Chicago's rebuilding effort; City, Bears near deal to save, reconfigure historic Soldier Field

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- It has stood on the banks of Lake Michigan for three-quarters of a century, a columned fortress dedicated to fallen warriors and consecrated by great athletes.

And now, just as it appeared time would conquer Soldier Field, a plan has emerged to not only save the historic stadium, but also to rebuild it to meet the upscale demands of the modern NFL, a transformation that would have been unimaginable to the stonemasons who built the place.

Leaders of the city, state and Bears are near agreement on constructing a glitzy arena within the coliseum's faux-granite walls.

The cost will be high, perhaps $500 million when associated parking, roadwork and parkland are included. And it won't look like anything fans have seen before: the lopsided design calls for the field to be shoved to one side, leaving it off-center within the stadium's walls. Along one sideline, a sheer wall of luxury seats and glassed-in suites would be stacked. On the other, in space freed by the relocated field, would be a three-tiered grandstand.

The result: preservation of one of America's most recognizable stadiums and a monument to an age when great cities built great coliseums. More importantly for football fans, it would mean the Bears would stay in the city where George Halas coached Red Grange.

In recent years, it appeared both the stadium and team could be lost. The Bears struck a deal to move to Gary, Ind., only to be jilted by Gary. There were flirtations with other suburbs, and talk of a dome down the lakefront.

Then, over the past year, a series of events transpired that may save Soldier Field. The Bears downgraded their demands from a new building to a rehab and signed a five-year renewal of a stadium lease. The NFL, rich with multibillion-dollar television deals, created a program to finance stadiums in top markets. The Bears also named a new president, Ted Phillips. He is more conciliatory than his predecessor, who was no longer on speaking terms with City Hall.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has taken a hard line with the team, said this month he is optimistic a deal can be accomplished.

"I can't be assured, but we are in a good position. I think they realized that this is a great market," Daley said.

Bears spokesman Bryan Harlan said that "everything looks as if it is moving in the right direction."

The design that has emerged breaks dramatically with stadium-building orthodoxy. Typically, designers faced with the unwieldy dimensions of old, multipurpose stadiums have chosen to raze them and start anew.

Soldier Field was designed to hold more than 100,000 people for a range of events, from track and field to boxing and religious revivals, but not the NFL. The Bears moved there from Wrigley Field in 1971, and now share the stadium with the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer.

The building is nearly twice as long as it is wide: 1,184 feet by 675 feet. Compared to a modern NFL stadium, it is too long and too narrow. Its end zones, bulked up to compensate for the sideline space crunch, hold 60 percent of its seats. Baltimore's 1-year-old PSINet Stadium, by contrast, is 900 feet long and 725 feet across with 42 percent of its seats in the end zones.

Architects, led by the noted Dirk Lohan of Chicago, have come up with a plan that would accommodate the oddball dimensions and generate tens of millions of new dollars a year for the team.

The Greco-Roman architecture would be preserved, including its signature colonnades. Added would be be climate-controlled skyboxes and members-only club seats from which NFL teams now derive as much cash as from grandstand tickets. Broad concourses with specialty stores, pubs and food stands could double fan spending on concessions.

Details have been guarded, but sources who have seen the plan, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the field would retain its north-south orientation but be shifted 20 feet to the east. There, in space now occupied by grandstands, there would be skyboxes arrayed in four layers, stacked one atop the other, as well as a pair of terraced, club seat sections.

Pampered fans would get a view of the lake, through windows poked through the stadium wall. Their sightlines would be among the best in football: The premium seats would be, on average, only 70 feet from the field.

Across the way, the grandstand's front rows would be brought forward, placing them over what is now part of the field. Extra seats would be added and, underneath, wider concourses and new bathrooms and concession stands. Chilly fans could warm up under infrared heat lamps in the 50-yard-line "Grandstand Club" lounge.

To the south, end-zone seating would be expanded by pushing the field north. The northern end -- the open end of the "horseshoe" -- will be limited to a lower deck to open up a view of downtown.

Cut-rate skyboxes added in 1981 would be stripped away, reopening for fans the colonnades that tower 100 feet over the field. Field lights would be packed into an enclosed ring built into the top of the seating bowl, restoring the building to much of its sleek, 1924 opening-day elegance.

Capacity would remain at about 67,000. Of that, 12,000 will be in skyboxes or club sections. Only 40 percent would be in end zones.

The concept of putting corporate seating to one side and everybody else on the other will be tried for the first time in Atlanta's new arena. Scheduled to open this year, it has a club level and five layers of suites all on one side.

"It looks like an opera house," Ron Labinski, a principle with HOK Sports, said of the arena, designed by his Kansas City, Mo.- based architectural firm. HOK also designed both stadiums at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

He said it will be tricky to pack wider seats and concourses inside the shell of Soldier Field. "It's kind of brain surgery," he said.

If saved, Soldier Field will be the only multipurpose stadium of its vintage to be converted to modern NFL use. It also would make Chicago unique in sports reclamation: Wrigley, which was rehabilitated by HOK in 1989, is going strong and will soon become baseball's oldest park after demolitions in Detroit and Boston.

Seattle-based stadium critic and historian John Pastier said even though Soldier Field lacks the grace of an old baseball park, it is "one of the 10 or 12 most historically and architecturally significant old football stadiums."

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the park was the setting for a wartime address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 1927 Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney title match with the "long count," Grateful Dead concerts, high school football championships and other events.

Kurt Johnson, a Chicago commodities broker and longtime Bears fan, said he wouldn't miss the leaky walls, dank tunnels and flooded bathrooms of Soldier Field. But he is glad the distinctive structure might be preserved.

"I'm kind of a traditionalist, so I would never like to see the Bears leave the lakefront and the cold weather that intimidates opponents," Johnson said. "To lose those pillars, it would look like something was missing from the Chicago sideline."

Sources say the next few weeks will be key as delicate negotiations determine who will pay for what on the project. The state has agreed to pay for some roadwork. The city, too, will contribute. "We're still in the negotiation phase and we'll see what we can do," Daley said.

The NFL has offered to loan the team $150 million. It would be repaid by a temporary diversion of premium-seat ticket revenues that ordinarily go to the visiting team. The Bears also plan to raise money from private lenders and from fans. Buyers of about half the season tickets in the renovated stadium will have to pay an upfront fee for a permanent seat license, according to one source.

The plan dovetails with Daley's citywide beautification goals. The project would add parks and greenery, replace parking lots with underground decks, and visually reconnect the stadium to a nearby museum, aquarium and planetarium.

"It complements the lakefront and people see a view of the city," Daley said.

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