As the 20-year lease drew to a close, and as the nation was gripped by Florida’s recount in the 2000 presidential election, the Bears and the city of Chicago rushed a plan through the legislature to state in just two weeks. A proposed $587 million renovation would gut the interior of Soldier Field, demolish the Park District headquarters on the north end, and rebuild the stadium inside the colonnades. The Chicago Park District approved by 5-0 vote without discussion. The Bears and NFL were only expected to contribute $200 million with $387 million in 30-year Illinois Sports Facilities Authority bonds. A 2% hotel tax in Chicago would pay off the debt. Many groups of lawyers fought back, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, but legislation passed by the Illinois state house prevented the courts from stopping the project. Because the colonnades remained in place, the city successfully argued that it was only a renovation of the property and not new construction. After threatening to leave Soldier Field 13 times since 1990the Bears were about to enter into a franchise-altering 30-year lease that changed everything about its relationship with the parks department.
In 2000, the Bears paid $9.5 million under the 1980 lease for full control of the stadium for 20 days a year. Under the new deal, the Bears would instead pay a flat rate of $10 million per year for 116 days of control. Even though the renovation further reduced the stadium’s capacity to 61,500, the Bears came out far ahead in the deal. The team began presenting Personal seat licenses, with prices ranging from $900 to $10,000 (the highest in the NFL at the time). According to a 2004 University of Chicago Case Study by Economist Allen R. Sanderson“The Bears’ 2003 revenue estimates show an expected profit gain of $11 million to $30 million from the renovated facility, more favorable lease agreements and more revenue streams.”
Sanderson estimated the deal helped the Bears increase the potential value of their franchise to between $300 million and $400 million or double its “pre-deal” price. Public pressure in the aftermath of 9/11 prevented the team from selling the naming rights to Soldier Field, however eliminating a potential source of financial windfall.
Chicagoans are still footing the bill for the 2003 renovations to Soldier Field through hotel tax and will continue to do so through 2032. The same economically dubious logic – that tourists will pay for the construction since it is funded by a hotel tax – east still used, most recently in the Tennessee Titans’ quest for a new home. However, studies have shownthere is little evidence to support links between sporting events and hotel demand”.
Also, it turned out that the hotel tax would not be enough. Soldier Field’s revised price of $587 million soared to $632 million upon completion of the project, $432 million that taxpayers should cover. When hotel tax revenue was $29 million lower in 2021, the people of Chicago were forced to pay the difference. Worse still, park-goers continued to see their public spaces along the lakeside decline – a clear departure from the Burnham plan.
When the mayor first announced the renovation plan in November 2000, as a concession to some civic opponents, he promised 19 acres of new parkland around the new stadium. Without explanation, public city and Bears press releases suddenly began using the figure of 17 acres, not 19. This public space includes a veterans sculpture and water wall, a children’s garden , a memorial lawn, winter gardens and a toboggan hill. But later, after careful examination of the architectural drawings, this figure included – and was considered “parkland” – landscaped median strips along the access and interior roads and sloping berms along the parking lot. The usable area turned out to be about 10 acres, not 19.
Ironically, Sanderson discovered in 1988 that Dirk Lohan, one of the main architects of the renovation, had lobbied the mayor’s office to convert Soldier Field back into a civic site for public use. It was also a popular sentiment before the 2003 renovation was completed.
The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and advocacy group Friends of the Parks have proposed an 80,000-seat stadium with a retractable dome on public land north of the Chicago White Sox baseball stadium on the south side. The benefits were many. The Bears could continue to play at Soldier Field while their new home is being built, rather than playing the 2002 season at University of Illinois Memorial Stadium two and a half hours away. The work would be completed in less time than it would take to renovate Soldier Field. It would also be almost $200 million cheaper. Public transportation options were already nearby and worked well for Sox games. Crucially, once the Bears moved in, the plan called for returning Soldier Field to its original 1924 scale. The current seating layout would be dismantled and more fields would be added. It would again be a public space in the sense that Burnham envisioned it.
The Bears refused to consider it.
“With the exception of Grant Park itself, Soldier Field occupies Chicago’s most valuable public property, which the Bears can occupy at near zero cost.” Sanderson explained. “Plus, they don’t have to pay for congestion externalities.”
Thus, the 2003 renovation continued with a massive public and media reaction. The resulting arena has been widely mocked by architects, football fans and pundits. Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic then at the Chicago Grandstand dubbed the project “the error by the lake” – noting that politics had triumphed over civic vision. Soldier Field quickly lost its national monument status in the process.
Now, nearly a century after Soldier Field opened, the city of Chicago wants to continue to shape it. This latest rehabilitation project is indeed no small plan. Lightfoot incorrectly indicated the price would be less than the cost to the team of building a new stadium from scratch. Besides the fact that initial estimates for these projects tend to be very far off, $2.2 billion is more than the cost of Allegiant Stadium ($1.9 billion), MetLife Stadium ($1.6 billion), Mercedes Benz Stadium ($1.5 billion), Levi’s Stadium ($1.3 billion), AT&T Stadium (1, $3 billion) and US Bank Stadium ($1.1 billion) – each was built on new ground from scratch.
Forbes valued the Chicago Bears at $4.075 billion in 2021 — the seventh-highest total in the NFL. If the team wants to build a stadium in the suburbs, they have the means to do so without depending on public funds. Particularly as study after study after study has shown that promises made to taxpayers when engaging in private stadiums are rarely, if ever, kept. The evidence is as overwhelming as the wealth the city of Chicago inadvertently helped the Bears create with its last 30-year tenure.
Kam Buckner tears up Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Soldier Field/Bears press conference: ‘Nobody asked the mayor about the three unfunded scenarios to revamp Soldier Field that she announced today, costing up to $2 billion dollars.” pic.twitter.com/i9bA5ORQQS
— Gregory Pratt (@royalpratt) July 25, 2022
Mayor Lori Lightfoot says a Soldier Field dome is possible for another anchor tenant and notes that many cities have two NFL teams. Do whatever you want with it.
— Gregory Pratt (@royalpratt) July 25, 2022
light foot said the city is already talking to potential new tenants if the Bears still want to leave. She suggested another NFL team might consider moving in, but again, no details were offered.
If the city wants to avoid petty plans, if Lightfoot wants to stir men’s blood, it would welcome the team’s exit from Soldier Field and restore the building to its original purpose: a public space accessible to all and a gem by the water’s edge. of a golden lake.
Instead, the city continues to find cover in Burnham’s words. He tells the public that these projects will elevate the town to new heights, even as they continue to twist a central building from Burnham’s plan and stray further and further from its original intent.
The people of Chicago deserve better. The Bears will be fine.