Throughout her nearly 15 years in local government, Senta Plunkett has witnessed residents fill the council chambers inside Wilmette’s Village Hall plenty of times. But moments after the now village president called the Village Board of Trustees’ meeting to order on Tuesday, Aug. 8, she noticed a crowd size unlike anything she had seen before.
“This might be the most crowded I’ve ever seen our council chambers,” Plunkett remarked as she gazed over the dozens of residents who filed into Village Hall to weigh in on potential zoning changes in Evanston that would allow large-scale concerts at Northwestern University’s Ryan Field.
Tuesday’s session was the third consecutive meeting of Wilmette’s Village Board dominated by discussion surrounding the Evanston university’s plans to redevelop Ryan Field — but it was the first of the three that concluded in trustees taking formal action against Northwestern’s vision.
Trustees voted unanimously to approve a resolution objecting to what Plunkett described as the “large-scale commercialization of Northwestern University’s Ryan Field.”
“(Tonight’s) vote is the culmination of nine months of feedback from residents who have strenuously voiced their objections and concerns with concerts, which would welcome 28,500 attendees to a residential neighborhood immediately adjacent to the Northwestern athletic campus,” Plunkett said.
“Through this resolution, we are sending a clear message to Northwestern University and the Evanston City Council that commercializing an educational facility’s athletic campus in this manner — in a residential neighborhood to drive profits — is wholly unacceptable.”
As part of a brief speech that prefaced public comment related to the resolution, Plunkett also said that the board’s position on the contentious local proposal is “consistent with both the Village of Wilmette and City of Evanston’s objections to commercialization of the athletics campus dating back to the 1970s.”
According to a memo from the office of Village Manager Mike Braiman, Wilmette has previously objected to what village officials called the “commercialization” of Northwestern’s athletics campus five times.
Those objections, per village documents, include Wilmette intervening in a lawsuit in 1970 to prevent the Chicago Bears from playing at the football stadium, a 1976 letter opposing a zoning amendment that would have allowed professional sporting events at the football stadium, and a 1982 board resolution and appearance in front of Evanston officials opposing a special-use permit for a concert with an estimated attendance of 25,000.
Former Wilmette President Bob Bielinski also authored a letter in 2019 expressing concerns about a proposed zoning amendment to allow concerts inside Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan arena on a trial basis, according to Braiman’s memo.
Contention surrounding Northwestern’s latest proposal has swirled in Wilmette for months. The university’s plans were met with strong criticism from many south Wilmette residents since plans were first introduced, and concerns have only heightened in the following months as additional details about the school’s vision were revealed.
As previously reported by The Record, Northwestern first brought forward an $800 million plan last fall that would cut stadium capacity by approximately 12,000 (from 47,000 to 35,000) but would create more communal areas and enable multiple revenue-generating concerts each year.
Wilmette’s resolution objecting to the potential project argues that Northwestern’s proposed expansion of Ryan Field would have “adverse impacts” on the “more than 500 Wilmette households neighboring the campus.”
The resolution also calls the proposed text amendment included in the school’s plans that would allow up to 10 outdoor concerts “a gross infringement upon the quiet enjoyment of Wilmette residents’ property and will forever change the character of the residential neighborhood in which the Northwestern athletic campus resides.”
Officials also criticized Northwestern’s plans to manage the sound from the concerts by directing it toward Wilmette neighborhoods as opposed to Evanston.
“Northwestern University’s proposal intentionally and offensively directs noise into Wilmette, specifically residential properties in Wilmette; and Northwestern University’s zoning application does not provide any sound mitigation strategies, even those recommended by its acoustic consultant, to reduce the impact of excessive noise,” the resolution reads.
Sixteen members of the public addressed the board during the public-comment portion of the meeting. Several of the commenters who spoke Aug. 8 had previously addressed the board either during the July 11 or July 25 meetings.
The majority of commenters on Aug. 8 thanked the board for its work on developing the resolution while also reiterating previous concerns related to noise, traffic, parking and safety that were shared during past meetings.
Resident Dave Lundy described the situation as a “zero-sum game” for Wilmette and urged the board to “stand firm” in its opposition.
“If Evanston gets approval to commercialize Ryan Field, Wilmette loses,” he said. “They win, we lose. Period. So, as you consider what this looks like and as you move forward, it’s what do the compromises look like and what do the mitigations look like, but there are no compromises and mitigations that will solve this problem.
“I encourage you to stand firm. … (Evanston is) going to go forward and we are the only thing standing in the way. You are the only ones who can protect the Wilmette residents.”
While most residents spoke in opposition of the rezoning, a few residents did share their support for the school’s plans.
Charles Hutchinson, a resident of Wilmette who’s also the president of the Wilmette-Kenilworth Chamber of Commerce, argued that the proposal would be a positive for Wilmette businesses.
“When events happen at Ryan Field, it brings business into Wilmette and our business owners like that,” he said. “It’s good for our business downtown; it’s good for business surrounding downtown”
Near the conclusion of her comments, Plunkett said she will be presenting the resolution at Evanston’s land-use commission’s public hearing on Aug. 23 as well as future city council meetings that discuss the proposal.
The village president left little doubt on if Wilmette’s opposition to the school’s current plans will wane at any point.
“The noise, traffic, parking and public safety concerns associated with large-scale for-profit concerts at Ryan are too numerous to list right now but needless to say, they can not in any way be sufficiently remedied, especially right in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” she said.
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Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.