Chicago Bears Call a Reverse, Prepare to Unveil Plan for New Domed Stadium on Lakefront

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Update: The Chicago Bears unveiled plans April 24, 2024, to build a futuristic domed lakefront stadium and asked taxpayers to pick up approximately $2.4 billion of the total $4.75 billion cost of the project. Read more and see renderings here.

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Nearly two years ago, the Chicago Bears ignored former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Hail Mary pass to keep the team in Chicago, despite her offer to use taxpayer funds to put a dome over Soldier Field while expanding its seating capacity.

But on Wednesday, the Bears plan to call a reverse and formally unveil their plans to build a brand-new domed stadium on what is now a lakefront parking lot and demolish Soldier Field — leaving only colonnades from the original structure, dedicated in 1925 as a memorial to U.S. soldiers who died in combat and the home of the once and perhaps future Monsters of the Midway since 1971.

The plans call for a “state-of-the-art, publicly owned enclosed stadium, along with additional green and open space with access to the lakefront for families and fans, on the Museum Campus,” according to the announcement from the team.

The news that the Bears now want to remain the Chicago Bears in more than just name is just the latest twist in the team’s high-profile search for their forever home that faces at least two major obstacles: the need for millions of dollars from taxpayers to subsidize the new stadium and an all-but-certain legal challenge over the city’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which does not allow “further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”

Bears President Kevin Warren has said the team is prepared to spend $2 billion of its own money to build a new stadium that would be owned by the city. But the project will cost at least $2.5 billion to $3 billion, with another $1 billion needed to expand roads and utilities along the lakefront.

Mayor Brandon Johnson has not ruled out helping the team stay in Chicago, but said he would not finance new stadiums for the Bears or the Chicago White Sox with new taxes.

“If we’re going to build 21st century stadiums, we have to make sure that that investment is activating the entire city of Chicago, and these conversations particularly with the Bears have been quite positive,” Johnson said after the April 17 City Council meeting. “I appreciate the leadership of Kevin Warren. We have not made any commitments to any new forms of revenue.”

The White Sox want to leave Bridgeport and build a new stadium in the South Loop, but owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s pleas for financial assistance from city state officials have yet to bear fruit.

A Long and Winding Circular Road

The Bears’ reversal comes more than two years after the storied franchise bought the former Arlington International Racecourse property for $197.2 million and announced plans to build “an enclosed state-of-the-art stadium and multi-purpose entertainment district.”

The Bears have long been frustrated by the limits of Soldier Field, and first threatened to move to Arlington Heights in the 1970s. A furious former Mayor Richard J. Daley dared the team to move and vowed to prevent them from using the name “Chicago” before musing aloud that no one would want to root for the Arlington Heights Bears.

Determined not to be the mayor who saw the beloved team leave Chicago, former Mayor Richard M. Daley greenlighted a renovation of the stadium bankrolled by Chicago’s 2% hotel tax in 2003. The work was supposed to cost $400 million, but the final bill totaled $609 million. Taxpayers still owe nearly $590 million of that debt, according to estimates from the Illinois Sports Facility Authority.

It could be politically perilous for elected officials to approve a massive subsidy for a new Bears stadium that would demolish Solider Field when the taxpayer-funded renovation of that facility has yet to be paid off.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been decidedly cool to the proposals for new public subsidies for sports stadiums, telling reporters that he is not inclined to spend public money to help private businesses.

Despite its massive price tag, the 2003 modernization of Solider Field, which cost the facility its status as a National Historic Landmark, failed to resolve the team’s long-festering grievances. The Bears have long wanted to own their own home turf that will allow them to maximize revenue — and play under a dome, shielded from what used to be known as Bear weather.

A dome could also make a Super Bowl possible in Chicago as well as other championship events, boosting the city’s economy.

The team’s lease of the facility from the Chicago Park District expires in 2033. The Bears pay $6.48 million annually to use Soldier Field and can terminate that agreement early as long as the team pays a penalty.

Bad Blood

Despite being a season ticket holder, Lightfoot’s relationship with the team’s leaders was fraught. As Bears officials pushed for changes at Soldier Field, including plans for a sports betting lounge, Lightfoot balked.

When the news the Bears were considering leaving Chicago surfaced in September 2021, Lightfoot sneered at the prospect of seeing the Bears become former Chicagoans, dismissing it as “noise” and telling reporters “life goes on” and urging the “organization to focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October.”

Lightfoot’s tune had changed by July 2022, as she ran for a second term as mayor. She vowed to make what she called “a compelling case for the Chicago Bears to stay in Chicago” by proving that a “revitalized Solider Field makes the most economic sense for that storied franchise.”

While Lightfoot’s last-ditch pitch hit the uprights, the Bears plans to move to Arlington Heights soon ran aground.

The problems began when Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi set the 2022 value of the 309-acre former racetrack at $197 million, approximately $200,000 less than what the team paid for it. That represented a massive increase from the property’s $33 million assessment in 2021, and ensured that the Bears were facing a massive, and unanticipated, property tax bill.

A decision by the Cook County Board of Review to reduce the 2022 value of the property to $95 million failed to resolve the dispute, and the Bears began publicly exploring other options, including moving to Naperville.

But the election of Johnson as Lightfoot’s successor in May and the decision by the Bears owners to hire Warren, a former commissioner of the Big Ten, as the team’s president offered a chance for a reset – and Johnson and Warren seized the opportunity.

“I grew up with the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle.’ As I would say, as older people would say to young people, when I was young, ’85 Bears, Super Bowl shuffle, y’all don’t know nothing about that,” Johnson said in June. “We want to make sure we can keep shuffling here in the city of Chicago with the Bears.”

But even if state and city officials agree to subsidize a new lakefront stadium for the Bears, it is unclear whether it will withstand a legal challenge.

Watchdog group Friends of the Parks used the city’s lakefront protection ordinance and the Illinois’ public trust doctrine to sue the city when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed building the Lucas Museum in what is now a parking lot near Soldier Field.

After the group won an initial round in court, Star Wars creator George Lucas dropped his plans in 2016 and built the museum in Los Angeles.

After reports surfaced that the Bears wanted to remain on the lakefront, the group urged the team to pick a “location that preserves our open, clear and free lakefront and is a boon for neighborhood development.”

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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