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Arlington Heights or Chicago? Bears and City Hall scrimmage over Soldier Field’s future

Whether the Bears stay or go, Chicago has an opportunity to rethink Soldier Field and the nearby Museum Campus.

Soldier Field before the start of the Chicago Football Classic at Soldier Field Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011.
Soldier Field has been home of the Chicago Bears since 1971.
Sun-Times file

Three months ago, we said the Lightfoot administration should prepare Soldier Field for a future without the Chicago Bears as the stadium’s anchor tenant.

And now a story on Thursday by Sun-Times reporters Fran Spielman and David Roeder seems to bear that out.

Spielman and Roeder reported that experts believe the team wants a venue with substantially expanded seating and possibly a dome, but making those types of changes to Soldier Field would be structurally impossible, prohibitively expensive and politically difficult — or a mix of all three.

Which brings into sharper focus the Bears’ bid for the Arlington International Racecourse property in Arlington Heights. A deal there would move the Bears from 61,500-seat Soldier Field — the smallest stadium in the NFL — and allow them to build the larger venue the team has always coveted.

It would be unfortunate for Chicago if the Bears decamp for suburbia. But their departure, or even a plan to keep them in Soldier Field, presents Chicago with an opportunity to rethink the stadium and the nearby Museum Campus.

Massive Soldier Field changes won’t ‘come easy’

Of the NFL’s newest venues, Inglewood, California’s SoFi Stadium, built in 2020 as the home of the Rams and the Chargers, seats 70,000, while the Las Vegas Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium has a capacity of 71,800.

Both have roofs. But covering Soldier Field, particularly with a retractable lid, would be a tall, expensive order. Dirk Lohan, the architect who led the $660 million Soldier Field renovation in 2003, told us that “anything is possible for money,” but it won’t “come easy” because Soldier Field is “not laid out to receive a roof.”

Lohan said the 2003 rebuild of Soldier Field, which essentially placed a new stadium within — and bulging out the top of — the old venue means the stadium is essentially a mix of two structures.

“If you put a roof on it, you would have three different structures,” Lohan said.

Expanding the seating capacity would be tough slog also, he said.

“[W]hat do you have to do to expand the seating?”

“Do you have to tear down half of [the stadium]? Do you have to remove the old colonnades, for instance?” Lohan asked. “Chicago would not stand for damaging or changing the historic architecture. It’s a monument to the soldiers of World War I.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, after initially dismissing the Bears nod toward Arlington Heights, told the Sun-Times editorial board last week that her team is “evaluating ways in which we can enhance the fan experience at Soldier Field.”

But when asked by Spielman whether she would consider a retractable roof for the stadium, Lightfoot quoted The Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want. But you can try sometimes and get what you need.”

To our mind, the approach of separating wants from needs is the best way to assure some, well, satisfaction, when it comes to Soldier Field’s future.

Rethinking the stadium and Museum Campus

During the Sun-Times editorial board meeting last week, Lightfoot hinted that she is looking at Soldier Field as an integral part of the Museum Campus, rather than as a stand-alone entity.

This is a good move. Because if Soldier Field is showing its age, programmatically, almost 20 years after its renovation, then the nearly 25-year-old Museum Campus also needs a refresh, including the possibility of a restaurant and better public transportation access.

And at Soldier Field, we think the Chicago Park District might’ve been rash when it stiff-armed the Bears’ request to add a sports betting lounge on the premises, as reported last week by Chicago public radio station WBEZ.

Betting wouldn’t be allowed in the lounge or the stadium, but patrons could watch live NFL games on TV and see betting lines. The Bears would make money from advertising and give the park district a 20 percent cut.

Seems reasonable to us to add this now — if it’s not too late.

No Chicago mayor wants to lose a storied sports franchise such as Bears, so we understand Lightfoot’s wish to figure out what kind of improvements would keep the team at Soldier Field.

But there’s no need to give away the store, either. Chicago has survived fires, floods, economic downturns and more. If the Bears wind up in Arlington Heights after their Solder Field lease ends in 2033, we’ll survive that too.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.