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The Field of Broken Dreams | Episode 8: The Reaction

Note: This podcast is designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page.

Lee Crooks Central is next. Doors open on the left at Central.

(Indistinct chatter)

Lee Crooks This is Central.

Mack Jones Walking off the train at the Central Street “L” Station, I almost forgot what I was there for.

Admittedly, I was a bit late catching the train, and I was distracted by the cold since I didn’t dress nearly warm enough, but I still expected more Northwestern fans against a pretty decent Maryland team that kept it close against the Buckeyes for three quarters.

The Terrapins were 5-2 coming into the game on Oct. 28; Northwestern was 3-4.

I walked in through Gate “T” late enough where there was no line. Directly behind me was one of the parking lots, but there were only a few abandoned tents from tailgaters who had gone in by then for the 11 a.m. kickoff. 

Walking through the concourse, I panicked a little bit. I thought something was off. Save for some workers at concessions stands, no one was there. 

I walked out to section 132 and sat in the eighth row on the end. Again, no one was there. I had the entire bench all to myself and no one in the two rows in front of me.

Finally, some French-speaking folks came through the tunnel on my right, and I hoped that my solitude would end. 

Regrettably, despite five years spent in French classes, I only caught the words “on y va,”  loosely translating to “let’s go,” as the fans walked back out of the seating bowl.

Part of the reason I chose this game to go to was that I figured Northwestern would lose to the Terps. It would’ve strengthened my narrative. 

So after a Maryland touchdown and Northwestern punt on the first two drives, I caved into my hunger, grabbed a ten-dollar pretzel and took a couple of laps around the stadium to get a feel for the environment in some different spots.

I passed a stand selling some weird hot-pocket pizza bites and then looked back out at the stadium and where I was seated.

At the time, I didn’t know the official attendance, but I figured it couldn’t have been more than half-full. After the game, I looked back on ESPN for their attendance graphic, which showed a crowd of 19,000. 

41% full. 

Northwestern Stadium drew and held more than that for non-con games 100 years ago. The Chicago Fire averaged only 1,000 less than that this year, and they have one of the worst attendance records in the MLS.

Northwestern’s a Big Ten team, projected to receive $80 to 100 million per year from the league’s new TV deal.

I stayed put for the end of the first half and saw some surprisingly good football from backup quarterback Brendan Sullivan, who finished with two touchdowns and more than 300 all-purpose yards.

Still, at the end of the half, I debated whether I had gotten enough audio that I could just leave yet. But I stuck around.

I almost got rewarded, too. After a questionable no-catch call on a would-be NU touchdown, Taulia Tagovailoa had a chance to lead the Terrapins on a comeback victory, which would then see me sarcastically saying, “Look, everyone! Northwestern blew a lead! They suck.”

Unfortunately, no, and Tagovailoa threw a game-losing pick in Wildcat territory as the Terps lost, 33-27.

I’m Mack Jones, and this is the Field of Broken Dreams.

(Music)

Mark Rivera A step forward tonight in the effort to rebuild Northwestern’s Ryan Field. The school today submitting its redevelopment application to the City of Evanston while also demonstrating their commitment to the local economy. It’s a plan that’s drawn a mixed reaction from those living and working in the area. At nearly 100 years old, Northwestern officials say Ryan Field is in dire need of an upgrade.

Dave Davis Right now we have an outdated, dilapidated football stadium that can’t be used by the broader Evanston community. So if you look outside the stadium, it’s surrounded by concrete. We can only use it seven days a year at football games.

Mark Rivera The Northwestern Senior Executive Director for Neighborhood and Community Relations Dave Davis says their new, privately funded project will remake the stadium for a fan-centric experience…with the intent to add general admission alcohol sales and multiple concerts.

Today hosting an informational meeting with the community and minority and women-owned businesses as the university submits its redevelopment application to the City of Evanston for the $800 million project.

The project will completely redesign Ryan Field, lowering capacity by 12,000, adding a new multi-use space on the outside in the largest single-capital expenditure in Northwestern and Evanston history.

But the effort is facing some pushback. More than 1,000 people signed a change.org petition urging the City Council to slow down approval. Kelly Marcelle supports the new stadium but says she’s aware of the criticism.

