Ryan Field vote: Evanston approves Northwestern football stadium rebuild with plan for concerts

Tuesday, November 21, 2023
EVANSTON, Ill. (WLS) -- Northwestern University got the green light to rebuild its football stadium, and rezone its use for large-scale events.

Ryan Field saw its last game Saturday, when the Wildcats beat Purdue.

The pitch for the privately funded construction project took more than a year to get through Evanston City Council.

It was a close-call, but in the end, Evanston's Mayor Daniel Biss cast the deciding vote in Tuesday night's City Council meeting to approve the Ryan Field Rebuild.

By a vote of five-to-four, the Evanston City Council voted to allow Northwestern University to rebuild 97-year-old Ryan Field.

"I feel like we did the right thing for Evanston," Mayor Biss said. "This was a long difficult journey with a lot of strong feelings but ultimately an entirely privately-funded world-class facility creating a lot of jobs for people in this town."

It's an $800 million project, and, with the approval, the stadium can hold six concerts a year.

Evanston residents widely supported rebuilding the stadium, but rezoning it was controversial.

And that was a hot button issue for weeks leading to hours of meetings with concerned residents and organizations.

Those opposed say concerts would just add more traffic, noise and parking issues to the otherwise quiet residential area.

"To me, it sounds like the amendment is attempting to shoehorn a major concert venue into a residential neighbor, a neighborhood with limited parking," Council Member Eleanor Revelle said.

And some felt City Council gave in to Northwestern too quickly.

"We'll be remembering this in elections to come, and we will be strategizing on finding representatives that do perhaps better represent the needs and the wishes of the people of Evanston rather than that of a wealthy and powerful institution," Lesley Williams with Community Alliance for Better Government said.

But those in favor argue the commercial use would bring in major tourism dollars to Evanston. Plus, the university also agreed to give back millions to Evanston for future use.

"They are giving an annual contribution starting at $3 million, and increasing every year for 15 years; that is going to allow us to not only make investments in things like affordable housing and climate but also to shore up our budget," Biss said.

He also said there will be restrictions in place for parking and noise.

Northwestern released a statement saying in part, "We're embarking on a journey that promises not just a state-of-the-art stadium, but also a beacon of cultural and economic vitality."

The non-profit group "Most Livable City Association" released a statement saying they overwhelmingly reject the decision, and plan to team up with other groups to seek legal recourse.

"The residents tolerate and can just barely handle traffic from football games, but the football games we don't expect to be the same magnitude at all as the concerts," said Parielle Davis with Most Livable City. "We feel betrayed, like we weren't heard, like we were sold out essentially."

Northwestern will be applying for permits immediately, and plan to be ready to play in the new stadium by 2026.

More details will be released in the coming months.

In a lengthy statement, Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss said in part:

"This was obviously a tough call. Many very thoughtful and insistent people presented arguments on both sides of this issue throughout many months. And, of course, everyone's view, including my own, is at least somewhat speculative: we're doing our best to predict how this will go, and it will certainly be better than some of the opponents fear or worse than some of the proponents hope (or both). And so, at the end of this (very) long summary of my thoughts about some of the specifics, I wanted to close by saying a word about how I approach issues like this.

"In my heart, I'm a progressive and an optimist. I'm temperamentally inclined to embrace change. I think of myself as a "YIMBY" ("yes in my backyard"). Furthermore, I think Evanston needs to be willing to embrace change right now. Our economic challenges won't be solved by staying the same as we've always been or trying to return to 2019. Finally, our progressive values and ambition require funding to realize, and we won't be able to access that funding without unfairly burdening those who can least afford to pay - unless we embrace growth and new ideas.

"That doesn't mean that we need to say yes to everything. We need to be willing to shoot down ideas we don't believe in. And for tough calls like this one, we need to be prepared to drive a hard bargain. I wouldn't have been willing to support this without the benefits Northwestern offered and the protections we demanded. And I entirely respect that reasonable people can and do disagree about whether the benefits and protections are adequate to justify my "yes" vote.

"I hope as we move forward and continue to evaluate new opportunities in this community, we do so with an open-minded approach, envisioning a future that is not the same as, but rather better than our past. This is the future I've always strived for in my public service, and my commitment to you is that I'll always continue to do that."

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