Plan to keep the Bears in Chicago complicated by constraints of Soldier Field

Two architects who worked on the $660 million renovation — which won’t be paid off until 2032 — said only modest expansion is possible at the 61,500-seat stadium. And a retractable roof would be architecturally challenging, if not impossible.

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Aerial view of Soldier Field Sunday, Oct.19, 2014.

A renovation of Soldier Field about 20 years ago essentially consisted of building a new seating bowl structure within the confines of the original 1924 stadium’s outer walls. It reduced the stadium’s capacity but gave the Bears many other things they wanted. Now, with the chance to buy land in Arlington Heights and build their own stadium, it may be difficult to improve Soldier Field enough to keep the team as a tenant.

Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is determined to improve Soldier Field to convince the Bears to remain in Chicago, but her hands may be tied by the constraints of a lakefront seating bowl already towering over historic colonnades at a stadium that’s also a war memorial.

The team has put in a bid for the Arlington International Racecourse property in Arlington Heights, where a new stadium could be built. In Chicago, meanwhile, two architects who worked on Soldier Field’s $660 million renovation — bankrolled by bonds that won’t be fully repaid until 2032 — said only modest expansion is possible at the 61,500-seat stadium, the NFL’s smallest.

About 5,000 seats could be added in the least desirable and least expensive areas — the north and south end zones. But expanding sideline seating would be pretty much out of the question, given the outcry that would surely follow, they said.

“A lot of things are possible. But what do you have to do to expand the seating? Do you have to tear down half of it? Do you have to remove the old colonnades, for instance? Chicago would not stand for damaging or changing the historic architecture. It’s a monument to the soldiers of World War I,” said venerable Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, who worked with Boston’s Ben Wood on the much-ridiculed renovation.

To add more desirable and expensive seats on the east and west sides of Soldier Field, Lohan said, “You would have to have supporting structure outside the colonnades. Meaning in the parks. And on Lake Shore Drive. That side is severely restricted because of the road.”

A structural engineer familiar with the stadium noted that the 2003 renovation created the current Soldier Field by essentially pouring a new seating layout into the horseshoe-shaped boundary of the original structure, completed in 1924.

Any improvement that further changes that could bring opposition from preservationists and those who fear a loss of the field’s storied history, the engineer said.

The inside of Soldier Field at the start of the renovation in 2002.

The inside of Soldier Field at the start of the renovation in 2002 shows the high proportion of end zone seats. The Bears wanted more expensive seats on the sidelines, and they got them.

Sun-Times file

Although that renovation cost Soldier Field its designation as a National Historic Landmark, the work improved the stadium for the fans and the Bears, the engineer said. It reduced the seating capacity because the team demanded it.

“The Bears wanted a higher proportion of good seats. They got great sightlines,” he said. “The old stadium was designed for track and field and it had horrible sightlines for football.”

The colonnades, repaired and made more accessible during the renovation, limit expansion to the east and west, he said.

“I don’t see how you can add a whole lot of seats. … The easiest places to add them are in the end zones, and those aren’t the best seats,” said the engineer, who declined to be quoted by name because of client relationships.

Raising a roof would be a challenge

A retractable dome would be needed to achieve Lightfoot’s goal of turning Soldier Field into a year-round revenue-generator. But that, too, would be costly and risk further desecrating the historic structure.

Lohan acknowledged “anything is possible for money,” but it won’t “come easy.” Soldier Field is simply “not laid out to receive a roof.”

“It’s already a mixture of two buildings. The old classical building with colonnades. And then, we have a modern seating shell surrounding the playing field. If you put a roof on it, you would have three different structures,” Lohan said.

Chicago architect Adrian Smith submitted his own plan to renovate Soldier Field before then-Bears President Michael McCaskey chose Wood to quarterback the stadium renovation in partnership with Lohan.

“We presented a plan to preserve the architecture of Soldier Field and cover the seating and the field with a movable roof. It could be covered when games were played in bad weather … and let sun in during times when they were growing grass. The whole issue was grass. That’s why they wanted an open field. That was a requirement of McCaskey,” Smith said.

“Our scheme had a roof that slid over to … the extra amount of space at Soldier Field on the north side. … We had the roof going over there and we called those tennis courts. When the roof was open, you had covered tennis courts. When the roof was closed, you had open tennis courts. … But it never really caught hold. [Then-Mayor Richard M.] Daley liked it. But McCaskey never really grabbed onto it. He didn’t say” why, Smith added.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to resurrect that plan, Smith said, adding: “The structure has been put in place to hang those large cantilevers for the TV screen that’s in that area now. You just couldn’t do it.”

Soldier Field’s renovation built a new seating bowl inside the old exterior, but it also leaves the upper grandstand on the west side of the stadium towering over the original, iconic colonnade.

