A rendering of the planned new Ryan Field.

Faced with community concern about crowds of up to 10,000 people for events on the plaza in front of the new Ryan Field football stadium, key Northwestern University officials say that the zoning text amendment request submitted to the City of Evanston will be modified.

Part of the plan for the potential new stadium includes an outdoor plaza which could host a variety of events.

The text amendment, which requires City Council approval, said such events could have up to 10,000 attendees, but that will apparently be reduced.

Dave Davis, NU’s executive director of neighborhood and community relations, told a virtual 7th Ward meeting Wednesday night that Northwestern’s intent is to continue existing community events, such as movie night and other programs, which usually draw 3,000 to 4,000 people.

Davis said the university also wants to be able to host things like a sleep-over, a fall festival, and put up a temporary skating rink.

While Davis did not say what a potential new crowd maximum would be in a revised text amendment, he did say NU would change it “so the neighbors feel more comfortable, so there are guardrails.”

He added that NU wants to make sure that the language in the amendment “doesn’t frighten our neighbors.”

University Vice-President Luke Figora said Northwestern is not looking to “bring in Lollapalooza,” and would “refine” the text amendment proposal so the outdoor plaza language would more clearly reflect the smaller-scale nature of potential activities.

Outdoor plaza events are just one aspect of the new stadium proposal, which would replace the century-old Ryan Field with a new, privately financed stadium with 35,000 seats instead of the current 47,000.

The plan also would allow up to a total of 10 concerts on either the football field or at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and that remains the major sticking point for critics.

While a survey done for Northwestern shows majority support in town for both the new field and for concerts, some Ryan Field neighbors continue their strong opposition to outdoor music events which could bring more than 28,000 people to the area per show, if they were sellouts. (Maximum concert crowd size is smaller than stadium capacity due to how concerts are configured).

Noise, traffic safety, and increased alcohol consumption are the major objections.

One stadium neighbor said she’s afraid she’d end up “living next to the United Center,” while another, who moved to Evanston from next to the Ravinia outdoor music center, said “I don’t want to live near a concert hall again.”

Northwestern started selling alcohol at Welsh-Ryan Arena at the start of this year,and wants to have such sales at the new Ryan Field as well, for football and for concerts.

The Levy food concession company currently handles food and beverage sales at NU sports facilities, and would continue to do so at the new Ryan Field.

Robert Wood, from Levy, said employees are trained in responsible alcohol sales, and there is even a designated driver program with free soft drinks for those who sign up.

At a recent Northwestern basketball game, beer stands were separate from the much larger food-and-soft-drink facilities. Those buying alcohol had to show proof of age, and were given a wrist band to show that their ID’s had been checked.

Beer is now sold at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Wood also said that it is actually safer having alcohol service “contained” in the arena or stadium than when people “binge drink” in the parking lot to “get a buzz on” before the game.

Wood said nine of the 14 Big Ten teams (10 if you now count NU) already allow alcohol sales.

He said that at Ohio State, for example, there was a 90% reduction in alcohol-related citations once sales were allowed at OSU facilities, with a 70% reduction in the number of fans who were ejected.

Alcohol sales are cut off after the third quarter of a football game, and about 20-30 minutes before the end of a concert.

Some neighbors remained skeptical.

One said even if alcohol sales are cut off 20-30 minutes before a concert ends, “that’s not enough time to sober up.”

Another quoted from a case study reporting the trend in game-day citations issued by police at one unnamed university before and after the introduction of alcohol sales a decade ago.

The report indicated such citations dropped slightly in the first year of liquor sales from the average of the preceding three years, but then more than doubled in the second year of liquor sales.

Davis said NU continues to want input from stadium neighbors as the proposal moves forward over the next few months, before City Council’s votes on the zoning amendment, the stadium facility itself, and the right to sell alcohol.

While NU says the stadium project will have a tremendous financial impact on Evanston, City Council still plans to hire its own economic consultant to review what NU’s consultant has determined.

Assuming everything can be worked out, the new Ryan Field would open in 2026, with the first concerts likely in 2027.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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