THE LOOP — After the Commission on Chicago Landmarks unanimously approved a $575 million wide-ranging, expanded plan to renovate Wrigley Field Thursday with two video boards and five outfield signs, Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged the team to continue to negotiate with the owners of rooftop clubs.
"The plan approved today for Wrigley Field is a step forward for the Cubs and the neighborhood," Emanuel said in a statement. "Not only does it uphold the architectural heritage of the stadium that Chicagoans can enjoy, but will generate thousands of jobs.
"I fully expect the owners to initiate the restoration of Wrigley Field and to invest in the surrounding Wrigleyville area, including traffic flow, security and public parks. In addition, discussions with the rooftop owners should — and must — continue so that this plan remains a win-win."
Before the unanimous vote, Crane Kenney, the Cubs' President of Business Operations, said the team would quickly apply for building permits and launch the renovation project when the season ends if granted approval.
"We're ready to go," Kenney told the landmarks panel. "We cannot wait any longer."
The commission, which must approve any significant changes to the 100-year-old Friendly Confines, which was designated a city landmark 10 years ago, soon approved the Cubs' latest plan.
The proposal was presented earlier this year following a continued standoff with the owners of the rooftop clubs that sit beyond the outfield walls.
The owners fear new signs, raised bleachers and new light standards in left and right field — all parts of the latest rehab plan — will block their customers' views of the ballpark.
After the vote, which took place without debate by commissioners, the rooftops owners issued a statement that expressed optimism for a compromise.
"The rooftop owners oppose the plan brought by the Ricketts family the Landmarks Commission approved today," said Ryan McLaughlin, spokesman for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association. "If these signs were to be erected, the blockage would absolutely violate our 20-year contract, just as they violate the spirit of Wrigley's long-standing landmark status.
"However, we're optimistic that Mayor Emanuel's directive to the Ricketts family to work out a compromise with rooftop owners could create a breakthrough. In fact, every rooftop owner supports a plan that's currently on the table resulting in two signs that mitigate blockage, generates revenue to modernize Wrigley Field and takes litigation off the table. We look forward to sitting down with Crane Kenney and Tom Ricketts immediately and engaging in good-faith negotiations. We see a path for a win-win solution, and our intention is to report a global solution very quickly."
The rooftop owners have a revenue-sharing contract with the team — negotiated by Tribune Co. management under Kenney before the Ricketts family bought the club — that runs through the 2023 season.
Rooftop attorney Tom Moore said the 20-year deal established that the rooftop clubs would pay the Cubs 17 percent of gross revenue in exchange for unobstructed views — now approximately $4 million a year. Yet he added, "It's not about money, it's about monopoly. The Cubs want to own it all."
The Wrigley renovation appeared ready to move forward last year, with the city giving approval for a video board in left field and a raised advertising sign in right. But the Cubs held off on construction, seeking assurances from the rooftop owners they would drop threats to file suit over obstructed views.
When no such agreement was reached, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts released a video earlier this year detailing the expanded plan that would add five additional outfield signs to the two already approved by the commission and the City Council along with the bleacher changes, the move of the bullpens to under the bleachers and other modifications, including an expanded players' clubhouse.
Kenney said this was the team's original plan for the renovation, but it was scaled back in an attempt to appease rooftop owners. While he insisted on the team's readiness to proceed, he also signaled a willingness to compromise with rooftops, saying, "We will discuss with them every option to avoid litigation."
Beth Murphy, owner of Murphy's Bleachers, said she thought the commission's vote had been dictated by the mayor, who appoints its members. She said she was "disappointed but not surprised" by the vote, adding, "We knew this was coming."
The vote came after a top staffer on the Landmarks Commission, Assistant Commissioner Eleanor Gorski, recommended that the Cubs' new plan be approved. She testified that the Cubs' expanded plans for the Wrigley renovation "will not adversely affect the significant historical and architectural features of the landmark."
She did set a limit that the left- and right-field bleachers would not rise above the lowest seating level of the center-field bleachers, thus maintaining "the uninterrupted sweep and contour" of the outfield seating.
Gorski also approved the new outfield light standards and the move of the bullpens to an area underneath the bleachers, while noting that the video scoreboard in left field would diminish slightly in size in the Cubs' new plan.
"I know that this has been quite a process," Gorski concluded, "but I feel that we've reached a good product."
Kenney pointed out the light standards would allow them to remove lights that were to be posted above the video scoreboard, but added they were necessary because Wrigley is "one of the most poorly lit ballparks in Major League Baseball."
The new plan had rattled Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and gave pause to Mayor Emanuel, who this week urged the Cubs to "be a good neighbor" and maintain an "open-door policy" on negotiations with the rooftops.
Tunney pressed for a deferment Thursday, seeking more community input, but panel Chairman Rafael Leon responded, "My intention is not to defer the matter."
Quoting Yogi Berra's adage that "it's deja vu all over again," Tunney later characterized the Cubs' prevailing attitude as: "This is what we're going to do, neighborhood, take it or leave it." He said commission approval would give the Cubs "carte blanche" on signs. "This is a one-way street, as far as I'm concerned," Tunney added. "It's not fair."
Alley owner Mark Thomas, who is running against Tunney for alderman, spoke out during a public comment portion, saying it was one of the few times he agreed with Tunney, adding, "He represents completely the feeling of the community."
Jim Spencer, president of East Lake View Neighbors, called on the commission to look at the original documentation declaring Wrigley Field a landmark, adding, "You protect something not from fans, not from neighbors, but from owners." He called the latest rehab plans "game changing."
Although passed by the Landmarks Commission, each part of the plan will have to go through the city's permit process, part of which is played out in the City Council. "I don't think we're done," Tunney said. "It's never done."
At one point, Commissioner Ernest Wong got laughs from the packed Cook County Board Room where the meeting was held when he asked the Cubs to pledge to "never ever ever sell a sign to Donald Trump."
The Cubs and Wrigley Field are 95 percent owned by a trust established for the benefit of the family of Joe Ricketts, owner and CEO of DNAinfo.com. Joe Ricketts has no direct involvement in the management of the iconic team.
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