By Sonia and Aaron Cohen
Bad news about climate change is pervasive: Drought emergency in Portugal and France. Irreversible loss of millions of acres of crops in Spain. Increased flooding, heat islands and extreme weather in Chicago. In Evanston, Northwestern University plans to build a massive entertainment complex whose carbon impact will accelerate those very climate depredations.
Can the immense consumption and waste involved in NU’s demolishing the old Dyche stadium, and building and operating a vastly bigger new Ryan Field, be justified? How does running a for-profit, mass entertainment complex drawing hundreds of thousands of people a year mesh with the university’s educational mission?
By hotly pursuing a glitzy new arena, NU is exacerbating climate change in Evanston, and giving the lie to its own environmental claims. SustainNU is the university’s program “that aims to engage students, faculty, and staff in reducing – and eventually eliminating – Northwestern’s contribution to climate change. In doing so, we will lead the way toward a greener, healthier, and more sustainable future.”
Rebuild Ryan Field is the antithesis of this.
NU’s Ryan Field proposal, which will come before Evanston governing bodies any day, includes hosting at least 10 concerts at stadium capacity (35,000) and an unlimited number of other events with attendance of 10,000 or fewer people. This is a recipe for substantially increasing Evanston’s carbon footprint by generating new and ongoing air, noise and light pollution throughout the year.
Air pollution from semitrucks and traffic congestion: Touring concert professionals say touring shows that draw 20,000-30,000 people require 10 to 20 semis for equipment; smaller shows require five to 10 trucks. Load-in and setup typically take four to five days, and load-out, which begins immediately after the show (11 p.m.), continues throughout the next day. Both are noisy operations, comparable to construction sites, and cause light pollution as well as noxious emissions from idling vehicles, as drivers often sleep in their trucks. Big diesel engines left to idle for long periods consume significant fuel and produce substantial greenhouse gasses.
Typical large concert setups require semis for band gear, sound equipment, lights, video, wardrobe and dressing rooms, a traveling stage, catering trailer, multiple generator trailers, a power trailer with cabling, and mix and delay towers. Even amenity-rich arenas often invite concession and beer trucks, and possibly 10 to 12 trailers with porta-potties (although until now football fans seem fine urinating in alleyways, on the golf course and in neighbors’ yards).
How will all these semis arrive at Ryan Field from the expressway, when access roads pass under viaducts of limited height? Some Wilmette residents already are petitioning the city manager to ban truck traffic.
Congestion: Neither NU nor Evanston have yet conducted a serious traffic analysis, so find a pencil and the back of an envelope. Let’s assume a concert of 30,000. The City of Evanston’s downtown garages have approximately 3,500 parking spaces. To shuttle three attendees per car to and from the entertainment complex will require over 210 bus trips each way.
If 20% of attendees take public transportation (double the 10% of Ravinia attendees), that leaves 17,000 attendees arriving by car or ride share. If each car carries three attendees, approximately 5,700 cars will converge on the entertainment complex along with shuttle buses and pedestrian traffic. (NU’s initial proposal to Evanston called for fewer than 1,500 parking spaces at Ryan.)
How much carbon monoxide will idling vehicles produce as they idle and crawl, backed up on every east-west street, as well as Ridge Avenue, Green Bay Road and Sheridan Road? How many cars will jam one-lane, two-way neighborhood streets looking for parking?
Noise Pollution: Large concert venues, such as stadiums and arenas, have complex acoustical issues. Large sound systems are installed for each touring concert to provide quality audio at high sound levels – sound levels inappropriate for a residential neighborhood. According to an Evanston resident who is a 47-year veteran of the sound industry, sound levels at concerts can reach 100 to 120 decibels within the audience area of a stadium concert venue. These sound levels will bleed into the surrounding neighborhoods. Concert sound/noise cannot be contained in any venue that is open to the sky without a roof.
