Save Wrigley Field? Ah, Save it!

If you typed \”wrigleyfield.com\” into your web browser a short time ago, unhealthy hospital the magic internet pixies would have led you to a page with links to information about the ballpark: its amenities, here rules, health and whereabouts.  For a few bucks you could have your photos from Wrigley Field printed here, commemorating that day filled with sunshine and laughter and whiffs and gappers.\n\nAll at Wrigley Field, the only place in seven solar systems where Old Style beer tastes like the sweet nectar of divinities.\n\nIf you’ve checked in at wrigelyfield.com more recently you may have been shocked to find that Wrigley Field is in peril!  “RESTORE WRIGLEY FIELD” reads the website banner, with all of the seriousness and gravity that only all-caps can imply.\n\n“Restore it?  Of course,” you think, wondering if you’d even like baseball if it wasn’t for Wrigley Field, “what can I do?”\n\n“Lend your support by signing the petition to save Wrigley Field!” instructs the website.\n\n“Done!” you exclaim, typing in the information required and then sending it off to the Cubs via magic internet pixies.\n\nA short while later you feel a little embarrassed, like maybe you shouldn’t have been so hasty.  You think maybe you’ll check in with Chicago Sport & Society—‘cause those guys sometimes know what they’re talking about—to see if they have anything to say about it.\n\nWell, sorry fictional person, you’ve been bamboozled by a cynical PR strategy, your emotions played like a ballpark organ, your mind baffled by the old hidden ball trick!\n

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\nI think everyone who has attended a game at Wrigley Field in recent years and looked up at the makeshift netting installed to snare chunks of precast concrete raining down from the upper deck would agree that the ballpark needs renovation.\n\nFor a while, questions only surrounded who was going to pay for it.  After all, the city and state built stadiums for the baseball team across town and the football team on the lake. And Chicago’s basketball and hockey teams pay less in property tax for their twenty-thousand seat sports arena than I do for my one-bedroom Edgewater condo (actually, I’m not sure that’s true, but it might be).\n\nThen came an emphatic “no!” to a Cubs stadium subsidy from the mayor’s office (it seems now that Mayor Emanuel had a more diabolical sports subsidy plan in mind).  As a result, Cubs ownership was left to invest in their property the old fashioned way: do it themselves.\n\nIt’s not ideal for Cubs ownership, but the ballpark will not go to rubble if we don’t sign the “Save Wrigley Field” petition.  The Cubs aren’t going to abandon the structure that was paramount in the nearly $900 million deal that landed Ricketts the team.  And I don’t imagine that anyone—including neighborhood residents or business owners or city council members—takes issue with making Wrigley Field more structurally sound or even modernizing and expanding the team clubhouses (as explained on the Wrigley Field website).\n\nThe controversy surrounding the renovation involves the signage and the number of night games that will affect the community more directly.  These things would require altering or forgoing various city laws and ordinances, appeasing the local alderman and rooftop owners, and maybe even changing the laws of decency we’ve come to accept as a Wrigley Field appreciating society.\n\nAccording to the Chicago Tribune…\n\nWait.  First a moment to recognize the irony of the Chicago Tribune contributing something that wafts critically with regard to the Wrigley Field plan.  Twenty five years ago the Tribune Company owned the Cubs and used its power of persuasion to help erect lights at Wrigley Field for the first time in 1988.\n\nState Representative John Cullerton said at that time: “The perception is that if you oppose the Tribune Company on lights, their editorial writers will clobber you.”  City Councilman Robert Shaw complained, “The Tribune is trying to put a gun to the Council’s head, to force us to do something they want and to ignore the democratic process of determining what people want.”\n\nOf course, Tribune editors insisted that they operated independently from the company’s financial interests; this was merely a collection of lucid writers who believed in the absurd notion that the Cubs should move to Shaumburg if the team didn’t get what it wanted.\n\nRead about it in an excellent book by Costas Spirou and Larry Bennett titled It’s Hardly Sportin’: Stadiums, Neighborhoods, and the New Chicago in Chapter 5, “Bringing Light to Wrigley Field.”\n\nAnyways, back to 2013.  According to the Tribune the Cubs’ Wrigley Field plan seeks:\n

  • 6,560 square feet of signs on the hotel the team will construct.
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  • 5,825 feet of signs on a plaza the team seeks to build west of the ballpark.
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  • naming rights to a six-story office building on Waveland Ave.
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  • 35,000 square feet of signs along the exterior and outside the ballpark.
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  • several styles of signs including banners, LED screens, and ribbon boards.
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  • signs on 50-foot, obelisk-shaped steel towers.
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  • a 6,000-square-foot-video scoreboard behind the left field bleachers.
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  • a 1,000-square-foot advertising sign in right field.
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\nHere are some more details from the Tribune on the proposed hotel, office building, and plaza:\n

The hotel would have six lit signs on top of the building’s southeast corner. The hotel also features a 118-foot-tall tower including a crown on top. The same corner would have an LED ribbon board. Two corners of the building would feature a pair of double-sided vertical signs known as “blades.” The hotel’s Clark street façade also would display three, 300-square-foot flat lit signs.\n\nThe office building would have signs identifying the company that bought the naming rights, a four-screen video board, two blade signs and an LED ribbon board. The office building’s most prominent feature is a 119-foot-tall clock tower.\n\nSeven internally illuminated steel towers would adorn the plaza. Each tower would have four signs at the top and video screens on two sides.\n\nThe Cubs would like to sell naming rights to the plaza and advertising on a bridge over Clark Street as well as on two stair towers on each side of the bridge.

