I have been listening carefully as proponents and opponents of a new Ryan Field share their thoughts and advocate positions.

I am proud we are not a monolithic community and believe we are made better by a diversity of thought.

However, I am dismayed by a devolving tenor. Much of what I’m hearing of late is overheated, hyperbolic and misinformed. In the continuing dialogue, we’d all do well to refresh our understanding of the history of collegiate athletics in Evanston and not overlook critical facts.

1905: That’s when NU started playing football at Central and Ashland – before much of the residential neighborhood surrounding it was even built. College athletics and other public events have viably co-existed in northeast Evanston for well over a century.

Eight square blocks of beautiful, meticulously well-maintained facilities: Through thoughtful redevelopment of its 117-year-old athletic campus – mostly done over the past two decades – the streetscapes of Isabella, Ashland and Central have never looked better.

Even the west parking lot, previously an ugly gravel and dirt patch, is now an attractive, more secure and eco-friendly space.

This newly modernized athletic complex adds value to all nearby, and the reimagined Ryan Field – replacing the outdated 1926 stadium – will be the capstone.

NU Athletics – a reliably good neighbor:

  • Northwestern lends use of its facilities to the community – including high school commencement ceremonies, the annual E-Town Showdown and other youth athletic tournaments.
  • With limited game-day usage, the west parking lot primarily accommodates Evanston Hospital staff – enabling another critical community institution to operate effectively within the middle of a residential neighborhood.
  • In rebuilding the west lot in 2016, Northwestern worked closely with neighbors to address aesthetics, environmental impact and security – ultimately investing $6 million to ensure all goals were met.
  • Northwestern has been a key partner of Canal Shores during its recent turnaround and is committed to supporting the upcoming restoration of the treasured course and green space that’s been cared for by a neighborhood-based non-profit for over a hundred years.

Ryan Field gamedays are community-enhancing: Those who live closest to the stadium know there are three basic choices on game days: leave, shut in, or engage and enjoy.

Many neighbors are season ticket holders. Some host open tailgate parties. Many sell off-street parking. Neighbor-to-neighbor interaction and socializing on game days is never greater except perhaps for annual block parties.

Concerts at Ryan Field will bring the same community dynamic but in more temperate weather than during the football season.

Proposed stadium utilization is just 5%: Under the plan put forward by NU, large-scale events at the new stadium would – at maximum – be just 18 of 365 days which equates to only 5% utilization.

An $800MM privately funded, yet so publicly accessible complex is unprecedented. There are no parallels in Illinois.

Year-round, more intimate “plaza” events will transform Ryan Field into a spontaneous and casual destination for Evanston, Wilmette and nearby communities – bringing more patrons to nearby businesses.

We all must judge for ourselves, but when one focuses on the facts and not unfounded fears, the new Ryan Field is a winning proposition all around – for the university, the surrounding neighborhood and our broader community.

Michael O’Connor

Michael O'Connor is a long-time Evanston resident whose home faces the east side of Welsh-Ryan arena. He says he has no affiliation to the university -- other than as a season ticket holder for a couple...

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  1. The debate certainly has been “misinformed,” and this “guest essay” is more of the same.

    For example, was Northwestern a “key partner” to Canal Shores when it tried to cut them out of the game day parking revenue by negotiating directly with MWRD?

    The non-profit uses and hospital parking are allowed under the existing zoning code—that’s not a basis to support the gut-and-replace that Northwestern wants.

    The stadium utilization stats depend in part on your definition of “large-scale.” From 1905 until Dyche Stadium was built, the football stands held 10,000 people. That’s the size of the UNLIMITED number of for-profit events that Northwestern is seeking in its proposed zoning change. “Year-round”? That’s 100% utilization, not 5%. Even if you only look at maximum capacity days, Northwestern is seeking a 150% increase (from 7 to 17).

    I don’t consider it “community-enhancing” when there’s no cell service to call 911 on the rare occasion that Ryan Field sells out. But at least the games are mostly during the day, and the noise produced is very different from that of a stadium concert.

    Is your thesis that expanding the use of the U2 District to for-profit commercial events is not a big change? You’re kidding yourself.

    1. Are you speaking for yourself alone, or do you represent a few residents near the stadium? What are you protecting? What do you fear?

      Why should anyone consider what you are saying when if you succeed in stopping the rebuild you will deny thousands of North Shore residents and workers economic opportunities for the next 100 years?

      Go ahead, be selfish, care about no one but yourself. We don’t care. If you’ve got $800 million to invest in Evanston, we’d love to see it.

      1. Robert – your continued rhetoric that anyone that is against concerts is against the stadium project itself is getting old. Repectfully, find a new argument.

      2. 1. I am an individual. 2. The record. 3. Misinformation. 4. Your question makes a lot of inaccurate assumptions, the most significant of which is that rezoning is required for the rebuild; the “guest essay” says we should focus on facts and my comment supplies some.

    2. I served with Mike on Canal Shores Board for many years. He knows the relationship between the golf course and the university better than anyone. Issues between the course and Northwestern were worked out by negotiation, give and take, and ultimately co-operation to make things work for both sides.

