Mayor Brandon Johnson said “there’ll be time” to work out stadium details. But if the goal is to craft a deal for a new stadium in a new neighborhood that benefits all of Chicago, the time is now.
By CST Editorial Board Jan 27, 2024, 5:30am
At first blush, a new White Sox ballpark on the southern edge of downtown, with gleaming skyscrapers, the Chicago River and a planned new neighborhood called The 78 as a backdrop is an exciting prospect for Chicago.
But the devil is always in the details when it comes to big projects. And the public deserves to see a lot more of the particulars before declaring the proposal a winner.
For instance, how do you orient and build a Major League Baseball stadium in a way that doesn’t merely fit on The 78’s narrowish site but also contributes to the ongoing redevelopment of the South Branch and brings people — not just paid ticket holders — closer to public spaces along the river edge?
And what happens to Guaranteed Rate Field if a new stadium is built?
Then there is the likely billion-dollar question: Who pays for a new stadium and needed infrastructure improvements?
Mayor Brandon Johnson met last week with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to discuss the stadium proposal.
“We have not gotten into the intricacies and the details just yet,” Johnson said afterward. “There’ll be time for that.”
Yes, but if the goal is to craft a deal that benefits Chicago, and not just Reinsdorf and the Sox, the time to work out those intricacies and details is now.
As the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman, Tim Novak and David Roeder first reported , the Sox and Related Midwest are discussing building the 35,000- to 38,000-seat ballpark at The 78, a 62-acre parcel along the eastern edge of the Chicago River south of Roosevelt Road.
There were already plans to develop the site into a mixed-use community, but under the new effort , Related Midwest would build 5,000 residential units — with 1,000 of them affordable — plus an office building, a hotel and dozens of restaurants and bars along the riverfront.
The (potential) good: Done correctly, the stadium could be a shot in the arm for The 78’s development and help the project feel more like a destination neighborhood, albeit a dense one with mid- and high-rises, rather than bungalows and two-flats.
But here’s where things get tricky. Reinsdorf wants a new home for the Sox, but a big reason Guaranteed Rate Field hasn’t worked well for the Sox … is Reinsdorf himself.
Built and owned by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, Reinsdorf’s input into the stadium’s original design led to the creation of what was then one of the ugliest parks in baseball: an unfriendly ball of concrete that turns its back on the city’s fabled skyline.
While renovations that began in 2001 have significantly improved the stadium, Reinsdorf for years has wrongly resisted efforts to redevelop the 70 acres of surface parking surrounding the stadium into a mixed-use neighborhood that could make the ball field more of an attraction.
Why the resistance? Reinsdorf’s lease agreement with the ISFA lets him keep gross receipts from the parking lots.
Add to that the fact the franchise has mostly fielded season after season of mediocre teams since winning the World Series almost 20 years ago.
With all those unforced errors, City Hall must make sure a new stadium is planned and built with the public’s interest — not just Reinsdorf’s — in mind.
Lastly, one of the toughest calls would be deciding the fate of Guaranteed Rate Field. The 33-year-old stadium is maintained by ISFA bonds backed by a 2% statewide hotel tax.
The ISFA still owes $50 million on that debt, so we’d hate to see the ballpark wrecked.
A better option — at least one worth investigating by the city and the ISFA as part of any new stadium deal — would be to grow Guaranteed Rate’s live performance business, finally redevelop the surfacing parking lots … and aggressively scout for a new tenant.
If we had our druthers, a professional baseball franchise that’s worth $2 billion , and a deep-pocketed real estate developer who has control of 62 acres of some of the most valuable land in the city, would entirely pay for their own stadium.
But that probably won’t be the case. The ISFA, created by the General Assembly in 1987, likely would be called into duty at some point to help foot at least some of the bill.
And the public might well be asked to kick in the millions of dollars for infrastructure.
After his talk with Reinsdorf, Johnson said he “did appreciate … what they’re considering, it’s the way new stadiums should and could look. That they have community benefit.”
But the track record nationally is that publicly funded sports stadiums tend not to bring a boost to local economies, including more jobs and growth in income .
Could Chicago be different? Only if Johnson and his administration are up to the task of making sure the public indeed benefits.
In an April 18 interview on WCPT, Dowell expressed concerns about Landmark Development's planned One Central mega-project. But she also highlighted benefits she expects it would bring to the Near South community and to Chicago's treasury.
Dowell told host Marj Halperin that she shares some of the community's concerns about the project, starting with the last-minute legislative approval in 2019 of a $6.5 Billion taxpayer subsidy." The state approval was a major misstep without having a lot of community engagement. People are suspicious about that," she said, adding, " I think we have to be clear on what the benefits are to the taxpayers across the state that are investing in this project and I don’t think we have clear answers on that yet." Dowell also indicated she's aware of other community concerns. "I do feel that project is way too dense and needs to come down in density. Those are discussions we need to have with the community as well."