Kelly Marcelle There’s a lot of fear-mongering. I’ve heard things like there’s gonna be trash everywhere, there’s drunks gonna be stumbling all over our property. I’ve even heard of child endangerment.

Mark Rivera Meanwhile Davis is urging anyone with questions or criticisms to reach out to the university and is pledging to listen.

Dave Davis When we engage with our Evanston neighbors and our residents, it leads to better outcomes in terms of the project design.

Mark Rivera And there still is a long way to go, and their input is necessary. Northwestern hopes to have that project approved by mid-summer.

Mack Jones ABC7 broadcasted that news clip in April, a year and a half after Northwestern first announced renovation plans. It’s now the middle of November/early December, and the city still hasn’t decided what to do.

Around a year ago, only a short time after Northwestern released the design renderings for the new Ryan Field and provoked anger in large portions of the Evanston community, a group of residents gathered to discuss a plan of action.

It needed to be airtight, especially since Northwestern had the resources to make its own project nearly impermeable. Seven residents co-founded an organization to fight Rebuild Ryan Field: David DeCarlo, Ken Proskie, Judy Berg, Andy Berman, Fiona McCarthy, Laurie McFarlane and Yvi Russell.

This is McFarlane.

Laurie McFarlane It really was a bunch of neighbors just thinking about, we love how livable Evanston is now, we also feel like we need to try to organize ourselves, because Northwestern has so many resources.

Mack Jones They call themselves Most Livable City Association – an all-volunteer, non-profit, grassroots group focused on making Evanston the “most livable city in America.”

Laurie McFarlane It’s very hard for us moms, normal moms and dads with regular jobs. Yeah, counter that, you know, just with our spare time. So we just needed to organize for that, really.

Mack Jones One of the first acts from the founding seven was to draft a letter to the editor for the Evanston RoundTable, published on Dec. 2, 2022. The first of many submitted by the organization or members of it, the letter contained the most general arguments against the stadium. They called it a “tax-exempt booze-and-entertainment center” and a “cash grab.” All seven members signed the letter at the bottom, an act that would become impractical and almost impossible as the organization grew.

Here’s McCarthy.

Fiona McCarthy So you know, we’re really a grassroots organization of concerned Evanstonians. Right, we’re not all located in the seventh ward. So this is an issue that expands beyond directly around the stadium. The traffic concerns, the safety concerns might be directly around our neighborhood. But the reality is that Northwestern is not paying property taxes and requesting these events. So we’re trying to, we’re trying to get that word out that this really impacts more than just the surrounding neighborhood around the stadium.

Mack Jones They also announced the launch of their first campaign, Field of Schemes. It’s since been consumed by the organization as an overarching theme, but back then, it was the main focus. There was an email link to learn more, but that was the extent of their power at the time; the organization was still young. 

MLCA claimed to want a meaningful neighborhood partnership with NU, but that wasn’t the organization’s purpose. Whatever it took, they intended to stop Northwestern University.

(Music)

Mack Jones Elsewhere in Evanston, significantly further from the stadium in most cases, another group began to take shape.

Field of Opportunities – Evanston: Open for Business? video We love Evanston. 

But it’s hard not to see.

More businesses closing, more empty storefronts. So many old favorites.

Gone.

Not just downtown. It’s all over. 

Evanston Labs and UL are coming, but we need more to bring us back.

That’s where the new Ryan Field comes in.

Good paying, union construction jobs. 

$208 million in contracts to minority and women-owned businesses. 

Football games and concerts to bring people back to our hotels, restaurants and small businesses. 

Let’s come together and build the new Ryan Field.

Tell the world Evanston is open for business.

Mack Jones With significantly more founding members, the new group also announced its creation through the RoundTable, this time in a “letter to the community,” not one to the editor. They called attention to the symbiotic town-gown relationship, pleaded the need for transparency with Ryan Field and then professed support for it.

There were 18 people involved in the project initially, including former mayors, aldermen and an old ETHS superintendent. There was a link after the article to a form to support the group called, in response to MLCA, Field of Opportunities.

Here’s one of those founding members, Peggy Baxter.