Soldier Field’s renovation built a new seating bowl inside the old exterior, but it also leaves the upper grandstand on the west side of the stadium towering over the original, iconic colonnade. Some said it looked like a spaceship landing inside the stadium.

AFP/Getty Images

A Rosemont-style entertainment district outside Soldier Field could achieve Lightfoot’s dream of keeping fans in the area long after the game and even become a year-round attraction.

But that would run into lakefront protection issues similar to those that killed the museum Star Wars mogul George Lucas wanted to build south of Soldier Field.

“It would be wonderful to walk 100 feet in any direction and have a place where you can sit down and have a hamburger or an outdoor garden event. But we just can’t build along the lakefront like that,” said a source familiar with the issues.

“Some of that could require some heavy lifting legally to get through. How do we do this without getting sued and without triggering Friends of the Parks and all the folks that, any time you want to do something in parks, they say, ‘Wait a second’? ... The city or state would have to help with various approvals to avoid litigation. Otherwise, it would be tied up in court forever.”

Without a retractable roof and a large number of more expensive seats, the revenue-generating possibilities would largely be confined to filling “dead areas” of stadium concourses and adding suites, sponsorships and advertising.

Five years ago, the door to what was expected to be a dramatic influx in stadium advertising was opened by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s now-scrapped plan to give Lucas 17 acres south of the stadium for the filmmaker’s museum.

That would have cost the Bears a parking lot, so they bargained for a host of marketing and advertising opportunities that could have gone a long way toward financing stadium upgrades.

They included selling sponsorships to several areas, including the gates, northeast mezzanine, southeast lawn and the ticket office and will-call building.

In addition, the Bears won the right to install 30 “interactive digital displays” in the concourse and other areas.

The team’s amended lease also included the right to sell “entitlement and/or sponsorship rights” to any improvements or enhancements contemplated in a study by Populous, a Kansas City-based stadium architect. That study ultimately identified $300 million in “potential capital improvements,” ranging from concourse, field and drainage improvements to adding bunker suites and 5,000 seats to bolster Emanuel’s long-shot bid to host a Super Bowl.

At the time, bunker suites had become popular in the NFL, not because they offer a great view of the game — they don’t — but for their intimate look at the game and players.

Sources said none of the big improvements identified in the Populous study ever happened. There was no money to pay for major changes. The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority never came up with any additional money.

Neither Populous nor Bears officials would comment for this story.

Cincinnati Bengals kick off to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021.

One structural engineer said adding any meaningful number of seats to Soldier Field is possible only in the end zones, but those seats usually sell for less, and therefore don’t bring in as much revenue.

Associated Press

Sell the name?

In 2001, under pressure from then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Bears agreed to permanently forfeit their right to sell corporate naming rights to Soldier Field, which could have been worth $300 million or more. Veterans groups and their political champion — former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn — had spent months pleading with Daley to stop the “commercial desecration” of a stadium re-dedicated in 1925 to the men and women who served in the armed forces.

As a result, Soldier Field remains one of only a handful of NFL stadiums without a corporation’s name attached.

It’s not known whether Lightfoot would ever be willing to revisit that issue, if that’s what it takes to keep the team in Chicago and prevent the Bears from exercising their option in Arlington Heights.

But the source familiar with stadium negotiations described a naming rights deal as the “only way you get any meaningful money” into Soldier Field.

“If it could be called the Nike Soldier Field or the Google Soldier Field, that would be the only thing that both parties could really share in and get some needed revenue to do some improvements. You could really give that thing an infusion of cash to spruce that place up,” the source said.

“Bring it up to modern standards. Build out some of the unused space in the dead areas in the interior. Make that place state of the art. Give it that added kick in the pants. Sox Park is wonderful. All the interior spaces are maximized. There’s a lot of wasted interior space at Soldier Field. You could really program all of that with shops, restaurants, bars.”

One of the newest NFL’s newest venues, SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, shattered all records with a reported cost of $5.5 billion. The home of the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers has a translucent roof but open sides, allowing airflow.

A new stadium in Arlington Heights surely would cost $1 billion or more, but the development and financial possibilities for the Bears would be endless. Contrast that to the financial and operational girdle they wear at Soldier Field, and the move to the suburbs must be viewed as a very real possibility.

“It’s really tough to be an NFL franchise and not own your own stadium. They don’t have a lot of say in the other programming. Now, they’re competing with the Fire,” said a source familiar with the negotiations, referring to the soccer team that also plays at Soldier Field.

“There are concerts. The city needs to program the hell out of that thing. That building gets a lot of wear and tear,” the source added. At Soldier Field, “they are the marquee tenant and they are treated as such. However, they are only the marquee tenant for 10 days a year.”

Soldier Field in Chicago.

Soldier Field, which opened in 1924, is not just a stadium. It’s a war memorial, dedicated to those who served in World War I.

Associated Press

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