Dowell weighs these concerns against what she sees as benefits for a city with growing plans and a shrinking treasury.
"We have to weigh that against the real urgent need that the city of Chicago has for increased tax revenue from the sales tax, the property taxes, parting taxes that could be generated from this particular site when we’re kind of bleeding, so to speak, with the city budget," adding, "I think the things that he wants to place on the civic build: the new restaurants, the health and wellness section, stores, housing, are all good things," she said. "We’d get more revenue from that but we have to make sure it can be a win-win for both the development team and the residents who have to live adjacent to it, just west of the site."
Dowell's last words on the subject are a true understatement: "A lot of work to be done." Links to listen to Dowell on One Central here and hear the entire interview are coming soon.
Crain's Chicago Business added One Central to the list of topics put forward to Mayoral candidates in advance of the April 4 runoff election. Crain's columnist Greg Hinz writes,
"...though Johnson has a reputation of being a help-the-little guy official who’s no friend of big developers, he has been quite flattering about One Central," adding the following quote
“I actually think that’s a pretty promising idea,” Johnson told Crain’s editorial board. Senior campaign adviser Jason Lee later confirmed that the statement was no fluke. Like the Chicago Urban League, Johnson believes in Dunn’s goals, including creating lots of jobs on the South Side and “a real effort to connect people to those jobs,” Lee said. While there are “issues to work out and differences of opinion,” Johnson and Dunn did meet in person earlier this year to discuss the proposal in detail, Lee said.
Read Hinz's report here.
Sun-Times Columnist Dave Roeder identifies the three key questions for government agencies to answer to bring more transparency to One Central project. Read the full story.
So messy is the scenario that Hard Rock and Landmark officials at their town hall twisted into pretzels trying to convince people their casino proposal is not tied to the fate of One Central. With or without a casino, Landmark owns the air rights on this property and is free to build whatever it can get through state and city approval processes. (As of this writing, they have yet to respond to pages of questions from the city’s Department of Planning.) That process must include viable public input. But nothing Landmark builds should include public dollars. Springfield: Pull the plug on that $6.5 billion before this session ends.
Read the full Chicago Sun-Times story.
Between a rock and a Hard Rock place? Casino developer hears resident gripes about traffic, crime — and looming ‘millstone’ Developers of the proposed Hard Rock Chicago casino were met by hundreds of South Loop residents concerned about more traffic, crime and noise in the neighborhood — and the prospect of another massive development next door. Read the full Chicago Sun-Times story.
Many experienced and talented leaders are among those chosen by Mayor Lightfoot to "focus on outstanding cultural amenities, recreation and open spaces, athletic facilities, and transit access," What's missing? Those of us who live in the community. Will there be public hearings or other input on the suggestions to be delivered "by this summer"? Not unless we demand it. Read the story here, and contact anyone you know on the committee.
Representative Kam Buckner introduces legislation to "take away the loaded gun that could let another governor commit $6.5 billion of taxpayer funds to this project." He says, "There are still questions about a number of things, including financing, traffic, pollution and equity. A truly independent analysis of the project has to happen. " Read the full story.
Chicago Tribune editorial board sounds warning: "For us, it’s that transit hub that prompts a double-take, and has us worried about the burden it would put on state taxpayers. " Read the full story.
Streetsblog joins the chorus raising questions about why One Central should put taxpayers on the hook. Read the full story.
What's known is that Johnson and Bears President Kevin Warren talked, by phone, and then jointly issued identical statements.
"Today, we met and discussed our shared values and commitment to the city of Chicago, the importance of deep roots and the need for equitable community investment throughout the city," the statements said. "We are both committed to the idea that the city and its major civic institutions must grow and evolve together to meet the needs of the future. We look forward to continuing the dialogue around these shared values."
Johnson and aides had signaled that, at least at any initial meeting, the new mayor would be listening to the Bears rather than making any specific proposal to keep them at Soldier Field or move to a new stadium at another location in Chicago proper, rather than move to the suburbs as the team has seemed inclined to do.
A meeting had been widely expected since the Bears' last week announced that they were exploring other options and no longer focused solely on moving to Arlington Heights, where they recently spent $197 million for the former Arlington International Racecourse.
Team ownership has publicly griped that school districts in the Arlington Heights area have been unwilling to give the team the tax breaks it wants to build a new stadium and related entertainment area.
Read Greg Hinz's report here: https://www.chicagobusiness.com/greg-hinz-politics/brandon-johnson-chicago-bears-begin-stadium-talks