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Fight to keep Bears in Chicago, council members tell city official

“We have a lot of land. Before that door closes, I would ask you to do everything in your power to look at what options there are to keep them here that could be an economic driver for parts of our city that could use it and it could work,” said Ald. Harry Osterman.

Soldier Field before the start of the Chicago Football Classic at Soldier Field Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011.
Soldier Field was renovated at a cost of more than half a billion dollars less than 20 years ago. But now the team is pondering a move to the suburbs. Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), chairman of the City Council’s Housing Committee, said during budget hearings on Thursday that he doesn’t want to drive to Arlington Heights to watch his beloved Bears. And he’s certain plenty of Arlington Heights residents “don’t want to see a bunch of Chicagoans” descend on their Northwest suburb.
Sun-Times file

A top city official was urged Thursday to get on the political playing field and do whatever he can to prevent the Bears from moving to Arlington Heights.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), chairman of the City Council’s Housing Committee, said he doesn’t want to drive to Arlington Heights to watch his beloved Bears. And he’s certain plenty of Arlington Heights residents “don’t want to see a bunch of Chicagoans” descend on their Northwest suburb at least 10 days a year.

That’s where Maurice Cox comes in. He’s the commissioner of planning and development. So could he play a role in planning and developing the new stadium many observers believe it will take to prevent the Bears from closing on the agreement they signed last week to purchase the 326-acre site of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse for $197.2 million?

“We have a lot of land. Before that door closes, I would ask you to do everything in your power to look at what options there are to keep them here that could be an economic driver for parts of our city that could use it and it could work,” Osterman told Cox during Thursday’s City Council budget hearing.

Osterman did not suggest a specific site for a new stadium. Nor did he say whether he believes that stadium should be domed, built along the lakefront or whether or how he believes Chicago taxpayers can afford a new stadium.

He would only tell Cox, “If there’s a win-win there, then let’s find that win.”

After tweeting a photo of himself wearing a White Sox jersey to celebrate Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series, Osterman compared the Bears stadium saga to the “stop-the-clock” legislative vote on the deal to build a new baseball stadium for the White Sox, preventing the team from moving to St. Petersburg, Fla.

“The Chicago White Sox are ... in the playoffs — not the St. Petersburg White Sox. That’s because people tried to make it work and they made it work,” Osterman said.

“So I just ask you, with all the priorities you have of lifting up communities, which is where the priority has to be, let’s not give up on trying to find a place to keep these guys in Chicago,” Osterman said.

The Chicago Bears have signed a purchase agreement for the 326-acre site of Arlington International Racecourse, a potential site of a new stadium that would replace Soldier Field.
The Chicago Bears have signed a purchase agreement for the 326-acre site of Arlington International Racecourse, a potential site of a new stadium that would replace Soldier Field.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Bears stadium saga wasn’t the only thing on the minds of City Council members.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) complained — gently — about the design committee of outside experts that Cox created last summer to weigh in on major developments before they get built.

It’s an extra stop for projects that already must get approval from department staff, the City Council and, in some cases, the Chicago Plan Commission.

“If we weren’t getting money from the federal government right now, we would literally be in trouble right now,” Burnett said.

“Next year at this time, I don’t want to be votin’ on no tax increases. ... We have the tools. We have the momentum of development going on in the city. We need to keep it moving, man. … We need to keep it moving in order to keep the money coming.”

Burnett’s Near West Side ward includes Fulton Market, which he called “one of the hottest areas in the world” with booming development that is “sustaining us.”

Meanwhile, economic development in other parts of the city has slowed during the pandemic. That’s reflected in a 20% drop — from $62 million to $50 million — in funds generated by the share-the-wealth Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. Developers pay fees for the right to build bigger and taller projects in a broader downtown area; those fees are used to rebuild neighborhood commercial strips.

Burnett complained that, at his last meeting with city planners, “Everything in the list was being postponed because of design.” That prompted him to ask, “Is this the Department of Planning or the Department of Design?”

“I understand design. But I also understand the bottom line for the city. … We want to stay competitive and bring that money in and balance our budget and not have to increase taxes because we’re all doomed if we have to do that. Our livelihoods are at stake,” he said.

Zoning Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th) said he’s talked to a number of developers who’ve said, “We’re done with Chicago for a myriad of reasons.” If he’s heard it once, he said, he’s heard it 40 times in the last two years.

Cox said he can understand how “any new process” put in place by the city “creates uncertainty,” which developers hate.

“Our goal has been to use this [Design Committee] as a tool to expedite the process. … We know that the engine that is producing a lot of the economic well-being of the city are in these four or five wards, so we’re hyper-conscious of trying to expedite this,” he said.