Peggy Baxter I think the first important note about the Field of Opportunities group is that we’re grassroots. So we’re not funded or supported by Northwestern University. We are a group that is led by some very passionate, strong, longtime Evanstonians. One person is Steve Haggerty, who was our mayor, prior to honorable Daniel Biss and another person is Jane Grover, who was an alderwoman, I believe in the seventh ward.

Mack Jones Since Field of Opportunities’ creation in February, they and the Most Livable City Association have fought for information and support among the Evanston community, adding another layer to an already intricate discussion.

Fiona McCarthy The Tripp Umbach study admitted that they did not look at any of the negative economic impact. The other thing they admitted is that they used data from Northwestern directly.

Mack Jones One of McCarthy and MLCA’s most used arguments has been against the rationality of Northwestern’s economic impact report, and the group’s campaigning was one of the main factors in convincing the city to do its own. But that still wasn’t enough for them.

On the Most Livable City Association website, there’s a Get Involved page. Among the links are petitions, volunteer forms and an email newsletter for updates on Ryan Field. There’s a donation page for raising awareness and hiring lawyers and consultants to push back against Northwestern. They were also collecting donations in an attempt to get, among other things, yet another economic impact report.

Peggy Baxter You will always have a group that doesn’t believe the data. Most Livable City, I think is raising $100,000 to create their own report, who’s gonna believe that report? Because they paid over 100,000 for it. So of course, it’s gonna say it’s gonna provide data that they want to, you know, generate to make their case.

Mack Jones Baxter and Field of Opportunities don’t have plans to do their own economic analysis of the stadium, but they likely won’t believe MLCA’s. If that got done, there would be two reports with warranted accusations of bias and one, the city’s, where there’s no good reason to lie.

This isn’t the first time that neighborhood groups in Evanston have assumed research responsibilities. In the application to hold concerts in Welsh-Ryan, Northwestern claimed to have 2,000 or more parking spaces at the stadium.

Fans and residents were equally dubious of that statement.

So Proskie and a group of other stadium neighbors counted each individual spot themselves and came up with a total of 1,359. After that information became public, Northwestern changed its estimate to 1,500 spots, seemingly losing 500 spaces into thin air.

Yvi Russell They used to have about 3,500 parking spots. And then as they build more things on the U2 zone area, the parking shrank and shrank. So there’s all that traffic, all that pollution, and noise, then there’s 10 days of concerts.

Mack Jones Russell and MLCA haven’t attempted anything on that scale yet, but Field of Opportunities has created a response to it anyway. On their website, there’s a page called Myth Busters. It’s pretty self-explanatory; the entire page is one massive rebuttal to nearly every argument ever used against Ryan Field.

Peggy Baxter One of Most Livable City’s arguments is Northwestern has a $16 billion endowment. Now, that is true. Northwestern has a very large endowment, but the reality is endowments are used to fund the ongoing operations of football stadiums and other venues of university. Endowments are used to fund professorships and academic programs, attract top talent, both in professors and also students to our community. And so, you know, the endowment argument doesn’t work, because that’s just not how the endowment works.

Mack Jones There are entries about idling trucks, fan behavior, property values, construction, safety and evacuation plans and a lot more.

Fiona McCarthy Evanston is a beautiful place to live. It’s a diverse community. And it’s located on the lake and close to downtown Chicago. So Northwestern inherently benefits from all of those things, and they should be doing everything they can to make Evanston thrive. Because if Evanston suffers, Northwestern will suffer, they won’t have the high enrollment, they won’t have professors that want to work and live there and send their kids to public schools. So Northwestern should be contributing, and be doing everything in their power to make Evanston the most livable city it can be.

Mack Jones The idea of a livable city is something that McCarthy and MLCA have talked about a lot. It’s remained constant through meetings and events the group has hosted and attended, but it’s less about making Evanston livable than it is keeping it that way.

Most Evanston residents can agree with that sentiment but have different ways of going about it, and MLCA and Field of Opportunities do have a base level of understanding.

But around 850 people signed up in support of Ryan Field on the Field of Opportunities website, and while there isn’t a set number for MLCA, there was a petition against Ryan Field heavily promoted by the group and signed by more than 1,000 people. But many in favor of the stadium don’t bother praising it because they don’t care. It doesn’t impact them as directly as those who live close by. Baxter is an exception, and she’s supportive of the plans despite living an arm’s length from the stadium.

