Northwestern’s Ryan Field gets OK on rebuilding project, concerts

The Evanston City Council voted late Monday to permit Northwestern University to rebuild Ryan Field and to allow up to six full-capacity concerts a year there, as well as other smaller events.

The council voted 6-2 on the demolition and $800 million rebuild of the nearly 100-year-old football stadium. In a 5-4 vote, with Mayor Daniel Biss breaking a tie, the council approved a zoning change for the concerts, an issue that had generated controversy, particularly among residents near the stadium.

The approval of the concerts came after a decadeslong battle between the city and university over the use of the stadium. A final vote was expected on Nov. 13 but was tabled to give another week for city staff and council members to look over agreement documents.

The council also voted 5-4, with Biss breaking a tie, to allow City Manager Luke Stowe to sign the proposed memorandum of understanding, outlining what is expected of both Northwestern and the city along with a benefits package to the city.

Each 5-4 vote saw Councilmembers Clare Kelly, Melissa Wynne, Thomas Suffredin and Eleanor Revelle vote against Northwestern.

After six meetings of the Evanston Land Use Commission and City Council, weeks of community discussion and 6 1/2 hours of debate Monday, the votes were seen as a victory for proponents of the plan who argued the concerts would bring in much needed tourism dollars to the city.

Those against the stadium have been most opposed to the concerts, saying headaches from traffic, noise and parking issues along with the strain concerts would put on city services aren’t worth the benefits. They, along with several members of Evanston’s Land Use Commission, pushed back on claims from Northwestern that the field would not be viable without revenue from the concerts.

Northwestern has tried for decades to utilize Ryan Field for commercial uses, but has continually been denied the opportunity by the city.

The university told the Land Use Commission in September that concerts at Ryan Field would have a smaller footprint, with a 28,500-seat capacity, than those of other area venues.

“Because of the size of this stadium, in my professional opinion, we are not going to see super-mega acts like Taylor Swift or Metallica or Guns N’ Roses,” Northwestern consultant Michael Godoy, from the firm CAA ICON, said at the Sept. 7 meeting. “I tend to use the term escalator acts, they’re on their way up or they’re on their way down in their careers. It’s going to be that type of artists.”

The zoning change ordinance was amended at the Oct. 31 City Council meeting to include sound limits Northwestern and the acts it brings in have to follow. Sound will have a maximum average of 80 decibels, which if broken would cost the university $50,000. There also will be a 10 p.m. sound cutoff with a 15-minute grace window, with a $30,000 penalty and an additional $2,000 per minute over.

Evanston and Northwestern have agreed to a 15-year expanded benefits agreement, starting next year, that will see annual payments of $3 million to a Good Neighbor Fund with adjustments along the Consumer Price Index for the first 10 years.

The agreement also promises annual payments of half a million to a local workforce development program, another $500,000 annually toward racial equity programming, a million a year to various local nonprofit organizations, $2 million in financial aid for Evanston students to attend Northwestern per year and a yearly quarter million in funding to revitalize the city’s struggling downtown.

Next year also will also see an increased effort to admit Evanston Township High School students to the university and a program to hire local women and minority-owned businesses to help with the field rebuild and represent 35% of those involved. The agreement calls for marketing support from Northwestern’s Kellogg School to help area businesses during the rebuild, an internship program with the city for Northwestern students and partnership with the city to raise funding for the proposed Guaranteed Income Program and to explore program development to tackle issues facing the city.

Another round of benefits is set to begin when the field rebuild is complete and continue for 15 years. These include a $3 surcharge per concert ticket to benefit Evanston schools with a minimum funding guarantee of $500,000 per year, at least $2.5 million yearly in liquor and amusement tax revenue and a quarter-million dollar annual event hosted at the stadium for Evanston residents.

Ticket surcharge funding will be reevaluated in comparison to the Consumer Price Index for the first 10 years of the benefits agreement at a max of 3%.

Other benefits tied to the rebuild completion include potential advanced ticket windows for residents, free movie nights and festivals, community access to the field and a mural on the southeast facade of the stadium.

Both the tax revenue and ticket surcharge benefit were reliant upon passage of the zoning changes allowing concerts be held at the stadium.

On the rare chance Northwestern decides against rebuilding Ryan Field, the university has agreed to pay the $3 million to the Good Neighbor Fund each year for 10 years starting in 2024.

