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Design & Development

Northwestern gets green light for Ryan Field revamp

Northwestern University has hailed Evanston City Council’s decision to vote in favour of its proposal to redevelop Ryan Field, stating it “marks a pivotal moment” for the two organisations.

The decision was a close one, with the 5-4 backing ultimately being decided by Mayor Daniel Biss’ supporting vote. Northwestern first revealed plans to revamp Ryan Field in September 2021. The project will largely be funded by a $480m (£382.3m/€440.2m) donation from the family of Patrick and Shirley Ryan – the largest single gift in the university’s history.

The funds will also be assigned for biomedical, economics and business research but will chiefly go towards the revamp of the stadium, which was named in honour of Pat Ryan in 1997. Ryan is a 1959 Northwestern graduate, who founded and served for 41 years as chief executive of Aon Corporation.

In September last year, the university, which is based in Evanston, Illinois, released renderings of a design for a new stadium that will replace Ryan Field. The current Ryan Field is 97 years old and has a capacity of 47,000, and the new stadium will have a maximum capacity of 35,000.

Northwestern has proposed a “world-class” home for its athletics department, with the stadium to include a state-of-the-art canopy and “set a new standard” for accessibility and inclusivity. Back in August, Northwestern announced that it would lower the number of concerts at the new look stadium following discussions with locals.

Northwestern said it was willing to modify its zoning application to significantly reduce the number of events hosted at the stadium annually while still ensuring financial viability for the project to move forward.

Significantly, Northwestern reduced the fixed number of concerts to six per year to balance the need to realistically operate the venue while addressing the concerns of neighbours. This element of the project, making Ryan Field more of a multi-purpose stadium, had been the cause of much local debate, but the rezoning application has now been approved along with backing for the project overall.

Dave Davis, Northwestern’s senior executive director of neighbourhood and community relations, said: “We’re embarking on a journey that promises not just a state-of-the-art stadium, but also a beacon of cultural and economic vitality. This project is a testament to our shared vision of progress and prosperity.”

The new stadium is anticipated to be a catalyst for local economic growth, bringing new jobs, boosting local businesses and creating a vibrant cultural hub in Evanston. Plans call for a rebuilt Ryan Field football stadium that is smaller, more environmentally friendly and accessible as a community venue throughout the year.

Northwestern said it will announce next steps and a timeline at a later date, but Davis concedes that the university must be aware of the broader concerns the venture has provoked. He added: “This project has been, and always will be, about more than just a stadium.

“It’s about enriching our community and creating a legacy of unity and progress. Now, as we move forward, our focus is on healing, uniting and working collaboratively toward the betterment of our beloved Evanston community.”

Following the community opposition, Northwestern last week pledged to up a benefits package that will be invested in the city over a 15-year term. This includes a $45m commitment to pay into the City’s Good Neighbor Fund, starting with $3m in the first year and growing with inflation.

A 15-year annual guaranteed floor of $2.5m in tax revenue to the city coming directly from the stadium is set to total $37.5m, while a further $45m has been pledged through donations to various other local needs.

Outlining why he decided to cast the deciding vote on the project, Biss said: “The project itself constitutes a massive $800m investment from Northwestern that will create jobs, generate significant revenue for the City, and construct a world-class facility.

“The utilisation of the stadium will bring more people into Evanston (meaning more jobs, more income for small businesses, and more revenue for the City coming from non-residents) while establishing guardrails to minimise impact on the neighbourhood.

“Separately, Northwestern has committed to a historic agreement that will directly invest well over $100m into our community – money for our schools, downtown revitalisation, job training programs, affordable housing, climate action, and more.

“Simply put, no town of our size sees many $800m investments like this. It will create jobs and generate significant tax and fee revenue for the city.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about Northwestern’s commitment to working with minority- and women-owned businesses, but it bears repeating: their 35% target is game-changing, both as an opportunity for small- and medium-sized local businesses to establish themselves and grow and as a path to careers for Evanston residents.

“Finally, let’s remember there’s already a football stadium at 1501 Central Street, and it’s likely to remain there for a long time. What’s currently standing is, well, let’s just say it’s not in great shape. Replacing it with a world-class facility is a benefit from every standpoint, including aesthetics as well as our ability to attract people to visit Evanston.  

“We all benefit when a private institution decides to spend an enormous amount of money to dramatically improve one of the largest structures in town.”