EVANSTON, Ill. — On a late September Saturday morning on Central Street in Evanston, hundreds of people wearing their school colors were walking toward Ryan Field, the football stadium where the Northwestern Wildcats have played for nearly a century.  

The Sept. 30 game was between Penn State and Northwestern.

The six home games a year boost business for several stores along the stretch, like Hewn Bakery, which posted a chalk sign welcoming football fans to “Stop in for some coffee and pastries before the game” and subsequently saw a line out the door and wrapping down the block.

At Ten Mile House, a restaurant and bar in the shadow of the stadium, owner Fred Gale is serving brunch on one of his busiest days of the year. 

“We’re literally steps away,” he said. “Our business probably triples versus a normal Saturday.”

Northwestern University is proposing to tear down Ryan Field, the 97-year-old stadium that looms over an upscale residential neighborhood, and replace it with a privately funded $800 million facility that the university envisions as a venue for concerts and other events.

But that plan has set off a debate in the city, there are those who see the proposal as a potential economic engine, and those who see it as a burden. 

“There’s a big difference in the level of activity you would see for a typical football game than what you would see for a rock concert,” said Lesley Williams, the president Community Alliance for Better Government. “To be clear, we’re not opposing the renovation of the stadium. What we’re opposing is the re-zoning of this area to a commercial entertainment district.”

She and several other vocal Evanston residents, together with some Northwestern students and professors, have been protesting the proposal for months, and voicing concerns to city’s Land Use Commission during a series of contentious meetings.

The university declined requests for interviews from WGN News. But during the final Land Use Commission meeting on the topic, Northwestern representatives touted the potential benefits: Added green space, public markets, ice skating, outdoor movies, and an entertainment venue that could make the stadium a year-round attraction and an economic engine rather than a dormant building for all but about one week of the year.  

“This project cannot, and will not move forward without this approval,” said Dave Davis, the senior executive director of neighborhood and community relations at Northwestern.

The university originally requested a zoning amendment allowing for 15 concerts, but in the face of opposition, it dropped that number to six, which authorities told the commission is the minimum number it needs to bring in the revenue to sustain the stadium’s operations.

“That’s not a bluff,” said new stadium project expert Marc Ganis, who has worked on stadium issues with two-thirds of the teams in the NFL, and on the new Yankee Stadium development. “I actually checked with people who are involved with the project. Lawyers, architects, planners. This is actually real. The reason why six events, other than the football games is so vital isn’t just because of the $2 million that will come in from the concerts themselves. The suites and the advertising is more valuable. So if you don’t have the six events, you’ll lose another 2.5 to 2 million in suites, you lose another 1.5 to 2 million in advertising and sponsorships so the total is 5-6 million, and that’s in perpetuity.”

On October 12, the land use commission voted against the plan, but the vote was only “advisory.”

The ultimate decision will come from the nine-member Evanston city council, which appears to be evenly split, since one member is an Northwestern University employee and has pledged to recuse himself.

So that means Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss could be the deciding vote. So far, he has not publicly revealed his position and he declined WGN’s request for an interview.

“Most of the Northwestern campus is in my ward,” said alderperson Eleanor Revelle. 

She said the council is required to weigh four questions:

  • Is the zoning change consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan?
  • Are the public facilities adequate for the proposal?
  • How would it impact property values?
  • Is the change consistent with surrounding neighborhood?

LOWE: “In your view, has Northwestern met those standards?”

REVELLE: “In my view, no it has not.”

The debate is happening as Northwestern football embroiled in hazing scandal that cost long time coach Pat Fitzgerald his job and has the university facing multiple lawsuits not only from Fitzgerald, but also several former student athletes.

Also simmering in the background is the long-standing the tension over the university’s tax-exempt status and the city’s strained budget.

LOWE: “Northwestern wants something from the city of Evanston. The city of Evanston, for years, has wanted something from Northwestern in the form a community benefits agreement. Why do you think it’s dangerous to negotiate that through the zoning code?

REVELLE: “Well, yeah, I don’t want to negotiate that through the zoning code. We would be saying we’ll change our zoning code if you give us enough money.”

Northwestern is offering $2 million in annual tax revenue from the stadium to the city, $500,000 to Evanston public schools annually and $250,000 to support an Evanston community event.

Northwestern is also touting the proposal as a project that would create 3,000 construction jobs, with more than $200 million for minority contractors, a prospect that has earned the approval of Michael Nabors, the president of Evanston’s NAACP chapter.

Some residents say that’s not nearly enough and are concerned that the new stadium on game days – and potential concert nights could bring increased congestion affect access to emergency services. Both Fire Station No. 3, and Evanston hospital are also located on Central Street just blocks from the stadium.

“To do something that is going to endanger health and security for people — Central Street that we’re on right now is the major avenue to get to Evanston hospital, which is our Level 1 trauma center,” Williams said.

With limited parking in the area Northwestern’s proposal includes using shuttle buses that would bring concert crowds from the lakefront campus and downtown Evanston to the stadium.

“The plan prohibits parking in the neighborhoods,” said Peter Lemmon, a traffic engineer Kimley-Horn, a transportation consulting firm. “Therefore, we would need more parking in other places, so there would be more shuttle busses for that.”

Williams is critical of the idea, saying the buses would create exhaust and congestion.

“If they’re going to have busses taking people from downtown, they would have to have hundreds and hundreds of busses to be able to do that,” she said. “We just think it’s completely unrealistic.”

On football game days, between 1,400 and 2,000 fans arrive at the stadium through the CTA’s Purple Line. Another 100-200 people take the Metra, according to Lemmon. The vast majority of fans arrive by car and thousands tailgate in the lots next to Ryan Field, including David Spitulnik, who is part of the “Field of Opportunities: Count me In” campaign that supports the stadium.

“For the people who are against it, I believe that a lot of them, there’s nothing that they’re for,” Spitulnik said. “They find a way to be negative about everything.”

Northwestern’s proposal would decrease the capacity of the stadium from the current 47,000 to 35,000, but the stadium would be built much higher 116 feet (or roughly nine stories), which is more than twice the height of most of the current bowl. The prospect of concerts raising concerns over noise, which the university says will be mitigated by advances in architectural design and technology.  

The council will meet on October 30, potentially taking the final vote.