$500M in Wrigley upgrades OK'd

Updated: July 24, 2013, 6:13 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago City Council on Wednesday approved a $500 million renovation plan for the 99-year-old Wrigley Field, including a massive left-field LED scoreboard and a large neon right-field sign.

While the deal was finally approved, ending a process that began in 2010 soon after the Ricketts family bought the Cubs, there is the threat of a lawsuit from rooftop owners.

The Cubs won't put a shovel into the ground -- and won't celebrate the City Council's approval -- until they know there will be no litigation from that group.

"We look forward to beginning construction on our $500 million plan, but before we do, we must resolve once and for all the threat of litigation and the enforcement of existing rooftop ordinances and long-term certainty over control of our outfield," Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said in a statement.

Rooftop owners spokesman Ryan McLaughlin said he had no comment after the meeting in a brief email reply.

The Cubs expect some kind of signal on potential litigation by next week.

Rooftop club owners have passionately fought against two major components of the Cubs' plan to modernize and monetize the landmark-protected baseball park.

The rooftop club owners, many of whom also own other buildings and popular bars in the neighborhood, signed a 20-year deal in 2004 that gives 17 percent of gross revenues to the Cubs. They have specifically fought the plan to put up a 5,700-square-foot video board in left field and a 650-square-foot sign in right field because they believe it would alter the views of several rooftops, hurting their businesses.

The Cubs have said their plans would not significantly alter the views and that both signs would be put on new additions to the outfield walls that are pushed back on Waveland and Sheffield avenues to help protect the views.

The landmark commission approved the boards earlier this month -- "the generally uninterrupted sweep and contour of the grandstand and bleachers" is protected under a 2004 landmark provision -- and the planning and zoning boards approved them last week and Tuesday, respectively. The City Council signed off on the entirety of the Cubs' plan during Wednesday's meeting.

The fight over the outfield signage is key. The Cubs need to have the guaranteed advertising revenue from the video board and right-field sign to help pay for the estimated $300 million renovation of Wrigley, along with the additional $200 million for the other parts of the development, which include a 175-room "boutique hotel," an office building with a clock tower, an open-air plaza and a large video advertising board.

The entire building process is expected to take five years and should provide the Cubs with plenty of revenue streams, thanks in part to an approved 35,000 square feet of signage inside and outside the park, most of which will be for advertising.

The video board is probably two years away from being up at Wrigley Field, based on Cubs research, which includes a 15-18 month request for proposal timeline for video-board bidders, a design process and the hiring and training of people to run the board, according to a Cubs source.

If the Cubs can begin construction this fall, the first order of business will be to improve the player facilities, which include expanding the home clubhouse and adding batting cages and workout facilities, along with other amenities common at other stadiums.

The Cubs also will expand the visitors clubhouse as part of an expansion on Sheffield and Addison that will include a new restaurant.

The final sticking points in the deal between the team and 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney were a pedestrian bridge connecting Wrigley and the hotel, which would sit on the McDonald's lot at Clark and Addison, several specifics about the hotel, including its entrance and an outdoor patio, and a 10-year moratorium on new outfield signage.

The moratorium has been approved, and the other details have been indefinitely deferred. But the Cubs are amenable to dropping the idea of a bridge, which would host an advertising sign, in exchange for an arch over Clark Street that would say "Welcome to Wrigley Field sponsored by Pepsi or something like that," according to a Cubs source.

As part of that alternative plan, the Cubs would create a patio deck overhang on Sheffield that would push back the right-field wall another eight feet and could connect the park to the Addison train stop through a new walkway.

"The patio allows you to also move the [650-square-foot] sign back so now it doesn't obstruct any rooftop views," the Cubs source said.

The patio also would take out the existing sidewalk, requiring the parking lane on Sheffield to be turned into a new sidewalk. That could be controversial since it involves the Cubs taking more public land.

These decisions will have to come through an agreement with Tunney and the city.

Tunney, who has been considered an unpopular obstructionist to this plan in some circles, gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the council Wednesday, defending himself as the protector of the Lakeview neighborhood that makes up his ward.

In Chicago, aldermen typically get leeway from the mayor to run their ward, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel worked closely with Tunney to get this deal done during the past few months, and especially the past few weeks.

Tunney, a small-business owner in the area, excoriated the Cubs' previous owner, the Tribune Company, for not investing in Wrigley Field and the area in the 1980s, when many business owners in the area did.

"We are not naive. We are not afraid of change," Tunney said during his speech. "We really aren't, but we want to be respected. When you all didn't invest, we did, and now you want to come in with big bucks in a small confined space in the community. So you know what my challenges have been to represent the community, to make sure that the small businesses that invested over the last 30 years when the Tribune didn't, we have to respect them too."

Tunney reminded the council of the Tribune's broken promises from the 2004 bleacher expansion, mostly regarding parking, and said he will work harder to force the Cubs to keep the promises made in this deal.

Emanuel praised Tunney, noting that 44 items were included in the final deal because of the alderman.

The mayor stressed that "there is not one single tax dollar going to back this up. That was an essential goal. We said it upfront."

In Ricketts' original proposal in 2010, the Cubs would partially finance the renovations with a percentage of the amusement tax that is tacked on to every ticket. After a long break in negotiations with the mayor, the Cubs eventually announced they would pay for the deal. A framework was announced in mid-April, and the negotiations between the Cubs and Tunney have largely played out in public while backroom deals were cut.

Despite Emanuel's promise, there is some public subsidy involved with this plan, however minor the Cubs feel it is. The Cubs want "air rights" to expand the Wrigley Field footprint over public property for free and are applying for federal and local tax credits for "restoring" Wrigley Field to 1938 aesthetics.

The federal income tax credit is for 20 percent, and the Cubs also want a Class L property tax incentive from Cook County. 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 Cubs feel their investment, which will create permanent and temporary jobs and add tax revenue, more than offsets those benefits.

"If anyone suggests that is a public handout, it's a bit of a stretch," a Cubs source said.

Semantics aside, the Cubs are almost done with this deal. All they need now is a 1-2-3 ninth inning, which for this team is often easier said than done.

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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