Most of Wrigley plans approved

Updated: June 28, 2013, 5:15 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- After a 4-hour meeting, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks unanimously approved the majority of the Chicago Cubs' plan for a $300 million renovation of Wrigley Field during a special meeting at City Hall on Thursday.

All that remains is the really important stuff.

The commission postponed discussing the proposed 6,000-square-foot video board in left field and the 1,000-square-foot sign in right field until a regularly scheduled July 11 meeting.

The "generally uninterrupted sweep and contour of the grandstand and bleachers" is protected under landmark status.

"We are happy the landmark commission approved our plan today," Cubs spokesman Julian Green said. "Obviously we still have more work to do and seeking additional approval for the project. We think today is a great step for creating momentum for the $500 million investment."

In addition to the improvements at Wrigley Field, there is also a $200 million hotel complex planned across from the ballpark.

The Cubs still have to seek building approval for the project through the city's planning and zoning boards when they meet in late July.

The July 11 landmarks commission meeting will be key to the process, though.

Tom Tunney, alderman for the 44th ward, which includes Wrigley Field, remains concerned about the size of the video board, which seems to be the biggest piece of negotiation between the city and team. Tunney wants both signs to be significantly smaller.

"We're still negotiating the size, the height and the width and how it impacts the entire community, not just the relationship with the rooftops," Tunney said Thursday in the City Council chambers. "This is about signs you can see, especially the LED portion, from a mile away. And I can verify that because I live a mile away and I can see the light standards. Six thousand square feet, I'll be able to watch the game from my apartment."

The Cubs don't seem eager to budge on this issue.

"Basically, when we announced our framework back in April, it included a 6,000-square-foot video board and a 1,000-square-foot sign," Green said. "Anything less hampers our ability to move forward in this $500 million investment, which we're making without a public handout."

Despite the acrimony among the team, rooftop owners and his office, Tunney sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

"We're coming back here in July, and then the mayor, the Cubs and I want to get this done," he said, "hopefully by the end of the summer."

Several rooftop owners, who have spoken out repeatedly against the team's plan for more outfield signage, showed up at the public hearing.

George Loukas, who owns three rooftop businesses and the popular Cubby Bear bar, represented the rooftop group, reciting a letter he received from former team president Andy MacPhail in 2004 when the team signed a partnership deal with the rooftops giving the Cubs 17 percent of revenue.

After his speech, Loukas was asked if he supported the plan. He said, "I'm in favor of having a long and rewarding relationship with the Cubs," and walked away from the microphone.

Earlier in June, Chicago aldermen approved a deal to allow as many as 46 night games, up from 30.

But quality of life issues in his ward remain for Tunney.

Among other minor issues, Tunney spoke out against the team moving outfield walls onto the sidewalks and expanding the property line in two other places. This is to accommodate the new signage and give the Cubs the chance to fill in gaps between the grandstand and bleachers.

Currently, sidewalks in the area range from 15 to 18 feet of walking space, but Tunney said this would trim some to eight feet. The team previously moved out the walls in 2005, when the bleachers were expanded.

Despite his objections about the move hurting the quality of life for Lakeview residents on non-game days, the commission approved moving the walls -- as it pertains to the landmark status.

The five-year project will create a radically updated ballpark, improving many of the outdated concepts while giving the team ample opportunity to create new revenue streams.

The plan includes new exits, a radically restored exterior to the park, outfield and upper-deck patios, a new LED board in left field, a refurbished press box and suite area, expanded dugouts and clubhouses, more restaurants, concession spaces and restrooms, and enclosed bullpens.

Eleanor Gorski, the assistant commissioner and director of historic preservation for the city, noted during the meeting that she was previously unaware Wrigley Field was bereft of proper bullpens. The commission requested the Cubs use bricks from the current walls to create the bullpens.

How will the Cubs pay for this plan, which includes an office building and hotel across the street?

The advertising portion of the planned 45,000 square feet of signage will help. That estimate doesn't include the video board and right-field sign.

"Over 40,000 square feet of signage we'd never give another developer," Tunney said. "We're bending over backward in my opinion. We're trying to give them a return on their investment and protect our quality of life."

Since May 1, the team has been calling this project "the restoration" of Wrigley Field, instead of a renovation. That's because the Cubs are working with the National Park Service and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency to faithfully recreate the 1938 look of Wrigley Field, which received local landmark status in 2004.

Dennis Culloton, spokesman for team owner Tom Ricketts, said the team picked 1938 (when the Cubs were swept in the World Series) as a model for renovations because it was a pinnacle year for the ballpark. Only later, he said, did the legal team bring up a possible tax break.

By "restoring" Wrigley Field to a 1938 aesthetic appearance, Ricketts can get a 20 percent federal income tax credit. The Cubs are also applying for a Class L property tax incentive from Cook County. This encourages "the preservation and rehabilitation of landmark, commercial, industrial and income-producing non-for-profit buildings."

The Cubs can get their assessment values reduced during a 12-year plan: 10 percent for the first 10 years, 15 percent in Year 11 and 20 percent in Year 12.

The team will have to work with the Park Service to fit its standards and list Wrigley as a national landmark for the tax break.

Green doesn't believe those tax breaks count as a public handout.

"We still have to make the initial outlay before you qualify for the tax credit," he said. "I would suggest private businesses who want to preserve and engage in preservation should be applauded for being good stewards and preserving historic landmarks."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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