their rejection of it.
Funny how you’re willing to sacrifice property value decline for Northwestern to get even richer, largely at the surrounding neighbor’s expense, but draw the line at a homeless shelter. Interesting priorities.