      The key to that relationship was never seeing the other side as an opponent or an enemy. There were two entities, with a whole lot of competing interests, and constituencies. To get things done, we had to see how things could work to benefit both of us.

      I really think NU was a good negotiation partner during my time engaging with them. I didn’t always agree with them and they didn’t always agree with me. That didn’t stop either of us from working towards making a better athletic campus and golf course.

      I whole-heartedly think the community should take Mike’s advice and engage with the University to make this work. Some of this is simple (Lack of cellular capacity? Put up more Wi-Fi and cell network transceivers in the stadium…this is a slam dunk). Other issues not so simple. But I am convinced that people of good will can find a way to work this out.

  2. Dear Mike, you neglect to highlight that NU currently has the ability under existing zoning to host 35 days of 10,000 person events! They can even be concerts. NU could build the new stadium and have concerts similar to Out of Space (avg attendance is 3,500 people, so NUs could be even bigger) all under the current zoning.

    Many of us around the neighborhood are not against the stadium itself, but are against this unrestricted, unlimited, for-profit zoning changes that NU is throwing at us. Just because we don’t support bringing in 35,000 people for loud concerts and drinking at night to the neighborhood (reminder that’s half the size of the city of Evanston) does not mean we are against smaller daytime or evening concerts up to 10,000 people.

    Let’s bring true value to our community and stop pretending that letting NU have unfettered access to our neighbor is good for us all.

  3. I respectfully disagree with Michael O’Connor’s position. It is important to acknowledge that allowing for-profit concerts at the stadium could have negative impacts on the surrounding residential community.

    While the author states that college athletics and public events have co-existed in northeast Evanston for over a century, it is important to recognize that hosting for-profit concerts is a different matter entirely. These events will result in increased noise, traffic, and safety concerns, which would impact the quality of life for nearby residents.

    Furthermore, while the proposed utilization of the stadium may only be 5% if you follow Michael O’Connor’s questionable math, it is important to consider the potential long-term impacts of allowing commercial events at the stadium. Once the precedent is set, it could lead to an increase in the frequency and scale of such events, which would exacerbate the negative impacts on the community. Also very important to acknowledge that NU is asking for unlimited events up to 10,000 people so in reality we have no idea of the utilization rate.

    Lastly, while the author asserts that the proposed new Ryan Field is a winning proposition for everyone, it is important to recognize that not everyone shares this view. The concerns raised by residents and community members are valid and should be taken seriously. It is possible to find a solution that balances the interests of all stakeholders, but dismissing the concerns of residents as unfounded fears is not productive and does not contribute to a productive dialogue.

  4. The guest essay holds up the straw man of “history of collegiate athletics in Evanston,” as if college athletics were the issue. Concerts — and the related matters of noise, public safety, parking etc — are the issue. The change Northwestern wants to impose unilaterally on the neighborhood is massive and significant, and the old chestnut of “college athletics” is irrelevant.

    PS., Lately, I have noticed a distressing but emerging tendency (on full display in Mr. Orenstein’s comment) among stadium proponents to attack those who are opposed. If this is Northwestern’s strategy — to go after the opponents for daring to oppose their plan — that will probably not work out well for them. But you do you, as they say.

  5. As someone who lives near the stadium and who attends football games, I love the idea of having a more modern facility Michael. However, with all due respect, how will concerts for 28,000 people every week during the summer become a “winning proposition for the surrounding neighborhood?” The added noise, traffic congestion, parking problems, ambulance obstruction, child safety issues, rowdy drunks, and the possibility of nearby home values declining hardly makes what NU is proposing “community enhancing.” Also, keep in mind, there is no assurance the NU is going to raise the kind of money they’re forecasting. There is plenty of concert competition in the Chicago area during the summer.

  6. Thanks, Michael. I so appreciate the rationale tone and historical context of your essay. There have been way too many mean-spirited comments on this topic.

    We also face the stadium, from the west side. We’ve been here for eight years and have always enjoyed the lively atmosphere of football game days. We hear the PA, the cheers, the fireworks and all-day tailgating, and have never found it annoying or disruptive.

    We’re not concerned about the type of events NU may book because it’s NU and their choices will be in keeping with the global reputation they’ve built and work hard to protect. Many of the plaza events are likely to be community-driven activities that we residents are driving. We believe the character of our neighborhood will be just as amazing, if not more so, with an architectural and cultural gem in our backyard. And the short- and long-term economic benefits for all of Evanston are vital.

    We understand there are strong anti-NU sentiments based on historical experiences. We respect this. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But that doesn’t seem productive so we choose to face forward, believing there is a middle, mutually beneficial ground to be had for those willing to try.

    Ultimately, we want to see NU be as prominent, successful and sought-after as possible. We believe that with collective positive intent and a focus on mutual benefit, we’ll continue to love the neighborhood we live in for many years to come.