Peggy Baxter We want to make sure that our voices are heard as well. We’re going to be hosting more private events so that you can build our own community of supporters and feel excitement around that to encourage people to show up to the city council meetings, which I think is incredibly important to communicate with our alderpeople. I think it’s incredibly important. And because we’re not funded by Northwestern, we have no other choice. It’s all of our money. So we are going to take more of a grassroots approach.

Mack Jones In an earlier episode, I brought up statistics showing crimes around the U2 District after basketball games in Welsh-Ryan. Field of Opportunities did a similar thing, foia-ing the same information but for football games and in a longer timeframe and then finding similar results.

Peggy Baxter I think the fear-mongering is real. And I think one of the things I’ve heard often is, you know, there’s been public urination, urination and alleys. overserved people passed out on front lawns, you know, again, man, I have lived and lived in this neighborhood directly next to the stadium now, for 10 years, I’ve never seen it.

Mack Jones Despite Baxter questioning McCarthy and Most Livable City Association, they kept working with hardly any breaks. 

Fiona McCarthy We’re a grassroots, everything takes time. And all of us work, right. We have jobs for parents, grandparents, right, everybody, everyone has commitments, we’re not a $16 billion endowment PR fund.

Mack Jones MLCA had ambitious plans for the Field of Schemes campaign. They intended to provide a “clear and unbiased lens” into Northwestern’s activities. They wanted traffic studies and economic impact reports and in-the-weeds research from a hundred years ago about whether the university got permission to build the stadium in the first place.

Laurie McFarlane Getting people to at least get some correct information about the project is what definitely one of the major focuses of the Field of Schemes because we feel like there’s been a lot of misinformation and also just very vague stuff. Northwestern has lots of what one of my teachers in high school used to call it glittering generalities. So we’re definitely covering that has been a big thrust.

Yvi Russell I have, on my site, a line saying that people in the 1900s 20s or so, you know, I don’t have the thing right in front of me. were protesting the building of the stadium. And when happy and there was just one line that I took out out of, I think zoning meeting where one of the people mentioned that, you know, written by the court reporter but he found actually evidence that suggests or was you know, that Northwestern built a stadium that Evanston went through the process without telling the citizens.

I think the allowing Northwestern with up to see him to begin with, and this will be really a bombshell I think, if it could be proven, you know, that the stadium did not even that, that it was an underhanded kind. I mean, it’s always underhand. We’re in in Evanston, but there’s, there’s different levels of underhandedness. But in this case, supposedly, there were there were no meetings or anything and it will just pass to and if this is true, if this should be true, then it would you know, put a dent in that idea, Oh, Northwestern has always been here. You’re just NIMBYs.

Mack Jones For Field of Opportunities, attending meetings and ensuring their voices are out in the open is the main focus.

On a Tuesday night in the middle of June, more than 200 Evanston residents stood in the Parasol Room at the Civic Center for a meeting about the Ryan Field redevelopment.

Backers wore t-shirts supporting the cause and carried signs with slogans like “Yes in my backyard.”

The opposition wrote things like “Respect our community” on signs, signaling their displeasure over Northwestern’s perceived disregard for the area around it.

But for one of the first times all year, and in stark contrast to anything that happened with Welsh-Ryan, there were around even numbers from either side. That was intentional for Field of Opportunities.

Peggy Baxter We showed up in quite large numbers. My biggest fear is that Alderman Revelle and other aldermen count yard signs instead of really understanding that there is a major group of supporters out there for this. We will be very apparent, and be very speaking very loudly when it is our turn to be proponents of this project.

Mack Jones Baxter’s been helping to plan a diverse set of events. There was one in her house near the stadium to educate people about it, and the organization had someone handing out fliers at the Fourth of July parade.

Peggy Baxter We don’t want to get in the middle of those and make them political. But to the extent it is appropriate for us to go, I think you’re just going to see more canvassing.

Mack Jones It’s been a turf war with no clear winner. Northwestern’s survey claims that most people support the stadium. Most Livable City Association claims the report’s biased. Field of Opportunities claims MLCA’s biased. And none think of themselves as such.

