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It’s Northwestern vs. Evanston Neighbors Over a New $800 Million Stadium That Will Host

You bought a house next to the Northwestern Stadium. Haha. You're so f-cked! Sure they promised 5-6 games per year, but now you're looking at Soldier Field next door. Oops, Soldier Field would be better because there won't be any football.

So make the best of it and quit complaining. Besides, it could be worse. I could live next to that monstrosity.

It’s Northwestern vs. Evanston Neighbors Over a New $800 Million Stadium That Will Host Concerts and Serve Booze

‘You’ll have people spilling out of concerts drunk at 10:30, 11 o’clock.’

By Douglas Belkin

March 29, 2023 10:05 am ET

EVANSTON, Ill.—The most dramatic action in this suburb of Chicago has always played out in Northwestern University’s pancake-yellow stadium on football Saturdays. This spring, though, the hardest hits are coming from some of its neighbors.

Residents in the tree-lined neighborhood are exercised about a plan to replace the 47,000-seat Ryan Field stadium, which opened in 1926.

For decades, the concrete colossus has hosted six or seven football games a year and little else. No alcohol is served inside the stadium. But if Northwestern has its way, the field’s replacement will accommodate those home games as well as women’s lacrosse matches, 10 stadium concerts and an unlimited number of events of up to 10,000 people on the plaza around the stadium. Alcohol will be on the menu.

“You’ll have people spilling out of concerts drunk at 10:30, 11 o’clock, walking around your neighborhood. There will be crimes of opportunity,” said John Sorensen, who lives across the street from Ryan Field. “We’re usually asleep by then.”

Northwestern has a complicated relationship with its host city, a community so politically liberal and opinionated some call it “The People’s Republic of Evanston.” Two decades ago, the school and city landed on a list of the worst town-gown relationships in the nation.

Friction is rising again as the university seeks a zoning change for a new, $800 million complex. Northwestern has raised hundreds of millions of dollars and launched a public-relations campaign with a descriptive if not exactly catchy tagline: “Rebuilding Ryan Field: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform lives in Evanston.”

Plenty of neighbors would prefer their lives remain untransformed.

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition calling for city leaders not to rubber-stamp the project. Signs dot front yards deriding “MegaConcerts” and “Profiteering.” Residents pack local meetings.

Opposition research has fueled accusations of NIMBY hypocrisy by a wealthy Northwestern trustee and stadium supporter who himself fought a construction project near his Martha’s Vineyard summer residence.

Underlying the drive for the new complex is an amenities arms race that dominates American higher education.

Northwestern, an exclusive university that charges tuition of $62,000 a year, has spent about $1 billion over 10 years erecting a constellation of glittering glass- and steel-sheathed buildings along its private Lake Michigan shore, drawing comparisons to the Emerald City from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Concerts and other nonfootball events are needed to help cover the new stadium’s cost, Northwestern says. But it needs a zoning change from the city to be able to host concerts. Without the change, the project might not go forward.

Proponents include hotels, restaurants and fans of Northwestern Wildcats football. The school estimates the local economic impact of the construction and operation of the stadium at $1.2 billion by 2031. A university-commissioned poll reported two-to-one support for the new facility. Supporters have posted their own lawn signs: “Let’s Build The New Ryan Field; Only Private Dollars, All Public Benefits.”

Steve Starkman and his brother Lonnie co-own Mustard’s Last Stand, a hot dog shop their father opened in 1969 in front of the stadium. Northwestern has bent over backward to appease cranky neighbors, Steve says. It lowered the volume of a wildcat growling during games after residents complained. The new stadium would have fewer seats than the current one and better security, a greener footprint and vastly improved handicap accessibility.

He has little sympathy for those fighting it. “Everybody here moved in after the stadium was already built, so I don’t really think they have a leg to stand on when they say they don’t want a stadium,” he said. “I just think people want to battle. That’s kind of the mindset here. Evanston is a battling town.”

Steve Starkman, at left with son Nick, is a co-owner of Mustard's Last Stand, a landmark hot dog shop his father opened in 1969 in front of the stadium. Northwestern has bent over backward to appease cranky neighbors, Mr. Starkman says.

Mr. Starkman, who is 56, said complaints about fans urinating on lawns and bushes after games are exaggerated and happen only when Northwestern hosts Ohio State.

Wisconsin fans party very hard but are “nice and respectful,” he said; Michigan State fans are “brilliant, lots of doctors and judges”; Michigan supporters are “ruffians” but generally well behaved; Iowa’s are the friendliest in the Big Ten, and Nebraska’s fans are the most likely to arrive in pickups.

“Ohio State fans are the only problem,” Mr. Starkman said. “They have a monster following, and they think the world is their bathroom.”

Asked about that, Ohio State declined to comment.

Sonia Cohen moved into a home a few streets away from the stadium 30 years ago. Over the years, she attended just one football game, but tracked the schedule so she could navigate the congestion and overflow parking during home games.

When she learned of the new-stadium plan from a university mailing in September, she noticed that the parking lots were replaced in the drawing with grassy plazas. “They look nice,” she thought—”but where is everyone going to park?”

The 68-year-old retired business-systems analyst joined a group to fight the plan. At Office Depot, she printed out fliers with the headline “Say No to Commercial Events at Northwestern.”

She also started doing research, and came across a letter concerning a dispute 1,000 miles away in Massachusetts. It was written by Peter Barris, the chair of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees and chairman emeritus of venture-capital firm New Enterprise Associates.

Across the water from Mr. Barris’s Martha’s Vineyard home, which Zillow values at $24 million, sits the Harbor View Hotel, a century-old landmark with a broad porch and rooms that go for up to $2,200 a night. In 1975, the cast of “Jaws” stayed there during filming.

Ms. Cohen learned that trustee and stadium proponent Peter Barris once opposed a hotel’s construction work near his home. Mr. Barris said his objections were unrelated to his duties as chair of Northwestern’s board of trustees.

A new owner has expanded the bar and restaurant. Neighbors including Mr. Barris have asked the local government to rein in the expansion to keep with the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

“Although our residence is a mile away by road it sits directly across the harbor,” Mr. Barris wrote in a 2021 letter to the local government. “Sounds are very efficiently carried across the water, particularly when the winds are blowing out of the north.” His request: “Protect us from the unbridled development that puts at risk the very things that brought us here in the first place.”

Ms. Cohen emailed the letter to fellow activists.

“At first I thought it was a parody,” said one, David DeCarlo. “Any one of us could have written that exact same letter about the stadium.”

Mr. Barris said his objections about the Harbor View Hotel were unrelated to his duties as chair of Northwestern’s board of trustees.

“The surfacing of this personal circumstance, which is distinctly dissimilar to Northwestern’s proposal, is an attempt to distract from our goals—to transform a century-old stadium into a community asset that will benefit all of Evanston and create one of the finest stadiums in the country,” he said by email.

Northwestern is doing everything it can to address neighbors’ concerns, said Dave Davis, its executive director of neighborhood and community relations.

Some people just don’t like change, he said. “It would be unrealistic for me to just say that no one is going to have an issue with our stadium project.”

Last Thursday, Northwestern announced it had selected a company to manage the construction of the project.

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