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No cheers for Chicago's ugly, expensive new stadium

CHICAGO — CHICAGO - Chicago, once the Second City, fell to third when Los Angeles surpassed it in population, and even third place is more than it usually achieves in the National Football League standings. But on Sept. 29, on ABC's Monday Night Football, the city will unveil to the nation a title-winner of sorts: the most expensive publicly funded stadium in the NFL.

Locals don't have to be told that the renovation of Soldier Field does not appeal to every eye. Rather than tear down the World War I memorial, the Chicago Park District and the Bears agreed to preserve the exterior and replace the interior. A brand-new bowl was therefore shoehorned into the ancient structure.

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It has been said that the result looks like a spaceship landed on the stadium, a charge I will not endorse for fear of being sued for libel by extraterrestrials.

The proud parents have been inviting journalists to admire the new stadium, and no wonder. From the inside, it looks like an aesthetic success, as well as a huge improvement on a facility that was grossly obsolete. In the old park, only 40 percent of the seats were on the sidelines, with the majority in the end zones. The new triple-deck arena puts 60 percent of fans on the sidelines.

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Bears president Ted Phillips says the new model also has an intimate feel - which is true, and which comes from the fact that seating capacity is nearly 5,500 less than before. With 61,500 seats, it's the second-smallest stadium in the league after the one in Indianapolis.

In other ways, though, it's inferior to the RCA Dome, which cost just $77 million to erect back in 1984. The price tag on the new Soldier Field is a staggering $632 million, of which $432 million will come from tax revenues. Unlike the RCA Dome, this facility is open to the elements, which will limit its uses in a Chicago winter.

Nor does the Soldier Field deal look like a bargain next to other renovations. Green Bay's recent overhaul of Lambeau Field not only cost less than half as much, but added 11,000 seats. Lambeau offers more luxury boxes and a lot more toilets than Soldier Field. Lambeau also has something that the Bears' arena traditionally and currently lacks: a winning team.

But the Packers' lair doesn't have the distinctions that make the new Soldier Field a true marvel. As University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson puts it, "If we started out to build the ugliest stadium in the country for the most money with the fewest alternative uses in the worst possible location, we're pretty much there."

Chicagoans may be wondering why they agreed to provide all this. Answer: They didn't. Unlike almost every other city that has proposed to expend huge sums of public revenue on a football stadium, Chicago didn't feel the need to let its citizens vote on the matter. Mayor Richard M. Daley thought the plan was a good idea, and that's the only vote that matters.

Why he reached such a bizarre conclusion is hard to figure, since at one time Mr. Daley sounded content to watch the Bears play their home games in Gary, Ind., or the suburbs, or Buzzard Gulch. The city got some new green space from the renovation, but it could have gotten more by razing the stadium. That would have opened up this prized lakefront real estate to more attractive uses than staging 10 high-priced football games a year. And wherever the Bears might have landed, most locals would have attended as many NFL games as they did before, which is none.

Sports franchises and facilities are always billed as economic development engines, but impartial studies regularly debunk that myth. Grass didn't sprout in the streets of Los Angeles after both of its NFL teams fled, and Houstonites have found that the arrival of the Texans didn't quite make up for the decline of the oil industry.

Chicago could probably live without the Bears, too. Compared with watching them lose 12 games, as they did last year, it might be a pleasure.

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Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.


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