A dome and more: Mayoral group makes no little plans for Soldier Field, Museum Campus

A draft report from a working group considers ideas such as aerial gondolas, a monorail and floating pavilions for making the 57-acre lakefront site a year-round attraction and moneymaker.

SHARE A dome and more: Mayoral group makes no little plans for Soldier Field, Museum Campus
Aerial view of Soldier Field, Burnham Harbor and the lakefront.

Aerial view of Soldier Field, Burnham Harbor and the lakefront. A working group has unveiled a bold — and expensive — vision for remaking the stadium and the surrounding area.

Sun-Times file

Five months ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked nearly two dozen prominent Chicagoans to “re-imagine” the 57-acre Museum Campus and recommend ways to “maximize” its year-round benefits — with or without the Chicago Bears.

Now, that working group is delivering that and then some, with a host of ideas that could break the bank and transform the lakefront experience. 

Putting a dome on Soldier Field, expanding stadium concourses, adding more seats and more premium seats, replacing natural grass with synthetic turf and selling naming rights may be only the beginning. 

An Excel spreadsheet shared with the Sun-Times and considered by the working group has plenty of other ideas:

• Aerial gondolas and/or a monorail using clean energy.

• A “tourist attraction hotel” with a “Disney-feel.”

• Transforming Solidarity Drive into a pedestrian plaza.

• Removing Burnham Harbor and “replacing it with parking.”

• “Floating pavilions,” but the exact location of those was unclear.

The group also has considered putting a new, medium-sized performing arts facility next to Soldier Field, perhaps by relocating the Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island. It also talks about adding trams to help visitors move around the museum campus, and linking different parts of the campus with bridges.

No renderings of any proposals were available.

Burnham is Chicago’s largest and most desirable harbor, given its proximity to, and views of, downtown. 

Friends of the Park Executive Director Juanita Irizarry, a member of the working group, also led opposition that helped torpedo then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build the Lucas Museum on a parking lot just south of Soldier Field.

Irizarry said Wednesday she was not aware of any draft report by the working group. Nor is she certain if some of the more costly and pie-in-the-sky ideas will “end up in the final draft.” 

Some ideas “may be part of brain-storming sessions that have not made it through a vetting process,” she said. 

Pressed on whether Friends of the Parks would tolerate replacing Burnham Harbor with parking, Irizarry said: “It sounds ridiculous. It also does not sound like a conversation that I’ve been part of. The lakefront is an important jewel for the city and I am not confident that anyone is having conversations about paving over the lake.”

Soldier Field, viewed from the south.

Soldier Field, and the area around it on the Museum Campus, may be in for major changes, whether or not the Bears eventually leave for a new stadium in Arlington Heights.

Sun-Times file

Building a dome over Soldier Field or a monorail — even if the city could find the hundreds of millions of dollars needed — could violate the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which prohibits “further private development” anywhere “east of Lake Shore Drive.”

Irizarry said she would “wait to see what actual suggestions are made in the final document before wading into such complicated conversations.”

Openlands President CEO Jerry Adelmann led discussions on “open space and recreation issues” for the working group.

Although replacing Burnham Harbor with parking is on the ideas spreadsheet, Adelmann said it’s “not something we have discussed or endorsed.” 

“That’s crazy. It’s never been suggested,” Adelmann said.

“What you saw is not the final report. … We’ve been told [by City Hall] not to comment until the final report is final.” 

Lightfoot said Wednesday she is “grateful for the tremendous creativity” shown by the working group. But she has not yet seen a report and, therefore, it is “premature to discuss any aspect of it.”

She also again stressed the idea behind the working group and its eventual report is about “maximizing the visitor experience” year-round on the lakefront.

“Soldier Field is a big part of the discussion ... but this is looking at the entirety of that campus,” she said. And she again expressed confidence her administration will make a “compelling economic case” that it “makes no sense” for the Bears to “do anything else but stay” in Chicago at an enhanced Soldier Field.

“We will release a plan. And then, it’ll be up to them to make a decision.”

Arlington Park Racetrack, 2200 Euclid Ave in Arlington Heights.

Arlington Park Racetrack closed last year. The Chicago Bears have signed a deal to purchase the site, and may decide to build a new stadium there.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Still, once the Bears signed an agreement to purchase the 326-acre site of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse for $197.2 million, Lightfoot has sounded almost resigned to losing the team.

With or without the Bears, Lightfoot said she wanted to improve the fan experience at Soldier Field and maximize year-round revenues.

The 23-member “working group” wants to move the ball over the goal line with a host of changes. Chief among them is resurrecting the oft-considered idea of a dome — an architecturally difficult, enormously expensive feat intended to boost attendance at winter events.

“These costs would almost certainly not be offset by additional revenue opportunities” — even if adding a dome helps lure a Super Bowl, Wrestlemania or the NCAA Final Four, the report states.

Soldier Field already has been extensively renovated, reopening for the 2003 season after a $660 million makeover. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 decimated hotel tax revenues, then-Mayor Richard Daley salvaged the renovation by pressuring the Bears to permanently forfeit their right to sell corporate naming rights to Soldier Field.

The beginning of the Soldier Field renovation in 2002, with the removal of seats.

The beginning of the Soldier Field renovation in 2002, with the removal of seats.

Sun-Times file

Changing the Soldier Field name is anathema to veterans groups. Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, mulling a race for mayor, championed the opposition to a naming rights deal.

Nevertheless, the report notes, “even relatively modest modifications” to Soldier Field would “incur significant costs” and that a “large portion of these updates” could be bankrolled by selling naming rights in a respectful way.

Citing, among other examples, VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., the report notes: “A similar arrangement in Chicago would allow a sponsorship agreement to be pursued in a way that respects Soldier Field’s legacy as a war memorial by keeping Soldier in the name of the facility,” the report states.

“Beyond naming rights for the stadium itself, there are many other potential ancillary naming opportunities [e.g. South lot, new club seating, renovated concourses, etc.] that should be considered to help offset the cost of renovations.”

Sports marketing expert Marc Ganis has advised numerous NFL teams on stadium financing. 

He has argued only a new, preferably domed, stadium — either in parking lots next to Soldier Field or in place of McCormick Place East — will keep the Bears in Chicago.

Two architects who worked on the 2002-03 renovation and a structural engineer familiar with the project also have told the Sun-Times the mayor’s hands may be tied by the constraints of the existing structure.

Chicago architects Dirk Lohan and Adrian Smith said the current 61,500 capacity — the NFL’s smallest — can be expanded only a little, and only in the end zones. A retractable roof would be difficult, requiring a new support structure.

Lohan has 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 has said.

Smith submitted his own plan to renovate Soldier Field before then-Bears President Michael McCaskey chose Boston’s Ben 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. Daley liked it. But McCaskey never really grabbed onto it.”

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to resurrect that plan, Smith has 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.”

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