Fiona McCarthy Everything that we’re going to be doing is to try to provide a clear or unbiased lens to what Northwestern is proposing. We’re trying, you know, they have to provide information as part of their submission, which includes their economic study, they have a traffic analysis, right? They have to address the noise and the light concern. So everything that they’re going to say is going to be provided with the Northwestern spin right to make it look like everything is going to be great. So what we have to do, or what we want to do, is to be able to say, look, this is really what the impacts to the City of Evanston are going to be.

(Music)

Mack Jones On Oct. 11, Evanston’s Land Use Commission met for the third time to discuss Northwestern’s plan to rebuild Ryan Field and the school’s request for a text amendment to permit up to six concerts at the stadium.

A month after the first meeting of this kind on Sept. 6, residents hadn’t cooled down. The three meetings took about 15 hours total, and the final one took four and a half. Normally, LUC meetings don’t go on for much longer than an hour and a half, let alone 15 for one topic.

Eventually, the commission voted unanimously in favor of the project itself, but the revised text amendment proposal failed on a 6-3 vote.

And those meetings were just previews for when the item appeared on the agenda for a special city council meeting on Oct. 30. 

Yvi Russell This is the main issue, this renovation, if it goes through this, this rebuilding of the stadium if it had not been accompanied by a zoning application to ask for these events, people would have probably sort of say, ‘Okay, fine.’ But because they are, they are saying they cannot have the new building unless they get to zoning changed. The alcohol accepted. It becomes sort, it alarms us because we don’t want zoning to change. It’s not a question about the building so much. It’s the zoning change.

Mack Jones Russell and other Evanston residents were fighting over what they deemed high politics, and Northwestern was playing that game, too.

On the day of the meeting, Northwestern released a statement announcing a $100 million, 10-year community benefits agreement. Residents and council members had clamored for that kind of proposal, and this one was unprecedented for the university.

The agreement would re-establish and triple the school’s contribution to the Good Neighbor Fund, award financial aid to Evanston high school students and distribute an extra million per year to other Evanston organizations. 

A portion of the money came from yet another gift by the Ryan family, and Northwestern was committed to the public benefits only as part of, among other things, the redevelopment of Ryan Field, including the proposed concerts. 

Jonathan Nieuwsma You asked about the community benefits package, and I’m going to start calling this the community partnership agreement. I think this is the most important part of this discussion. If Northwestern were fully pulling their weight financially in our community, in a way that they should have been, for years and years, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But the fact remains that Northwestern has not been pulling their financial weight. And we now have leverage with Northwestern in a way that is not going to happen for another generation. And, you know, I would be remiss in my duties as a representative of the entire community of Evanston and the taxpayers of Evanston, if I did not seize this opportunity to grasp this lever and negotiate a very good financial package from the University.

Mack Jones Convenient timing aside, the agreement was something many council members besides Fourth Ward Alderman Jonathan Nieuwsma had asked for, and it had the power to shift a few key swing votes in the university’s favor, even if they still needed to negotiate specifics.

But that would be for a later date. For now, on the 30th, the city would be voting on the introduction of two items: a zoning application for the renovation and a text amendment for the concerts.

I figured it would be a long meeting, especially since I read something about the hundreds of pages of public comments planned for it. But I don’t think I truly understood the magnitude of that statement. The lengthiest council meeting I’d ever seen was five hours, and the one on the 30th was supposed to be for only two items.

How bad could it be?

A half hour before the meeting even started, members of the public were shouting and pushing each other. From there, the situation did not improve.

David DeCarlo I’m David DeCarlo with Most Livable City Association. Before you tonight are two separate proposals for the reasoning and the rebuild of Ryan Field. Northwestern has tried to sell you again on their all-or-nothing vision for a tax-exempt entertainment complex, but does that vision make sense for Evanston? NU zoning will disrupt the entire city, but I first want to address a few issues. 

First, the university won’t walk away if you reject the rezoning. That threat is not only laughable in the words of your land use commission chair, it’s easy to disprove. President Schill has already said publicly in a letter to the Northwestern community that NU has to address its aging stadium.

Second, NU doesn’t need a zoning change to activate the site for more than football. They can already host 35 days a year of non-profit community events, and their own blueprints show locker rooms for other sports, dining and meeting rooms and more. It’s ridiculous to say the stadium won’t be used unless it’s filled to capacity for concerts. 

