What’s Next for Northwestern University’s Proposed Ryan Field Development Plans

It’s been a turbulent year for Northwestern University football amid mounting lawsuits over a hazing scandal and the firing of head coach and alum Pat Fitzgerald.

A bright spot was a $480 million commitment to rebuild the 97-year-old football stadium by businessman Pat Ryan. But to fund the rest of the $800 million job without direct taxpayer subsidies, Northwestern said it needs revenue from at least six concerts.

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Many Evanston neighbors, however, are pushing back on that proposal — and more than 250 faculty members have asked for a pause in the plan, saying, “we need to get the existing house in order before expanding it.”

The issue is so divisive that an Evanston City Council Land Use Committee hearing slated to begin Wednesday is expected to last several days because of the number of people who have asked to speak. And neighboring Wilmette’s Village Board on June 27 voted unanimously against concerts at the proposed new stadium.

“The addition of concerts as part of the proposed development is unacceptable,” said Wilmette Village President Senta Plunkett in a statement after the vote. “The large-scale commercialization of a non-profit institution’s athletic campus should be a non-starter and we ask our colleagues in Evanston to reject the concert proposal.”

As a result of the community pushback, Northwestern University President Michael Schill tweaked the school’s zoning application to win more support.

According to Schill’s announcement, Northwestern has cut the number of concerts from 10 to six per year. The university also changed the language from being able to host “an unlimited number of 10,000-person University events at Ryan Field” to instead limit “community-based activities at the stadium and plazas to 60 days per year with programs designed in collaboration with our neighbors such as holiday celebrations and fall and winter festivals.”

But City Council member Eleanor Revelle, who represents the 7th Ward in Evanston where the stadium is located, said the changes aren’t enough.

“It still means six commercial concerts bringing 28,500 people to the 7th Ward the middle of a very dense residential neighborhood,” Revelle said. “The parking plan is not real realistic. It requires many, many concert goers to park in the downtown or on the lakefront, and then to take shuttles to the stadium, upward of 200 shuttle runs after the concert.”

City Council member Devon Reid of the 8th Ward, however, is supportive of the concerts.

“I think adding concerts and bringing in tens of thousands of people to Evanston will be good for Evanston businesses,” Reid said. “It will be good for promoting Evanston. And the build-out alone will bring many jobs to Evanston. Northwestern is committed to targeting those jobs to the minority community.”

Northwestern said it has a target goal for 35% of all stadium construction contracts to be awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses in Evanston.

But a “target” is not a guarantee, according to Parielle Davis, vice president of nonprofit community group Most Livable City Association.

“We don’t want promises because we don’t think that those are sufficient,” Davis said. “We do not believe in Northwestern’s commitment to actually follow through. And we think that the only thing that can actually force them to do so is legal obligations.”

“We’ve been asking the City Council and other community members to force Northwestern to agree to a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that is legally binding so that we don’t have to rely on promises,” she continued. “There have been other commitments that they have done for the community, including work to … encourage people to get into plumbing and other trades, and they stop that program after a year. And they have (a) repeated history of starting commitments and then stopping them as soon as it’s no longer salient and once the issue is no longer in the press.”

The Rev. Michael Nabors, who is the pastor at Second Baptist Church of Evanston and president of the Evanston/North Shore NAACP, supports the concerts and the new stadium — and the jobs and money they are projected to bring to Evanston.

“Northwestern has made a commitment of offering at least 35% of all of those subcontractor jobs and small business jobs to Black and Brown businesses, as well as women. That comes out to be about $208 million,” Nabors said. “They’ve also made a commitment for workforce development to the tune of about $10 million. And workforce development is an area that is centered specifically on young Black and Brown adults. They’ve also committed 3,000 jobs will be made available during the construction.”

Nabors vows that the NAACP will continue to pressure Northwestern to stick to its word in lieu of a CBA.

“Since they have made it public, as the NAACP president, we are going to make sure that they’re holding true to what they’ve targeted,” Nabors said.

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