Evanston City Council votes, Nov. 20, 2023, to permit Northwestern University to rebuild Ryan Field and to allow six concerts a year.

Kelly made an attempt to table the vote on the memorandum until Dec. 11 but was only supported by Suffredin. She voiced her disproval of how the negotiations were handled and said she repeatedly tried to join negotiations but was ignored.

Suffredin argued those on city council who negotiated the deal didn’t do their job by advocating for funding the city needs to prop up infrastructure and other public service necessities like pensions.

“Year 16 we’ve got nothing except a vague promise and a hope we have a better relationship,” Suffredin said. “We aren’t doing our job by supporting this and we aren’t doing our job by accepting a 15 year agreement in exchange for a perpetual zoning change.”

Such an agreement, where benefits to both the city and Northwestern end in 15 years, was called a “nonstarter” by the university and voted down 5-4 by council.

Nieuwsma argued the agreement does support other city goals including affordable housing, public safety and downtown revitalization.

“We know negotiation doesn’t happen with 1,000 people in the room and for some reason Evanston wants to do that all the time,” Councilmember Krissie Harris said before voting yes on the concerts. “I will fight for my ward but I will fight harder for my city.”

Councilmembers Bobby Burns and Devon Reid, who voted in favor of the rebuild and concerts, were vocal about comments made by residents that those on the council voting in favor of the plan were corrupt.

“We’ve been accused of felonies, of criminal acts. We’ve been accused of corruption. We’ve been accused of being bribed,” Burns said. “What evidence do you have? It’s terrifying with such confidence how people can loft these accusations at us with zero evidence.”

Reid closed his statements saying he hopes the community continues to reflect on what has happened throughout the voting process and be willing to have individual thought processes challenged.

“I am someone who is not afraid to be wrong out loud. I think that’s how we learn,” Reid said. “I think it will be a great learning opportunity for Evanston and for each of us as individuals and how we engage with other human beings in this world and how we engage as members of large or small institutions”

Revelle, who represents the district the stadium sits, said she chose not to engage in the negotiations because the deal was tied to the zoning change and she didn’t want to put a price on the city’s zoning.

“I think if Northwestern really wanted to be a partner to us — as I think they should want to be — they would be willing to extend this agreement for the life of the stadium or agree to a sunset provision at the 15-year mark,” said Wynne, who stayed out of negotiations for the same reason as Revelle.

Northwestern released a statement following the meeting calling the decision a pivotal moment for the university and Evanston.

“This project has been, and always will be, about more than just a stadium. It’s about enriching our community and creating a legacy of unity and progress,” Northwestern’s Senior Executive Director of Neighborhood and Community Relations Dave Davis said. “Now, as we move forward, our focus is on healing, uniting and working collaboratively toward the betterment of our beloved Evanston community.”

Community members react after the Evanston City Council voted to permit Northwestern University to rebuild Ryan Field.

A statement from the Most Livable City Association, an organization opposed to the stadium rebuild, called out Biss for his tiebreaking votes.

“Tonight, our city government sided with powerful insiders and the billionaire donor who controls Northwestern Athletics, against the families who live in this community,” read the statement from MLCA. “It’s been an eye-opening experience: We’ve learned that Mayor Biss is just another politician, making backroom deals to advance his career instead of representing the people who elected him.”

MLCA has also started campaign to oust Biss as mayor in 2025, calling it the Better Than Biss campaign. The group has stated it will be exploring legal recourse as a result of the vote.

Derke Price, outside legal counsel for the city from Ancel Glink, said a potential lawsuit from Wilmette, whose southernmost residents live just across the street from Northwestern’s athletic campus, would not apply to the city.

“I don’t know what Wilmette’s theory would be that Evanston should be liable for something Northwestern does on its property creating whatever violation of law there is,” Price said. “They’re the ones making the noise.”

Biss called the votes a tremendous investment for the community and a rare opportunity for a town of Evanston’s size. He also recognized the issue has been hard for many people in the community.

“The community benefits package agreed to is historic. It’s a historic transformation in the relationship that we have with this institution,” Biss said. “That doesn’t mean it’s enough for everybody. That doesn’t mean it’s enough for anybody at this standpoint. … I think it sets a new foundation for a new spirit of collaboration going forward.”

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