Concert sound has a vastly different acoustic profile than cheering football fans and announcers. Unlike light, which is quite directional and can be controlled with shades and blinds, sound waves radiate in all directions. Concert sound, particularly low frequency waves like kick drums and bass guitar, easily passes through walls, doors and windows. If a neighbor is hosting a party with loud music, one may not be able to see the party, but the party is plainly audible.
Destruction and construction: NU plans to dump in a landfill its nearly 100-year-old iconic stadium, a structure one NU official ironically called “dilapidated,” as if it wasn’t the university’s job to maintain it. This at a time when the trend in architecture is to reuse and extend older structures.
“The reuse and rehabilitation of buildings is vital for reasons of both environmental sustainability and for enriching the socio-cultural identity of places in an increasingly homogenized world,” notes the architectural firm of Sir David Chipperfield, winner of the 2023 Pritzker Prize. In line with that thinking, 10 universities with stadiums of similar vintage as Northwestern’s are renovating them, as NU itself did in 1996.
Rather than embracing sustainability, NU is planning to spend close to $1 billion to build the minimum LEED-certified stadium required by Evanston zoning. There is no plan to use renewable energy sources, because NU officials say that would be too expensive.
Constructing the new facility will have a big climate impact, given that some estimates say every ton of cement produces a ton of CO2 emissions, of which concrete production accounts for an estimated 8% globally.
Destroying the old stadium will create its own climate problem.
“The greenest building is the one that already exists,” said Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects. A recent report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation states that “it takes 10 to 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average-performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the construction process.”
Where are we?
As individuals and families, we have choices about how we use energy, how we recreate, what we acquire and how we dispose of it, and how and what we eat. When it comes to collective action, what it will take to address climate change, we need government, corporations and institutions to lead the way.
Locally, we need the City of Evanston and Northwestern to put money and policy where their mouths are. We need them to transform sustainability from a multisyllabic buzz word into a cohesive, multipronged plan.
Building a big fun factory in the heart of an Evanston neighborhood, which has been a model of sustainability for over 100 years, should not be part of that plan. No one knows this better than Northwestern climate scientists, Mayor Daniel Biss and environmentally conscious council members, such as our own representative, Eleanor Revelle.
Taking environmental responsibility does not mean ending Big Ten athletics, concerts or educational events. It means renovating, not tearing down; measured, not mega.
The city and university should collaborate to improve our chances – and our children’s chances – of continuing to enjoy full lives. Otherwise we, as a city, a community and a species, will fail. For keeps.
What fun is that?
Sonia and Aaron Cohen are founding members of the Most Livable City Association.
Environmental concerns are paramount these days and the new stadium could very well increase Evanston’s carbon footprint. However, none of us are experts and I doubt it would be significant enough to ultimately matter. Evanston was hit hard by the pandemic — especially downtown — and it could use some revitalization. Now NU absolutely needs to foot most of the bill, if not all and should be going about this in an eco-friendly way. But I think the benefits would outweigh the negatives. The jobs and business it would generate would be substantial, not to mention a wonderful way to lure prospective students. Evanston deserves the best, latest and cutting edge.
Sigh. This is all relevant and I’m sure much of it is accurate. I’m not going to quibble with the specifics here. Humans have certainly made a mess of the planet and constantly building new structures while tossing out the old ones (or even partially reclaiming them) will continue to be an enormous problem no matter what happens at Ryan Field.
On balance, there are likely some benefits to this project. That said, now that NU is “willing” to negotiate (a little tiny bit—insert eye rolling emoji here—), the City should push for more than the minimum LEED standard and some measure of re-use/mitigation of waste from the tear-down. (And, of course, Evanston should get a piece of the ticket sales.)
I’m not convinced Evanston has been some great model of sustainability for over 100 years. We’re pretty woke over here, but let’s not overstate our virtues. We’re trying hard and I’m grateful for our collective concern, but we certainly don’t belong on a pedestal!
The reality is that NU is going to rebuild Ryan Field one way or another. The City can and should fight hard to get everything it possibly can out of this nightmare—and we are a long way from that at the moment. Let’s put our energy into making this (horrible) project a win-win, because I seriously doubt we can stop it from happening.
