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Emanuel won't extend tax break, so United Center entertainment complex is on ice

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s refusal to extend a United Center property tax break due to expire next year has nixed plans for a $95 million retail-and-entertainment complex in the shadows of the stadium.

Instead, the Bulls and Blackhawks will build a stand-alone office building — with a ground level retail store and a public atrium connection to the United Center — that will free up space inside the stadium for more entertainment and fan amenities.

With a nudge from Emanuel, Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz also is mapping plans to build a $50 million practice facility near the stadium with two rinks to accommodate the explosion of youth hockey in Chicago triggered by the Hawks’ two recent Stanley Cup championships.

At a news conference Thursday announcing details of that project, Wirtz joked about Emanuel’s hardball tactics.

“Sometimes I’m watching the Hawks game and I envision what it would be like to be checked by one of the Blackhawks,” Wirtz said. “After the last few meetings with the mayor, I found out what it feels like to be checked.”

Emanuel parried: “You may have thought that was a check. In the Emanuel home, that’s the way we say, `I love you. Welcome home.’ At family dinners, we’re a contact sport.”

Wirtz may yet feel more of that “love” from the mayor. Though neither the office building nor the Blackhawks’ practice facility is contingent on a property tax break or on the amusement tax freeze that Wirtz floated last year, he is counting on the city to help assemble the land.

After forcing the Cubs to bankroll a $375 million renovation of Wrigley Field at their own expense with an influx of outfield sign revenue, Emanuel said he was not about to extend the property tax break granted to the United Center at a time when the Bulls and Blackhawks were “pioneers” on the Near West Side.

The mayor also took a political beating for his proposal to use $55 million in tax-increment-financing (TIF) money to build a DePaul basketball arena near McCormick Place that will double as an “event center.” The financing was subsequently rearranged to use TIF money to acquire land for a hotel.

Artist sketches of the new planned office building adjacent to the United Center. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

To avoid a similar controversy in the middle of a mayoral campaign, the United Center tax break will now be allowed to expire in 2016. That tax break includes a complex formula that ties United Center property taxes to stadium revenues, with a $1 million-a-year minimum.

“What happened in the past was one thing. Now, we’re at a point that there’s a critical mass on the West Side and it’s a good investment for them to make,” the mayor said.

“Like Wrigley Field, we’re not giving tax assistance. These are good, private-sector investments. We’ll make an investment in improving the Blue Line. We’ll make an investment in improving Malcolm X’s campus. And because of those other investments, they have the confidence to make their own investment.”

Emanuel didn’t miss a beat when asked whether an entertainment complex wasn’t better than an office building.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf (center right) and Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz (center left) to announce a new office building next to the United Center. Also attending (left) was Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

“Three years ago, you weren’t talking about a training center. There’s now a new [Bulls] training center without tax assistance. . . . There’ll be other training centers,” he said.

“Since we didn’t do anything at Wrigley, we’re not doing it here. . . . This is different than, say, the Method factory in Pullman which needed the confidence or the Whole Foods in Englewood. The Near West Side today is growing, burgeoning.”

Howard Pizer, executive vice-president of the United Center, said the entertainment complex “would have been great.” But the Hawks and Bulls were not about to build it without an extended property tax break, and Emanuel “obviously wasn’t comfortable” with that.

Meanwhile, if the Hawks manage to assemble enough land — and clear what Wirtz called the remaining “hurdles” — the team will build a 105,000-square-foot practice facility on or near United Center property to match the $25 million center built by the Bulls.

Emanuel is pushing hard for it, which means he’s likely to get his way.

“We’re working on locations. We don’t have one set. . . . We have to work with the city. We’ve got some hurdles to overcome. But the mayor has been very insistent . . . and we’ve certainly been very receptive,” said Wirtz, who is also an investor in Wrapports, parent company of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The Hawks would only use it 6 percent of the time. Ninety-four percent would be for the community. . . . Kids in the neighborhood actually could walk to an ice rink and learn to skate and, once they learn to skate, then hopefully they’ll learn to play hockey. Illinois is one of the largest growth states for youth hockey. But it’s all in the suburbs. There’s been very few ice surfaces developed in the last ten years in the city. This would be really exciting.”

During Thursday’s news conference at the United Center, local Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) welcomed the decision to move the iconic Michael Jordan statue from outside the United Center inside the atrium of the new office building.

“The Michael Jordan statue here is a tourist attraction. Also, the Blackhawks statue over there is a tourist attraction. People come from all over the world and take pictures. And they are out in the rain, in the sleet, in the cold. No matter what the weather is, they are out there taking pictures. It’s great for the city of Chicago,” Burnett said.

“With this building going up and now having an atrium where you can come in and have some heat and have the right climate, I think they’re gonna get even more people there. The only thing I’m worried about is some of the folks sleeping in that atrium. But they’re gonna have even more people coming from all over the world to take pictures.”

This sketch shows the atrium that will connect the planned office building to the United Center. About 300 employees of the arena, Levy Restaurants, the Bulls and the Blackhawks will move to the building from the arena. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media