\nMake no mistake, when the Cubs plead with you to “save Wrigley Field,” this is what they have in mind.  It doesn’t sound like a “plan to preserve the beauty, charm and historic features that fans have cherished for most of a century.”  It sounds more like a plan to build an amusement park:  Wrigley World—with Wrigley Field as Space Mountain!\n\nSpeaking of the ballpark, inside Wrigley Field the Cubs plan on improving premium seating areas and suites, building additional fan decks, a new “Club Level and Lounge” on the upper concourse, a new restaurant in the former administrative office space, and two new “clubs” behind the grandstands at home plate and first base.  The Cubs will expand the concourse to accommodate more concessions stands.  During some weekend home games the Cubs will create a family-friendly entertainment and events area on Sheffield Ave.\n\nWhat will all this modernization, rule bending, and expansion into the neighborhood mean for the Cubs if they get what they want?  Well, a lot more money for the Ricketts for one (note: according to Forbes the Cubs are already the fourth richest team in baseball).  But despite the team’s claim that \”Additional commercial activity generated by the Cubs will flow into the neighborhood and further help local business establishments,\” it’s more likely that the Cubs will be diverting business from Lakeview’s independent operators.\n\nIn effect, the Cubs will be internalizing more of the economic activity outside of Wrigley Field, mimicking newer stadiums.  As learned economists explain:\n

New stadiums either through accident or design have appropriated revenues that in older stadiums were claimed by the neighborhood. The expanded food and drink options within the new stadium walls serve to diminish the importance of neighborhood restaurants and bars. The same can be said of the impact of “stadium stores” that sell team paraphernalia. There is no need to shop for a cap or pennant in the neighborhood when those items more conveniently can be purchased within the stadium’s walls. While it may not be the intention of the team to take business away from the community, the functioning of the new generation of stadiums does exactly that.

\nThere are a bunch of reasons why we’d prefer to have money going to small business owners rather than the Cubs, partly because money to smaller operators is more likely to remain in the local economy.  But we might overlook that in light of all the jobs the Cubs’ plan promises to create!  “2,100 new jobs” to be exact.\n\nUnfortunately, there is faulty logic involved with the lofty jobs numbers as well (which come pretty standard in these economic impact projection studies commissioned by teams).  Some other learned economists write that these job-creation arguments \”contain bad economic reasoning that leads to overstatement of the benefits of stadiums,\” and that most of these ballpark employment opportunities represent \”low-wage, part-time jobs.\”\n\nIt’s true that the Wrigley Field case is exceptional because there would be little public investment (though a lot of rule-bending) in the Cubs proposed project.  But we still have to weigh whether allowing the Cubs to alter some agreements and regulations in order to increase profits and monopolize more of Lakeview is good for the city of Chicago in the long term.\n\nThe Cubs and the neighborhood immediately surrounding have enjoyed what economists call a “synergistic commercial relationship.”  Part of Wrigley Field’s draw is the old neighborhood aesthetic that the surrounding environment provides in today’s era of stadiums flanked by parking lots and expressways.\n\nWhen the Cubs played only day games, it allowed theater companies, restaurants and other businesses that catered to non-sports fans to coexist with those that drew pre- and postgame crowds.  Since the lights came on in 1988, many of the non-baseball businesses have been forced to move or close because of the crowding out of the neighborhood by thousands of Cubs fans in the evenings.  Murphy’s Bleachers and the Cubby Bear have expanded.  The sports bar dominates the scene around Wrigley Field more so now than ever.\n\nBut with the surrounding vintage buildings, sundries shops, and elevated train stop, there remains an authentic old neighborhood feel to the Cubs home game experience lacking at other pro sports venues in Chicago and beyond.\n\nWith invasive new structures and signage, the Ricketts plan will undermine the aesthetic value of Wrigley Field, inside and out.  And with Ricketts seemingly keen on buying up and developing land around the ballpark, this may be only the beginning.\n\nBecause I’m a White Sox fan on a modest budget, I don’t attend a lot of Cubs games.  But as a baseball fan regularly forced to endure a nine-inning sensory barrage of flashing video screens and fireworks to an AC/DC soundtrack at Sox park, I appreciate the serenity of baseball at Wrigley Field.\n\nI was screaming this at a Cubs-fan friend of mine as our ears were bleeding to “Thunderstruck” at a White Sox game over the weekend.  He responded that I should take in a lot of Cubs games this year because it was all about to change, maybe as soon as next season.\n\nAnd then “RESTORE WRIGLEY FIELD” will take on a whole new meaning.

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