Thank you to Aaron and Sonia for furthering the facts regarding the environmental impact of NU’s over-scaled for- profit entertainment project. Since potential zoning changes have a forever impact on our city, it is crucial that everyone understand what is being requested by NU, how far reaching those plans are and how detrimental those changes would be to the immediate neighborhood and to the entire city. The well-edited soundbites coming from NU are misleading many and attempting to minimize the damage planned. We expect our city government to protect our property values, and the safety and best interests of all citizens. We also expect them to uphold the city’s Climate Action Resilience Plan even if NU intends to make a mockery of sustainNU.
Kudos to the Cohens for this commentary! It’s an outrage that N.U. Insists on demolishing the current stadium, with no plans to re use original materials, and in order to afford the project, must bring in huge concerts to pollute our environment and cause havoc to traffic in the neighborhood for much of the summer, when Evanstonians enjoy the outdoors and schmeying around Central St, which will become a crowded nightmare. Shame on them and shame on Evanston City Council for kowtowing to N.U. For generations!
Well, there is certainly much to unpack in this essay. There is a different perspective to be shared on a few of the points mentioned.
In the “rebuild or renovate” discussion, one might consider just how much renovation the current Ryan Field will require to be brought to a standard that the residents of Evanston and Northwestern deserve. I’m not aware that merely avoiding being among the worst or oldest stadiums is our goal. The biggest sacrifice made by renovation is the loading dock under the stadium. Access to an underground area for loading and unloading takes truck and bus congestion off of surrounding streets. Set aside concerts for a moment. The current half dozen buses (or more) that arrive with players, staff and equipment on game days, not to mention those hired by alumni groups, will have a place to load and unload other than Central or the surrounding streets. Anyone concerned with congestion or pollution from idling buses should consider this sacrifice.
Just because there will be less construction material loss in a renovation does not mean that there will not be any, and I suggest material waste in a Ryan Field renovation may be substantial. Take seating configuration as one example. Northwestern wishes to reduce the number of potential fans by 12,000 or by 25%. One might think those concerned with traffic, noise and congestion would welcome this idea. To reconfigure the current seating and redesign for improved ADA access would require substantial deconstruction and reconstruction. Rest room facilities are another example. Anyone identifying as female who has stood in line with me with concur with the current inadequacy. To my knowledge, there are no existing gender-neutral restrooms in the stadium. How are existing rest facilities to be expanded? How will new rest facilities be accommodated? Finally, the authors suggest rows of porta potties surrounding the existing stadium precisely because it is not currently a “amenity rich environment.” Imagine something better.
Consider the trade off to renovating an old facility never designed for current needs every twenty-five years or building one contemporary facility ready for the next fifty plus years. The next renovation of a nearly 100-year-old Ryan Field may not be its last.
Northwestern has conducted and released at traffic study. It can be found at https://www.cityofevanston.org/home/showpublisheddocument/89616
Northwestern is not proposing to build a stadium on Central Street. The stadium exists and has accommodated crowds of up to 55,000 fans. (The current configuration of 47,000 was initiated in 1997.) Whatever noise, congestion and traffic the stadium has created has existed for the last 97 years. The new design offers Evanston and Northwestern a smaller, contemporary and more environmentally friendly stadium for our use at no cost to Evanston residents. Let’s do this.
Your statement that the stadium was reconfigured (and seating reduced) in 1997 undermines your argument that it can’t be done again. Also, NU can’t fill the 47,000 seats it has now (except occasionally with fans of an opposing team)—typical attendance is something like 25,000 people. Reducing seating capacity will not reduce traffic.
I did not suggest that stadium seating cannot be reconfigured. I suggested that it will require substantial rework producing the same sort of disruption that the authors complain about. Admittedly, less, but still substantial. Seat configuration is only one of the redesign challenges. I could list many more improvements needed, but this is a comment, not a book. Please do not present the choices as complete disruption with a rebuild and nominal disruption with a rehab. That I believe to be untrue.
