The Chicago Cubs earned another victory Thursday from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks — the second in a year — but it's beyond the outfield of their historic stadium where their unfinished business remains.
The unanimous decision gave the team the thumbs-up from the city on its $575 million revised plan to remake Wrigley Field and the immediate surrounding area, allowing as many as seven advertising signs to dot outfield walls. The package builds on two signs, including a Jumbotron-like video board in left field, that were approved by the commission last year at this time.
But the possibility of a lawsuit looms from a group of rooftop club owners whose 15 businesses line Waveland and Sheffield avenues. Their contention is that the approved signage violates their contract with the club and has the potential to kill their business.
“It's not about money. It's about monopoly. The Cubs want to own it all,” said Tom Moore, an attorney representing the rooftop owners. “They're now asking you to facilitate their bully tactics.”
Cubs President of Business Operations Crane Kenney acknowledged Thursday that the team no longer is concerned with assurances from rooftop owners that they won't sue.
“In short, we are ready to go,” Kenney said. “With your support today, we'll preserve Wrigley Field for generations to come.”
The video board in left field — it had been reduced to 4,452 square feet from 5,700 square feet as the Cubs progressed through iterations of their plans — will shrink to 3,990 square feet. The team still plans to move bullpens from foul ground along the base lines to underneath the bleachers but will replace doors with a chain-link mesh. In a nod to concerns from the commission, the team will not remove portions of the outfield bricks and ivy.
The five additional signs are limited to 650 square feet each and must be spaced at least 20 feet apart. They can be either script or neon, but not billboards or have any flashing or chasing lights. Unclear are details of a right-field LED scoreboard, details of which must be submitted and approved separately.
Meanwhile, the bleachers will get more seats. The bleachers in center field may be demolished and rebuilt to make room for a restaurant.
The landmarks commission reviewed the plan because Wrigley Field has city landmark status that in 2004 protected a number of historic features, including the “uninterrupted sweep of the bleachers.”
The 6-0 vote in favor of the Cubs' plan — two commission members were absent — capped a four-hour meeting in a standing-only room packed with media, team representatives, fans and residents. Despite testimony from more than a dozen people, including 20 minutes by an attorney representing rooftop owners, the commission's vote came quickly and without discussion among the panel. Commissioner Ernest Wong, an architect, felt comfortable asking the Cubs to promise that Donald Trump wouldn't get a sign.
Although the Cubs have begun renovations at a nearby parking lot, much of the construction is expected to begin after this season. The last regular-season home game is scheduled for Sept. 24. The team told fans and Lakeview neighborhood residents in an email Thursday evening that it plans to finish installing new seating, group terraces, outfield signs and lighting, including the new left-field video board, by Opening Day 2015.
Last year, the Cubs said they would build a sign in right field before the 2014 season but didn't follow through.
“With this vote today, we hope the politics are behind us and we are ready to move forward with our $575 million restoration,” Cubs spokesman Julian Green said after the vote.
A City Hall source said this week that in order to make their presentation Thursday, the Cubs had to agree to continue to negotiate with the rooftop owners, who have said they pledged not to sue the Cubs if the team puts up two signs: the left-field scoreboard and a right-field sign.
The rooftop owners said the signs planned for the outfield would block the view from their perches, violating the 2004 contract under which the rooftop owners pay 17 percent of their revenue to the Cubs. The rooftop owners pay the Cubs about $4 million annually.
“If these (seven) 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,” said Ryan McLaughlin, spokesman for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association. “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.”
By Thursday evening, it was unclear when the team and rooftop owners would meet again. Murphy's Bleachers owner Beth Murphy said she remained optimistic about talks.
“We just have to have faith,” Murphy said. “We knew this was coming because the mayor directed them to vote ‘yes.'”
Thursday's decision gives the team a clear advantage. In a statement to fans and Lakeview residents, the Cubs said they would continue to negotiate in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit, but, “if not, we are prepared to defend our right to expand Wrigley Field.”
Earlier, Green said the Cubs will speak with club owners but didn't leave much room for alternatives. “The signage we got approved today is the signage that we're going to move forward with. Period.”
They could face continued opposition from Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, whose ward includes Wrigley. He tried to persuade the commission to table a decision until residents could offer more input. He, and some residents who testified, said the plans should have been presented online for residents to review.
Tunney described the Cubs' approach as “This is what we're going to do, neighborhood. Take it or leave it.” He said the commission's approval would provide carte blanche for signage.
Kenney earlier had said that sign revenue will finance much of the renovations planned, including an already approved hotel and office-retail complex. He said seven signs would not put the Cubs among the top teams for advertising sign revenue.
The Cubs say the project replaces much of the steel and concrete structure, restores some of the stadium's original architectural features and would improve fan and player amenities. As for blocking views, Kenney said that the “cumulative visual impact (of the signs) is modest compared to most modern sports facilities.”
Eleanor Gorski, director of the city's historic preservation division, said that the process was not an “exact science” and that sign sizes were based on the Cubs' proposals and their appearance in the ballpark. Still, despite recommending approval, she said “any further bleacher expansion could be detrimental to the uninterrupted sweep and contour of the bleachers.”
But Moore, the rooftop owners' attorney, criticized Gorski for deviating from the ordinance, including rarely using the word “uninterrupted” in her presentation.
“The landmarks staff does not have the authority to create a new interpretation that deviates from the intent of the aldermen when they voted to preserve the ‘memorable view' and ‘uninterrupted view,'” Moore said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement supporting the plan as a “step forward” for the team and residents that “upholds the architectural heritage of the stadium that Chicagoans can enjoy.”