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Evanston commission rejects Northwestern plan for Ryan Field concerts

Northwestern University’s hope to rebuild Ryan Field was tackled for a loss late Wednesday as a city commission in Evanston voted against its plan to bring concerts and other money-making events to a new football stadium.

Evanston’s Land Use Commission voted 7-2 against a zoning amendment that would allow concerts and similar events at the planned open-air arena. The panel gave Northwestern some of what it wanted, unanimously approving in a separate vote a planned development authorizing the stadium.

But the school has insisted concert revenue is essential to make the $800 million project viable. During the meeting, Dave Davis, senior executive director of neighborhood and community relations for NU, pressed that point. “This project cannot and will not move forward without this approval,” Davis said.

Commissioner George Halik said “it’s obvious” that the concerts will have a negative effect on the area. “I’m still not convinced these concerts are necessary,” he said.

Commission Chairman Matt Rodgers said NU’s insistence on the need for concerts was “somewhat laughable.” Rodgers at the last minute proposed an amendment to give NU flexibility for concerts, with the number and conditions to be negotiated with the city, but his idea was voted down.

The votes came at the end of the panel’s third lengthy meeting on the topic, with the prior two dominated by testimony from the plan’s opponents.

The commission’s decision is advisory only, and the City Council could back the project anyway. But the votes could influence the council or force Northwestern to make concessions to Ryan Field neighbors who live in an upscale area of mostly single-family homes.

The critics have argued that NU’s plans would bring more traffic and noise to the blocks around the stadium, outweighing economic benefits and hurting the quality of life. The school, citing a study it commissioned, said the construction would generate $659.9 million in benefits for Evanston without requiring a tax subsidy.

Northwestern wants to demolish the 97-year-old bowl-style arena at 1501 Central St. and replace it with a stadium that has a different alignment. The seating capacity would be reduced from the current 47,000 to 35,000 for football, a change the school said would improve the fan experience. It would continue to be the home of the Northwestern Wildcats football team.

The school’s proposal calls for incorporating technology for events and up to six annual concerts, the part that has inspired opposition. Critics have balked at NU’s contention that it needs revenue from other activities to make the project viable. It has trimmed its concert proposal from an initial request of 15 dates.

Business groups, meanwhile, have championed the project. The village board in Wilmette, Evanston’s neighbor, has gone on record against it.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, the commission gave Northwestern representatives time to answer arguments made by speakers at the two previous sessions. The nine-member commission then had its own questions for the school.

NU representatives said the proposal amounts to a slight increase in use for the school’s athletic complex, which includes the indoor Welsh-Ryan Arena next to the stadium. Katie Jahnke Dale, an attorney for DLA Piper representing Northwestern, said the school has detailed plans for traffic and crowd control and that adding six concerts will be “quite nominal.”

George Kisiel, a planning consultant hired by NU, said the impact from concerts will be similar to that of football games that the community supports, He called the project “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to replace an aging and obsolete structure.”

Some commission members questioned representatives about the school’s need for concerts and whether the design can minimize community impact.

A main driver of the project is a $480 million pledge from businessman and NU benefactor Pat Ryan.

The fate of the proposal is now in the hands of Evanston’s nine-member City Council. One of its members has said he will recuse himself from the matter because he works for Northwestern.

Several of the remaining alderpersons have raised objections. A 4-4 tie vote would throw the matter to Mayor Daniel Biss, who has been neutral.

Northwestern has said it wants to begin construction at the end of the current football season, but it may be unable to keep to that timetable. Observers have said that if the project is approved, Evanston and Wilmette residents are likely to file suit to stop it.

NU faces numerous other challenges. Some residents see the Ryan Field work as a reward for a football program needing reform after disclosures of a hazing scandal implicating players and coaches. The scandal cost football coach Pat Fitzgerald his job, and he has sued the university, saying he had no knowledge of hazing.

More than 200 NU faculty members signed a letter to administrators calling for changes in the athletic department and saying the Ryan Field work should be put on hold. It said that “disturbing evidence of harassment and abuse — and high-level efforts to minimize those problems — suggest that we need to get the existing house in order before expanding it.”

On Oct. 6, a representative of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians told the commission in a letter that the redevelopment site may contain a Native American burial ground. The letter said federal law requires archeological oversight before and during excavation.

Other objections have cited environmental concerns. Ald. Eleanor Revelle of Evanston’s 7th Ward, home to Ryan Field, said she opposes the project because it would divert groundwater into the nearby North Shore Channel.

“They would be pumping groundwater 24-7. I have concerns about the environmental impact and what this does to our trees and sewers,” she told the Sun-Times.

A rendering of an area just outside the new Ryan Field that could be used for community events.

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