    Lara Hamann

  7. Mike,

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments. As someone who lives less than a block from the stadium I fully support the project while working towards practical solutions. I believe this is an opportunity that can benefit ALL of Evanston(Jobs, apprenticeship opportunities, tax revenue, business revenue)and if our penance is a few days in the summer with increased activity I say bring it on. I’m okay with fun. This fear mongering about events of 10,000 or less is ridiculous. I’m certain these events are community based and community facing as Ms. Hamann pointed out. A Example would be a Christkindl market. Is that so bad?
    Come on people; do you actually think there is that so much demand for events of 10,000 or less that EVERY day there’s gonna be a circus in town? No you are just making a ridiculous point to scare your neighbors.
    This is a once in a generation opportunity to get community benefit from a free project for the residents of Evanston. I ask our mayor and council to negotiate the best possible terms. What we should be discussing is whether permanent permit parking is a good idea or not, rather than just hating on NU and screaming Not in my Backyard! Let’s work towards compromise and solutions and stop scaring people with hyperbole.

  8. Northwestern’s proposed zoning change would remove the requirement that events be “intended primarily for the residents of the City,” so it’s difficult to understand why you’re certain events would be community-based or community-facing: https://www.cityofevanston.org/home/showpublisheddocument/87613/638107798287100000.

    What makes you think the current zoning code prohibits a Christkindlmarket (or fun)?

    Folks in the community who oppose the zoning change—but not necessarily the rebuild—are not trying to scare people. Like you, we want the “best possible terms.” But if you agree that Northwestern should not be allowed to host unlimited 10,000-person events, why are you attacking the people asking to limit them?

    1. Hi Stadium Neighbor,

      I hear your point about unlimited plaza events. My understanding of the zoning change request is that it specifies 10 concert days max, which avoids the ‘slippery slope’ some are afraid of. If NU capped the plaza events at 100 per year, would that make people feel better? I don’t know if they would, but at least that opens the door for a productive conversation so we can all get to mutually beneficial best possible terms!

      1. Lara, NU is currently allowed under the zoning to have 35 days of events up to 10,000 people – that includes concerts, yes concerts! They could be holding all the community type events they are proposing now and yet they don’t. Why can’t they show us how a concert at 10,000 people would be supported in terms of traffic, noise, lighting, safety before gutting the zoning to approve large scale events at 35,000? Why is everyone so keen to strip away the protections the city has?

      2. Lara,
        With all due respect, 10 “concert days max” per year for up 35,000 means potentially every Saturday night for two and a half months in the best weather nights in Evanston, then, football season starts. In addition, nobody mentions the 20 ish home basketball games that virtually shuts down our street during games on days after football season ends.

        Mike O’Conner suggests it’s “only 5% of the year” and Dr. Ghate suggests these serious concerns only “scare our neighbors.” Again, another 10 concert days is every Saturday night for two and a half months! Doesn’t sound like scare tactics to me.

        Now some wonder if there is any interest in another large capacity stadium venue in metro Chicago. Actually, based on what my friends in the industry tell me, given the potential interest and consumer “draw” from Wrigleyville up to south suburban Milwaukee west to Schaumburg of consumers who have disposable income and interest in not going into the City of Chicago, hosting 10 concerts a years would likely be just a starting point based on initial estimates. Remember, this stadium is a block from Metra and only a few blocks from the L train.

        And we’re going to do all of this destruction to our already very busy neighborhood because without concerts “it is not economically feasable for NU to operate.” What? The currrent stadium seems to operate just fine without concerts but building a new, eco friendly, green, super efficient new stadium somehow needs new revenue sources to run it? Also, with a $16 billion endowment, NU’s plea for new revenue falls short for most of my neighbors and me given their $16 billion endowment and nearly $3 billion annual budget.
        Remember, NU can rebuild their stadium tomorrow without input from anyone from Evanston. Let’s just say “no” to 35,000 person concerts that no one needs.

        1. FWIW, the university says that while the capacity of the new stadium for football games will be 35,000 — its capacity for concerts will be 28,000. (That’s still a lot of people, of course.)
          — Bill

          1. Northwestern told its traffic consultant 28,500, but I have a hard time believing that figure. For other venues, like the United Center, the capacity is higher for concerts than for games because of floor seating and standing room. The proposed zoning change doesn’t specify a number—it just says “capacity.”

  9. I want to thank Evanston Now for publishing my guest essay and all who’ve commented here. I respect everyone’s point of view – whether aligned or opposed with my own. While an active volunteer in our community, I rarely engage in political debate of which we have no shortage in Evanston.

    I chose to weigh in on Ryan Field as some who are opposed to the stadium rebuild and/or its expanded usage describe neighborhood opinion as unanimous or nearly so when nonesuch is true. I was further motivated to speak up by inflammatory rhetoric that misleads, stokes fear and suggests the university has ill intentions. I understand the attempt to persuade, but virtue here does not reside exclusively on one side.

    I’ve received a number of direct inquiries so I’d like to reinforce that I’m not an Northwestern employee nor have I ever done any work for the university. I am not a paid advocate. The opinions I express are my own, but I am not alone in holding them. What I am is an Evanston citizen, a parent, a stadium neighbor and a fan. And, in each of these aspects of my life, the new multi-use Ryan Field is a win.

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