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Hazing scandal and the fate of city trees interfere with Northwestern’s Ryan Field plans

Ryan Field rendering
A rendering of the new Ryan Field proposed by Northwestern University.

The hazing scandal involving Northwestern University’s football team has complicated the school’s campaign to get authority from Evanston on its $800 million plan to rebuild Ryan Field, home of the Wildcats.

And another issue is emerging in a town that has celebrated numerous Tree City awards for cultivating an urban canopy.

Ald. Eleanor Revelle said she is concerned about Northwestern’s plan to divert groundwater for the new stadium and send it to the North Shore Channel.

Revelle, whose ward includes Ryan Field, said the diversion could cause the earth to sink and deprive area trees of groundwater. She said detailed plans filed with the city show the playing field at the new stadium would be below ground level.

She has previously voiced neutrality about the Ryan Field project, but said she’s now leaning against it. Revelle’s potential opposition could be crucial in a town where progressive politics and environmental issues weigh heavily.

“They would be pumping groundwater 24-7. I have concerns about the environmental impact and what this does to our trees and sewers,” she said, noting that the proposed 35,000-seat arena goes deeper into the groundwater than the existing stadium.

Her comments came as opponents of the plan for an arena suitable for concerts said the hazing scandal was another reason to block the proposal. Critics said the scandal, and the light punishment initially levied against former coach Pat Fitzgerald, show Northwestern is acting in bad faith.

“Northwestern’s leadership has no credibility, and its priorities are badly distorted,” said David DeCarlo, president of the Most Livable City Association. “We hope university leaders reassess their approach toward students and the broader community and start to engage in a spirit of genuine respect and transparency. In the meantime, they need to put the Ryan Field proposals on hold.”

Northwestern spokesman Jon Yates and Dave Davis, handling community relations for the Ryan Field project, did not reply to messages about the scandal’s impact.

President Michael Schill fired Fitzgerald on Monday after giving him a two-week suspension on Friday, when the school released a summary of an investigation of the hazing. On Saturday, the Daily Northwestern student newspaper quoted two former players describing what went on, intensifying criticism of Schill’s initial discipline of Fitzgerald and prompting him to publicly state he “may have erred.”

Meanwhile, six Northwestern faculty members said the Athletic Department needs a deep change in the culture. In a letter addressed to Schill, athletic director Derrick Gragg and Board of Trustees chairman Peter Barris, they said planning and marketing for the Ryan Field project should be halted because “we need to get the existing house in order before expanding it.”

They also cited abuses reported by Northwestern cheerleaders in 2021.

The letter, sent prior to Fitzgerald’s firing, was from associate professor of history Caitlin Fitz, professor of political science and religious studies Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, professor of history and Board of Visitors professor Kate Masur, professor of history Susan Pearson, Wayne J. Jones II research professor of history Amy Stanley and professor of anthropology Jessica Winegar.

Evanston has a nine-member council, with one recusing himself on Ryan Field because he works for Northwestern. Some observers believe the rest of the council is split 4-4 on the matter, with Revelle among the “no” votes. A tie leaves the deciding vote with Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss.

Biss did not return calls for comment this week. He previously has said he is undecided about Ryan Field.

One council member regarded as a swing vote is Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th). Asked about the project Tuesday, he said, “I’m looking for a way to make this work for a majority of the community.” As for Northwestern’s credibility, he said, “I try to give anybody the benefit of the doubt.”

Nieuwsma said he wants to hear more feedback from residents.

Northwestern needs two approvals from Evanston: one for its “planned use application” to build a new stadium and another for a zoning amendment to allow concerts.

The foes of Ryan Field improvements don’t mind a new stadium on its own, but oppose Northwestern’s plan to use it for up to 10 concerts a year. They cite fears of noise affecting an otherwise quiet area of upscale single-family homes, as well as traffic.

Project supporters cite economic benefits for Evanston and Northwestern’s plan to build without taxpayer subsidies, although the school doesn’t pay property taxes.