Northwestern is not putting a stadium on Central Street. The stadium is there. Anyone who bought property in the neighborhood in the last 97 years made a choice to accommodate much larger crowds than the proposed 28,000 attending 10 concerts. This proposal creates a smaller, more environmentally friendly and contemporary space that ALL of Evanston can enjoy. Let’s do this!
Ryan Field NUFB attendance data is and easily found online. In 2021, it was 31K per home game. When I was a student in 2011 it was 36K per home game, and this is an average. Late summer games, before students return, average 20-30K, while fall games average 30-45K. When the team is competitive (that’s the program goal), home games (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State) regularly sell out. Stop spreading easily falsifiable disinformation. It weakens your arguments.
Hi Nick, the estimate I shared came from NU’s Deputy Director of Athletics, Denée Barracato—she shared it in a Seventh Ward meeting last fall. Since I think this website is the source of your 2021 figure, you might also note this important caveat there: “The program’s 2021 average home attendance, including the Wrigley Field home game, was 30,796” (http://hailtopurple.com/cde/attendance_annual.html#:~:text=NU%20has%20not%20sold%20out,Field%20home%20game%2C%20was%2030%2C796).
The Op-Ed literally says renovate the field instead of doing a teardown. I don’t see how pointing out a previous renovation was done does anything but support this Op-Ed.
The fact this is the only criticism you can muster shows how strong this Op-Ed, is in my opinion.
I am sorry that you misunderstood my point. One more time. It is NOT that the stadium cannot be renovated. It HAS been renovated. And it will need to be renovated again and again because it’s a nearly 100 year old building not suited for today’s or tomorrow’s needs. And each renovation will produce waste. Or, we can start over once with a new stadium. Obviously, we can agree to disagree in a civil manner. But this is as clear as I can make my point.
Northwestern is not putting a stadium on Central Street. The stadium exists. It is proposing a smaller, more environmentally friendly facility for use by ALL of Evanston at their expense. If you don’t want this, fine. Please respect the opinions of over 2,800 Evanston residents who do. I rest my case.
Some people will always put immediate satisfication and profit over community health & doing what we can to limit the effects of climate change.
You’re entitled to your “different” perspective, sure, but choosing to argue against sincere environmental concerns is callous and makes your side look bad.
“There are no existing gender neutral bathrooms” That can be changed by changing door signs to “bathroom with toilet stalls” and “bathroom with toilet stalls an urinals”. Trans people pee the same way as cis people they don’t need special toilets or urinals.
Let’s not use trans people to prop up a school that literally invited James Lindsay to give a hate speech when he has repeatledly said trans people don’t exist and that anyone who doesn’t identify as cisgender should be murdered.
Northwestern owes the trans community an apology if anything, not to have their allies pretend that they care about trans people to not-so-subtly imply opponents of re-zoning are transphobic.
AMEN!! The proposals that NU has put forward are so out of line with what this tiny north Evanston neighborhood can handle are unbelievable. I commend the work that this organization and others like it are doing to defend us.
This is a generational decision that will negatively effect all of Evanston, Wilmette, and the surrounding area if not kept in check.
Re: “10 universities with stadiums of similar vintage as Northwestern’s are renovating them, as NU itself did in 1996.” There are schools still using stadiums built in the 1800’s and renovating them as needed. Look up the list of oldest stadiums in the NCAA, Ryan Field isn’t even in the top ten!
There is no reason to tear down a stadium built in 1920 that was last renovated in 1996. Especially when they have a budget of $480 million from the Ryans to do renovations.
The tear down is a smokescreen to get the profit concern re-zoning request passed & portray people who don’t want them to host concerts with 35,000 attendees (for comparison the United Center only has a capacity of 21,000 people ) as “hating football” when no one is asking them not to play NCAA college games at Ryan Field.
It’s horrifying to see how much environmental damage NU is willing to do to earn a quick buck.