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Landmark commission to vote on proposed Wrigley Field changes

Almost exactly a year ago, the Chicago Cubs went before the Commission on Chicago Landmarks seeking consent for a controversial video scoreboard and advertising signs in the Wrigley Field outfield that would dramatically alter the look of the historic stadium.

Here they go again.

The team today is back before the commission, asking approval for five more outfield signs, including a second video scoreboard, seven in all.

The additional signs are part of the Cubs' new blueprint to upgrade the 100-year-old stadium, as the team struggles to get a Wrigley Field renovation underway. The Cubs' $500 million plan to remake the ballpark and the surrounding area was approved last year after several months of negotiations with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th. The team committed to financing the project with its own money.

The city's approval came over objections from owners of rooftops overlooking Wrigley Field who have a revenue-sharing agreement with the ballclub that expires at the end of 2023. That agreement is the result of a 2002 lawsuit filed by the Cubs, then owned by Tribune Co., parent of the Tribune, alleging copyright infringement. The owners of the 15 rooftop clubs threatened to sue the team if the two signs obstructed their views into the ballpark.

When talks with the rooftop owners stalled, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts scrapped last year's renovation plans and two months ago unveiled a proposal that included more outfield signs, additional seats, more lights, bigger clubhouses and a relocation of the quaint bullpens from foul territory to a spot under the bleachers. The changes added $75 million to last year's $500 million cost of the project, the team said. It hoped to break ground this summer on the plaza to begin construction of a 30,000-square-foot underground clubhouse on the “triangle property” between the stadium and Clark Street.

With tweaks made at the request of the mayor, the Cubs are ready to present their latest plan to the landmarks panel. Emanuel also required the Cubs to continue negotiating with the rooftop owners as a condition of getting a hearing with the landmarks commission, a City Hall source said.

Another source said the Cubs' proposal with five additional outfield signs is expected to be approved by the panel, with conditions placed on it.

“If we gain this final approval, we are prepared to invest $575 million to restore and expand Wrigley Field and develop the surrounding area immediately,” Cubs spokesman Julian Green said. “And given this project will move forward without taxpayer dollars, we are focused on creating every advantage possible to innovate, operate efficiently and grow our business faster than the other 29 clubs trying to compete for a World Series trophy every year.”

The landmarks commission must review the plan because Wrigley Field gained city landmark status in 2004, which protects several historic features of the ballpark, including the “uninterrupted sweep of the bleachers.”

Even if the Cubs win approval Thursday, there's still the contract with the rooftop owners hanging over the project. If the Cubs have the OK for seven outfield signs, the team will have gained a big bargaining chip in any future negotiations with rooftop operators.

Many, including Tunney, suspected that one of the team's motives behind the latest renovation plan was to improve their negotiating position with the rooftop owners. Team officials denied that.

Nevertheless, in recent weeks, rooftop owners have reconsidered suing the team. The Tribune learned last week that the rooftop operators told the Cubs that they would promise not to file a lawsuit if the team stuck to last year's plan to install two signs: a video scoreboard in left field and one advertising sign in right field.

The Cubs have not responded to the proposal, but the two sides are scheduled to meet Friday.

“Rooftop owners agree with Mayor Emanuel that a compromise is best for the fans, the neighborhood, the city and the Cubs. We're hoping now it's finally time for a breakthrough,” Ryan McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association, said in a statement.

In going for the bigger plan, Ricketts made clear in a video posted on the team's site that he had made the decision that if he was going to be sued, he might as well ask for everything he wanted in the first place. The Cubs always planned to seek more than two signs after the contract with the rooftop owners expired, sources said.

As the Cubs developed their new plans for Wrigley in recent months, the team received input from City Hall.

The changes requested by the city and agreed to by the team include reducing the size of the signs along the exterior outfield walls and increasing the space between them, as well as eliminating plans for sliding concession windows along the exterior brick wall at Waveland and Sheffield avenues. The team also agreed to drop plans for enlarged openings in the outfield brick wall for new bullpens.

According to stadium plans obtained by the Tribune, the proposed left-field video board is 4,452 square feet, reduced from 5,700 square feet approved last year. The proposed right-field video board is 2,600 square feet. The five advertising signs planned for the outfield are slated to be no bigger than 650 square feet each.

“It is true there have been elements of the revised bleacher expansion package — including the sliding concession windows and setting parameters around the signs — that we agreed to change several months ago and others that are still evolving to address community concerns raised by Ald. Tunney,” Green said Wednesday night. “Within the last few days, there have been no changes to what is being presented tomorrow, and we are happy with the plan we're presenting to the landmarks commission.”

Some residents who live near Wrigley Field are not happy with the Cubs' new plans to upgrade the ballpark.

At a community meeting Monday night, neighbors expressed concerns about the additional lights the Cubs would like to install in the outfield. Green said there have been no changes to lighting plans, but team officials said they are conducting light studies.

Tunney, who opposes the additional outfield signs, told residents that some of the Cubs' plans “fly in the face of what I believe is being a good neighbor.”

Should the mayor-appointed landmarks commission approve the package, it remains unclear how quickly the team could install the signs. The team would still need permits requiring City Council approval, possibly delaying them further.

Construction is in the works elsewhere. City data show that the team received a demolition permit June 20 to renovate a nearby parking lot.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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