Bears need a new stadium, wherever it is

The days of clinging to architectural tradition and worshipping the notion of “Bear Weather” in outdoor games are over. The Bears need a state-of-the-art facility — and Chicago does, too.

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The Bears have played home games at Soldier Field since 1971. Their lease with the Chicago Park District runs through 2033.

The Bears have played home games at Soldier Field since 1971. Their lease with the Chicago Park District runs through 2033.

Matt Marton/AP

In my perfect Chicago world, there would be no lights at Wrigley Field, the bullpens would still be in foul territory and the outfield basket never would have existed.

The Bulls and Black Hawks would still be playing at old Chicago Stadium. The White Sox would still be playing at old Comiskey Park. The “S” curve would be gone — with some regret — but Riverview would still be standing at Belmont and Western. Maxwell Street would be thriving. And the city would still own the parking meters.

I love tradition almost as much as I love Chicago. That’s why I was fully in favor of the 2002 renovation at Soldier Field that kept the historical colonnades and existing outside structure. And kept the Bears playing in it. I overlooked the tackiness of a 21st-century stadium wedged inside early 20th-century architecture because it kept the tradition of old Soldier Field alive.

But that time has passed.

The renovated Soldier Field will do. It’s not obsolete — even the turf is no longer horrible. But the Bears need better. And Chicagoans deserve better. The Bears need a new stadium. A modern stadium. A state-of-the-art stadium. Tradition still matters, but it has become a bigger obstruction to progress — on and off the field — than ever. It’s time.

The Bears organization’s acknowledgment Thursday of a bid for the Arlington International Racecourse site in Arlington Heights — with the obvious intent to build a stadium there — served one purpose, perhaps the main purpose: It put the Bears’ stadium issue on the front burner. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has plenty of serious issues on her plate, but she responded to the Bears’ announcement within hours with a statement of her own — with a snarky bite that rivals Mayor Richard J. Daley’s warning that the Bears “could not use the name Chicago” when a move to Arlington Heights was proposed in 1975.

Lightfoot not only noted that the Bears are “locked into” their Soldier Field lease until 2033, but also chided the Bears to worry more about the product on the field. “Like most Bears fans, we want the organization to focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October. Everything else is noise.”

The noise might be an annoyance to Lightfoot, but it matters. It keeps people talking and gets people’s attention. And hopefully it puts the onus on the city to make a Bears stadium a front-burner issue. Chicago is the city that works, but usually step-by-step. This is the first step.

The team’s offer for the Arlington Park site moves the idea of a new Bears stadium a notch up from the pipe-dream stage. It might be more possible today than it was Wednesday or a year ago. But it’s still unlikely.

But should it happen? Should the Bears move to Arlington Heights if a new stadium can be built there? If the option is current Soldier Field, then the answer is yes. Presuming a new stadium would be a state-of-the-art facility that would draw big events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four, the benefit to the Bears and the Chicago area would be too good to pass up.

I don’t believe the Bears are bluffing. If you could wave a magic wand and make an Arlington Heights stadium happen, the Bears would go. But the better option would be a SOTA facility in Chicago, preferably near the lakefront. Unfortunately, Chicago doesn’t seem equipped to make something that big happen. Just finding the property and financing make it a bigger long shot than anything that ever hit at Arlington Park. So good luck with that.

But, for me anyway, the Bears playing in an outdoor stadium isn’t the necessity it once was. Indoor stadiums used to be dreadful. The Astrodome — the granddaddy of them all — was a wonder when it was built but had the feel of an actual barn. The generation that followed were convention halls for football.

But the 21st century stadiums were huge steps toward acceptability. NRG Stadium in Houston and Ford Field in Detroit were big improvements. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in 2008 took it another step to more of an outdoor stadium feel.

But U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis in 2016 was a game-changer. It’s a beautifully designed building outside and inside that sets a new standard for natural light that replicates an outdoor stadium feel as much as can be expected.

The Bears will see the two newest NFL stadiums this season — SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, when they play the Rams on Sept. 12 and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas when they play the Raiders on Oct. 10.

Bears chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips figure to be there. And my advice would be to invite the mayor so they can ask her the all-important question. “If they can build one of these here, why can’t they build one in Chicago?”

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