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Soldier field plan: On further review, the play stinks

Soldier FieldArchitectureFootballChicago BearsTourism and Leisure

The more things dribble out about the Soldier Field deal -- things the Chicago Bears and the Daley administration were careful to downplay or conceal when they began their hurry-up offense to pass the plan last fall -- the more it is apparent that what is driving this $580 million project are the needs of a privately-owned professional football team, not the public good.

How else to explain the growing furor over the part of the deal that will let some corporation attach its name to Soldier Field, with the Bears pocketing millions of dollars for the sale of these so-called "naming rights"? Even some aldermen on the City Council, no goo-goos they, got outraged about that one. So did the president of the Illinois Senate, Du Page County Republican James "Pate" Philip, who's no soft touch, either.

But it's not just the honor of the World War I soldiers for whom the stadium was named that the Bears and the city are going to sell out. They're also taking aim at the beauty of the landmark stadium and the lakefront on which it sits. It's all part of the same, stinking package.

Take the western grandstand of the new seating bowl that will loom grotesquely over the old stadium's historic colonnades -- far more menacingly than was apparent in the bird's eye views of the stadium that the Bears first released, and painfully obvious now, as seen in new, ground-level perspectives. The grandstand was designed that tall, nearly five stories taller than the top of the colonnades, because the Bears want the maximum number of sideline seats with good views so they can sell as many tickets as possible.

"What's wrong with that?" any reasonable person will ask. The answer: "Nothing," provided this stadium were being built west of Lake Shore Drive. But it's going to go east of the Drive, and just to the south of the Museum Campus. That means that the stadium not only will destroy the architectural integrity of Soldier Field, but also that it will seriously disrupt the harmonious relationship that now exists between the stadium and the nearby Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium.

What we're talking about, in plain language, is the creation of a monumental eyesore, one that brings the gargantuan modernism of McCormick Place smack into the middle of the handsome classical ensemble of the Museum Campus. All this will be plainly visible to thousands of motorists who pass Soldier Field every day on Lake Shore Drive. In the past, Mayor Richard M. Daley has expressed his desire to rid the lakefront of the McCormick Place convention hall that sits east of Lake Shore Drive. But now, it turns out, he's ready to build a stadium that would be even taller than that mammoth structure -- by 45 feet.

Should that be happening? Not if you read Chicago's Lakefront Protection Ordinance, a historic piece of legislation that was passed to stop huge commercial projects such as McCormick Place from desecrating any more public land along Lake Michigan.

Approved on Oct. 24, 1973, by the City Council -- the same legislative body that was cowed last week into approving the Soldier Field deal after arm-twisting from Daley aides -- the Lakefront Protection Ordinance is unequivocal on the subject of safeguarding the lakefront from massive private incursions. One of the chief purposes of the law is "to insure that the Lakefront Parks and the Lake itself are devoted only to public purposes."

Lest anybody think Soldier Field is exempt from the ordinance, remember that its owner and operator is the Chicago Park District, whose board of commissioners will vote on the stadium deal next month. But Park District General Supt. David Doig isn't just supporting the Bears plan. Along with Daley, he is obfuscating matters, assuring that whatever corporate name is attached to Soldier Field will be "in good taste."

Yet any corporate name, no matter how bland, won't fly. The issue is not taste, but honoring dead soldiers. Either it's Soldier Field or it's not. Even Chicago's theme park by the lake, Navy Pier, whose name honors the sailors of World War I, is still Navy Pier, isn't it?

The Park District's spin control extends to the National Park Service's recent threat to strip Soldier Field of its National Historic Landmark status if the stadium plan is not scaled down. Trying to downplay the Park Service's warning, Doig points out that the agency never made good on its mid-1990s promise to take the Adler Planetarium off the same national landmark list. The threat was prompted by architect Dirk Lohan's saucerlike addition to the astronomy museum.

But there is an enormous difference between that bold but sensitive expansion, which leaves the Adler's domed silhouette virtually intact, and this one, designed by Lohan and Boston architects Ben Wood and Carlos Zapata, which would tower over Soldier Field's proud rows of Doric columns, making them look like so many white matchsticks.

In the end, that difference is about the overwhelming scale of the Bears' seating bowl and the way it would wreck the carefully calibrated proportions established by Soldier Field's architects, the Chicago firm of Holabird & Roche. Thus, at the very time that teams around the country have learned to shape stadiums that fit comfortably into the surroundings, the city and the Bears are about to foist on the lakefront a stadium that threatens to dominate everything around it. Given the needs of a pro football team to maximize ticket revenues, any design is likely to do the same.

Lohan is not the villain here. If anything, he deserves credit for helping to sell the Bears on the plan's civic features, like the 19 acres of new parkland and underground parking lots that would rid the lakefront of many of the surface parking lots that sprawl to the east and south of Soldier Field. When I first assessed the plan in November, I wrote that such positive features "seem to outweigh" the negatives, while urging the city and the Bears to rethink and reshape the proposal. Yet there has been no effort to do so. So now I can only ask: What good is it to rid the lakefront of one eyesore in order to build another that will do far more visual damage?

The trouble is, the watchdogs that are supposed to be protecting the lakefront and its historic landmarks aren't barking. What a surprise! The watchdogs are on the tight leash of Daley and the plan's political co-sponsor, Gov. George Ryan.

The Chicago Plan Commission is supposed to uphold the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, but when it approved the Soldier Field plan last month, only one of its 12 commissioners, architect Linda Searl,voiced serious objections to the proposed stadium's massive scale and voted against the plan.

Then there's the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the city agency charged with safeguarding Chicago's architectural and historic treasures. But the commission has done nothing to protect Soldier Field -- even though the stadium is on that National Historic Landmark list, an elite group that is a cut above even the National Register of Historic Places.

The same goes for the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency, the state body charged with ensuring that national landmarks are not demolished or defaced with federal or state funds. So there is no confusion, it was the Illinois General Assembly that gave its approval to the Soldier Field deal last year, allowing Chicago to issue $387 million in bonds that would be retired with proceeds from the city's 2 percent hotel tax. But the state preservation agency has conveniently absented itself from the debate, citing the technicality that city funds, not state funds, will back the renovation plan.

So who will stand up for the lakefront? The longer this saga goes on, the more it seems that the only recourse open to the civic groups that have courageously been fighting the Soldier Field deal, like Friends of the Parks and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, is the courts.

It was in the courts, after all, that one of the lakefront's great champions, the turn-of-the-century retail magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward, successfully battled to create Grant Park and to keep it free of buildings like the Field Museum, which eventually was built at the northern end of Burnham Park.

But raising the money for a suit won't be easy. And neither will taking the political heat from those who will surely label the opponents obstructionists. The key at this stage is to buy enough time to slow down the Daley-Ryan steamroller and to consider (a) alternative sites for a stadium west of Lake Shore Drive or (b) a compromise stadium design that would retain the pluses of the Bears' original plan while making Soldier Field itself an asset to the lakefront rather than a new Monster of the Midway.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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