Finally, NU sent you a new public benefits package just before the meeting – an eleventh-hour surprise. Unfortunately, some speakers tonight may have fallen victim to this latest publicity stunt. Our initial response is this: to match its peers, NU should add another zero to the Good Neighbor Fund it’s offered, but the bigger difference is that those peers of Northwestern University didn’t require a permanent, irreversible zoning change in return for 10 years of voluntary payments.

Daniel Biss So we’ll move on with Fiona McCarthy.

Ken Proskie Good evening, I’m Ken Proskie, I submitted to the Land Use Commission a 20-page rebuttal report to the applicants.

Daniel Biss Then the next speaker is Yvi Russell.

Andy Berman Hi, my name is Andy Berman.

Mack Jones DeCarlo’s comments were part of MLCA’s personal presentation to the council, which explains the length. They and Northwestern had a little bit of time each to present their arguments to the aldermen, and then the aldermen had the opportunity for questioning afterward.

All of the original seven MLCA members, save for McFarlane and Berg, still spoke at public comment. Overall, 22 people favored the concerts and 70 people opposed them, while 28 people favored the stadium renovations and 10 opposed those.

Most public commenters talked about taxes and unwanted behavior, but one brought up how Pat Ryan supported the National Republican Congressional Committee and how the council shouldn’t fund programs that don’t align with Evanston’s ideals. 

Only a couple brought up the hazing allegations.

Someone’s mic cut off for going over time, and they just kept talking.

Another commenter says he went through all 500 events at the athletic complex from 2015 to 2019 to see how many events had over 4,000 people.

Someone also posed the idea that NU “laced the Kool-aid.”

A public commenter warned that the 10,000-person events could be gun shows and extremist rallies. 

At one point, the Zoom got overtaken by people yelling racial slurs.

I thought things couldn’t get more intense after residents held a protest and disrupted a city council meeting on Sept. 26 over six concerts a year, but then public comment in the meeting on Oct. 30 had to be stopped because of a fight in one of the overflow rooms. 

Biss, in a separate situation, had to stop everything for a moment to say, “Can we please leave personal attacks towards people out of the comments so we can have a respectful discussion?”

That’s insane.

The meeting crossed over midnight, and the council still hadn’t voted on the introduction of the two items six and a half hours in. By the end of the meeting, the council was closing in on the 30-hour mark in terms of time spent on the issue.

When Biss broke a 4-4 tie for the introduction of the text amendment, the meeting had lasted over seven and a half hours, and public comment took more than three for over 100 people to speak about the same arguments for and against that had already been heard a hundred times. 

Again, insane. There are so many terrible things going on in the world, and this is what we’re giving that much time and energy to?

Maybe I’m editorializing, and the amount of time I’ve spent on this project contributes to my frustration with the event as a whole. Probably. But still, insane.

And it doesn’t even matter.

The only people with votes are the eight aldermen and potentially the mayor, and it seems like no matter what arguments are presented, most of them have already made up their minds. 

That’s next time on the Field of Broken Dreams.

(Music)

Mack Jones The Field of Broken Dreams is a podcast from The Evanstonian, the student newspaper at Evanston Township High School. It’s advised by John Phillips with executive editors Jilian Denlow, Clara Gustafson and Sophia Sherman. The Field of Broken Dreams is reported and produced by me, Mack Jones, with help from Isaac Suarez Flint. Our theme music is by Sam Persell. 

The final mix of this episode was done by me. 

We have two more episodes coming. You’ll be able to find them all on our website, evanstonian.net, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can find more stories about Northwestern and other events pertaining to Evanston there, too. Again, it’s evanstonian.net. 

Special thanks to everyone interviewed, ABC7, Most Livable City Association, Field of Opportunities, Northwestern University and the Evanston City Council.

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Mack Jones
Mack Jones, Opinion Editor, Digital Content Editor
Hi! My name is Mack Jones, and I’m the Opinion and Co-Digital Editor on The Evanstonian. This is my second year on staff; last year, I was a staff writer, primarily for News. Outside of the paper, I play tennis, guitar and piano and referee for AYSO.
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