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Solider Field renovation plans another misstep for city

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley looks down at a model of Soldier Field following a news conference at the stadium Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2000, where plans to rehabilitate the structure as well as plans for the revitalization of the park surrounding the stadium were announced . The plan, to be presented to the state Legislature, calls for the approval of $587 million for the project. The Bears and the National Football League would contribute $200 million, and as much as $400 million dollars would come from bonds. (AP Photo/Charles Bennett)

As the 20-year lease came to a close, and while the nation was gripped by the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election, the Bears and the city of Chicago rushed a plan through the state legislature in just two weeks. A proposed $587 million renovation would gut the interior of Soldier Field, demolish the Park District headquarters in the north end and rebuild the stadium inside the colonnades. The Chicago Park District approved via 5-0 vote without discussion. The Bears and the NFL were only expected to contribute $200 million with $387 million by way of 30-year bonds from the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority. A two percent Chicago hotel tax would pay off the debt. Numerous advocate groups fought back, bringing lawsuit after lawsuit, but the legislation passing through the Illinois statehouse kept the courts from halting the project. Because the colonnades remained in place, the city successfully argued it was merely a renovation of the property and not a new construction. despues de threatening to leave Soldier Field 13 times since 1990the Bears were about to enter a franchise-altering, 30-year lease that changed everything about its relationship with the Parks Department.

In 2000, the Bears paid $9.5 million under the terms of the 1980 lease for total control of the stadium for 20 days annually. Under the new deal the Bears would instead pay a $10 million flat rate annually for 116 days of control. Even as the renovation further cut stadium capacity to 61,500, the Bears came out far ahead in the deal. The team began introducing Personal Seat Licenses, with prices ranging from $900 to $10,000 (the highest in the NFL at the time). According to 2004 University of Chicago case study by economist Allen R. Sanderson“The Bears’ own revenue estimates for 2003 reveal an expected gain in profitability from $11 million to $30 million with the renovated facility, more favorable lease arrangements, and more revenue sources.”

Sanderson estimated the deal helped the Bears increase their potential franchise value between $300 and $400 million or double its “pre-deal” price. Public pressure in the wake of 9/11 kept the team from selling naming rights to Soldier Field, however, eliminating a potential source for a cash windfall.

Chicagoans are still footing the bill for the 2003 renovations to Soldier Field through the hotel tax and will continue to do so until 2032. The same economically dubious logic — that tourists will pay for the construction since it is funded through a hotel tax — is still being used, most recently in the Tennessee Titans’ quest for a new home. However, studies have shown “little evidence exists supporting links between sporting events and hotel demand”.

Besides, it turned out the hotel tax wouldn’t be sufficient. The revised Soldier Field’s $587 million price tag ballooned to $632 million by the end of the project, $432 million of which taxpayers would have to cover. when hotel tax revenues fell short by $29 million in 2021, Chicagoans were stuck paying the difference. Worse, park-goers have continued to see their public spaces along the lakefront decline – a clear departure from the Burnham Plan.

Per Sanderson:

When the mayor first announced the renovation plan in November 2000, as a sop to certain civic opponents he promised 19 acres of new parkland around the new stadium. Without explanation, public press releases from the city and Bears suddenly began using the figure of 17 acres, not 19. That public space includes a Veterans sculpture and water wall, children’s garden, Memorial lawn, winter gardens, and a sledding hill. But later, upon close examination of the architectural drawings, that figure included – and counted as “parkland” – landscaped median strips along the access and interior roads and sloped berms alongside the parking garage. The usable area turned out to be about 10 acres, not 19.

Ironically, Sanderson found in 1988 that Dirk Lohan, one of the key architects of the renovation, lobbied the mayor’s office to convert Soldier Field back to a civic site for public use. This was a popular sentiment before the 2003 renovation was completed, too.

Construction progresses on Soldier Field as seen from this aerial view Monday, March 31, 2002 (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and advocate group Friends of the Parks proposed an 80,000-seat stadium with a retractable dome on public land north of the Chicago White Sox ballpark on the South Side. The benefits were numerous. The Bears could continue to play at Soldier Field while their new home was built, rather than playing the 2002 season at the University of Illinois’s Memorial Stadium two-and-a-half hours away. The work would be completed in less time than it would take to renovate Soldier Field. It would also be cheaper by nearly $200 million. Public transit options were already in close proximity and functioned well for Sox games. Crucially, once the Bears moved in, the plan called to revert Soldier Field to its original 1924 scale. The current seating arrangement would be dismantled and more fields would be added. It would once again be a public space in the way Burnham envisioned.

The Bears refused to consider it.

“With the exception of Grant Park itself, Soldier Field occupies the most valuable public property in Chicago, which the Bears are able to occupy at close to a zero price.” Sanderson explained. “In addition, they don’t have to pay for the congestion externalities.”

So the 2003 renovation plowed ahead with massive public and media backlash. The resulting arena was roundly mocked by architects, football fans and experts alike. Blair Kamin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic then at the Chicago Tribune dubbed the project “the mistake by the lake” — noting that politics had triumphed over civic vision. Soldier Field quickly lost its National Landmark Status in the process.

Now, nearly a century after Soldier Field opened, the city of Chicago wants to keep molding it. This latest rehab project is, indeed, no little plan. Lightfoot incorrectly stated the price tag would be less than the cost to the team of building a new stadium from scratch. Apart from the fact original estimates for these projects tend to end up way off, $2.2 billion is higher than the cost of Allegiant Stadium ($1.9B), MetLife Stadium ($1.6B), Mercedes Benz Stadium ($1.5B), Levi’s Stadium ($1.3B), AT&T Stadium ($1.3B) and US Bank Stadium ($1.1B)—each was built on new land from scratch.

Forbes valued the Chicago Bears at $4.075 billion in 2021 — the seventh-highest total in the NFL. If the team wants to build a stadium in a suburb, it has the means to do so without relying on public funds. especially as study despues de study despues de study has shown that the promises made to taxpayers when committing to private stadiums rarely, if ever, are kept. The evidence is as overwhelming as the wealth the city of Chicago inadvertently helped the Bears create with its last 30-year lease.

Lightfoot said the city is already talking to potential new tenants if the Bears still want to leave. She suggested another NFL team may look to move in, though again, no specifics were offered.

If the city wants to avoid little plans, if Lightfoot wants to stir men’s blood, she would welcome the team’s exit from Soldier Field and restore the building for its original purpose: A public space for all to use and a gem along a sterling lakefront.

Instead the city continues to find cover in Burnham’s words. It tells the public these projects will lift the city to new heights, even as it continues to warp a building central to Burnham’s plan and move farther and farther away from his original intention.

Chicagoans deserve better. The Bears will be just fine.


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