Wilmette, News

Amid resident backlash, Wilmette Village Board makes Ryan Field deal final

Despite hearing more than 20 public pleas to abort their course and move forward with ligation, Wilmette trustees solidified their path toward what local officials described as a measure to “protect” the town’s residents against the impacts of Northwestern’s University massive redevelopment of Ryan Field. 

Wilmette trustees voted unanimously during their Tuesday, Feb. 13 meeting to approve an intergovernmental agreement between the village and the City of Evanston regarding the Ryan Field project.

Wilmette officials announced their intention to strike the agreement with their neighbors to the south late last week, as first reported by The Record. 

“Tonight is just one step in the process to protect Wilmette residents,” Wilmette Village President Senta Plunkett said during a five-minute prepared statement prefacing both public comment and the board’s vote.

Plunkett added that the board “specifically reserved the right to pursue legal options in the future” as part of its decision to enter the agreement.   

“After tonight, our work continues for the future as we remain committed to advocating on your behalf and taking actions as necessary and appropriate to maintain the quality of life we value in our community,” Plunkett later said. 

Wilmette’s decision to approve the IGA puts an end to a months-long discussion among village officials — which occurred primarily in closed session — regarding how to handle the town’s objection toward Evanston’s zoning code amendments that will allow concerts to occur at Ryan Field. 

Northwestern announced its intentions to build a new “world-class” venue that would host a limited number of concerts in the 35,000-person stadium in the fall of 2022.

The $800-million plan cuts stadium capacity by approximately 12,000 (from 47,000 to 35,000) but creates what the school describes as “more communal areas” and enables multiple revenue-generating concerts each year. 

Since the inception of the school’s plans, Wilmette residents and elected officials have intensely fought the project, mainly Northwestern’s rezoning request to enable concerts at a new stadium that is just two blocks to Wilmette’s south.

Wilmette has been steadfast in its opposition toward the university’s plans and in early August of 2023 the village board voted unanimously to approve a resolution objecting to what Plunkett at the time described as the “large-scale commercialization of Northwestern University’s Ryan Field.” 

“Since we first became aware of Northwestern’s plans, the village board and village staff have fully evaluated this matter in a methodical and thoughtful manner,” Plunkett said at the Feb. 13 meeting. “While we may not agree on the path forward this evening, we share the same goal in finding how to best protect Wilmette residents from the impacts of the newly allowed uses at Ryan Field.” 

Plunkett told the community that the board sought legal advice from its corporation counsel and also hired an outside counsel to review the matter. The opinions from Wilmette’s legal representatives determined that the “most effective path forward (for Wilmette) at this time is to approve an IGA,” Plunkett said. 

Wilmette did debate whether filing a lawsuit against Evanston would prompt “meaningful concessions.” 

But Plunkett noted that many of the desired modifications, such as a reorientation of the stage or a reduction in the number of concerts, would not have been possible without the reopening of Evanston’s zoning process. Those concessions were determined as “highly improbable outcomes as a part of a settlement agreement or litigation,” Plunkett said. 

“A lawsuit would therefore likely drag on until a final judgment on its merits years down the road, and in all probability, after the construction of the new stadium is complete with the uncertainty that Evanston’s zoning ordinance would be overturned,” Plunkett said. 

“In weighing the complex and uncertain nature of ligation versus the mitigations included in the IGA, the village favored a cooperative and guaranteed approach that would considerably reduce impacts upon our residents.” 

Public comment 

Despite the efforts of public officials to preemptively calm concerns during their discussion of the IGA, more than a dozen residents addressed the board during the public-comment portion of the meeting to urge trustees to reconsider litigation. 

Residents’ concerns expressed during the meeting largely mirrored many of the issues that have been highlighted throughout the lengthy opposition toward the project. Those issues include the impacts of noise, traffic and parking; public safety; pollution; and reduced property values.  

Wilmette resident Emmet Sullivan said he appreciated the comments the board has made, but he told the board to not “give up.” 

“We need to invest in our neighborhood that borders this athletic complex,” he said. “Please do not sign this agreement and please file a lawsuit by this Friday.” 

Sullivan was one of the many commenters who alluded to Feb. 16, which is the final possible date of a 90-day period Wilmette has to challenge Evanston’s zoning change. 

Bradley Birge, of Wilmette, also urged the board to file a claim, saying that not doing so is “leaving residents in a lurch.” 

“Evanston is a college town,” he said. “They got $100 million dollars. Wilmette is going to bear the brunt of this with zero. No money at all. No benefit to Wilmette. No benefits to your residents. I respectfully suggest that you vote against this.” 

Phil Adams, who lives on 5th Street and described his residence as in “the direct line of fire from construction and all the noise that’s going to be flying out from the concerts,” implored the board to address the issue of traffic. 

Adams said he already believes Northwestern is “taking advantage” of the nearby residents.

“We just don’t trust anything Northwestern is doing because we’re already seeing the leakage,” he said.

Resident Debbie Thiersch, who lives on Isabella Street, also stated that she felt a lawsuit would be the best option to protect residents. 

“The only way to protect Wilmette and its residents from property value loss and the negative health impacts of noise and diesel pollution is to stop the concerts before they start,” she said. 

In response to shouts from a resident after she had already closed public comment, Plunkett assured the community that the board has diligently listened to concerns throughout the process. 

“We’ve been listening for the past year and we’ve been listening to everyone who spoke tonight and on every single occasion, and I can’t tell you how hard we have worked on this and we feel for you on this,” she said. “We really do.”

Agreement details

Village Manager Michael Braiman provided a high-level summary of the agreement, which Evanston’s City Council approved on Feb. 12. Braiman’s brief presentation highlighted key points related to traffic, concert noise, demolition and construction. 

Regarding traffic, Braiman noted that demolition and construction traffic in addition to concert truck setup and takedown is restricted from going in or through Wilmette as part of the agreement. Additionally, concert attendee traffic may not be directed into or through Wilmette. 

Sound measurement devices will be installed in Wilmette, according to Braiman, who added that Wilmette will review sound mitigation strategies before approval from Evanston.

Evanston will also share any potential fine revenues with Wilmette for concert-noise violations

Other highlighted points included that Evanston will ensure a construction management representative is onsite during demolition and new construction at Ryan Field to resolve resident concerns in real-time, and Evanston will support Northwestern’s continued reimbursement of police and public works expenses associated with events at the Ryan Field complex. 

“The village has negotiated to obtain significant concessions from Evanston, which will positively impact the quality of life in Wilmette,” Plunkett said of the IGA. “Importantly, they will take effect immediately and provide meaningful protections to our residents, starting with the demolition and construction of the new Ryan Field.” 

Other trustees shared similar sentiments as Plunkett, joining in saying that the agreement was the best route forward. 

“While I realize this is not a satisfying answer for those who wanted another decision, I feel our process was sound and we are poised to make the best available decision in front of us,” Trustee Justin Sheperd said. 

Trustee Kate Gjaja, who noted that she’s a resident of the neighborhood near Ryan Field, said she is “hurt” and “concerned” by what has happened with Northwestern’s project plans but also that she believes the board has put time, energy and thoughtfulness into its effort to protect residents. 

“I join with my fellow trustees in looking for the very best way that we think we can to protect the community at this time and we will continue to evaluate that and evaluate our options,” she said. 

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martin carlino
Martin Carlino

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.

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