Chicago Bears’ flashy game plan for lakefront stadium project greeted with questions

The Chicago Bears laid out elaborate plans Wednesday for a new publicly owned domed stadium on the lakefront but left unanswered how the city would pay for expensive infrastructure improvements.

With a dazzling video presentation of a stadium featuring a translucent roof and a glass wall with a view of downtown, team President and CEO Kevin Warren presented his vision for a $3.2 billion focal point for great city gatherings, not just football.

The city has an opportunity to build an international attraction that would resonate for generations to come, Warren told a crowd of supporters at the Bears current home, 100-year-old Soldier Field.

“It’s time for us to do something special together,” he said.

The team proposed spending $2 billion for the stadium, plus $300 million from the NFL and $900 million to be borrowed by the state and paid back with the city’s existing 2% hotel tax.

Mayor Brandon Johnson, who was on stage with Warren, gushed that the project would be the “crown jewel” to reinvigorate the city.

“This project will result in no new taxes on the residents of Chicago,” Johnson said.

But the mayor did not specify how the city would pay for $325 million in initial infrastructure costs to open the stadium, or $1.5 billion for an optional full build-out including a hotel.

Some political and civic leaders remained unconvinced by the presentation.

“I remain skeptical about this proposal, and I wonder whether it’s a good deal for the taxpayers,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference. “There are a lot of priorities that the state has, and I’m not sure that this is among the highest priorities for taxpayers.”

A skeptical Springfield awaits after Chicago Bears pitch stadium plan backed by mayor

Joe Ferguson, president of the fiscal watchdog the Civic Federation, said the presentation raises the need for an independent analysis of the public costs and revenues. “It begs a lot of questions,” he said.

One key question is whether the hotel tax could pay the debt, since it has not been enough to pay current stadium construction debt. The other big question is where the city would get money for transportation and lakefront improvements.

The proposal would bail the city out of fast-approaching ballooning annual payments to pay off $429 million in principal owed from past renovations of Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, where the Chicago White Sox play. That money would be refinanced and paid off over 40 years, rather than the traditional 30-year repayment.

The Sox also have proposed building a new stadium in the South Loop with help from the state.

State Senate President Don Harmon previously told the teams to work together on a joint proposal for funding, but the Bears proposal appears to leave little money for the Sox.

While the mayor ruled out using the amusement tax for the Sox, sports consultant Marc Ganis said it’s likely the projects would need an additional source of revenue like the amusement tax or proceeds from increased property values from the Bears stadium project.

“That doesn’t even account for the infrastructure costs,” Ganis noted. “The two teams competing for the same source — hard to see how that gets approved.”

Reaction elsewhere ranged from ecstatic to grim.

Some northwest suburban lawmakers who’ve previously pushed for measures in Springfield to help the Bears’ move to Arlington Heights had mixed reactions.

State Rep. Marty Moylan, a Democrat from Des Plaines, called the plan “new and exciting” and thinks the team “checked a lot of the boxes,” and was encouraged about the team’s intention to not force tax increases with its proposal. Despite Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s sentiments that passing any legislation related to the plan this spring would be a tall order, Moylan said he’s still “all for the project” in Chicago and said Arlington Heights let a stadium deal there slip through the cracks.

“I think the speaker and the Senate president are probably right then,” state Rep. Mark Walker, a Democrat from Arlington Heights, said. “There’s just not time to get it done this spring.”

The design by Manica Architecture would have a “cozy” seating capacity similar to Soldier Field but with standing room could reach near 65,000, and 77,000 for basketball. It could attract the Super Bowl, Final Four college basketball playoffs, and residencies from major concert artists, Warren said. There are no current plans for a sports betting operation.

The proposal calls for demolishing Soldier Field, but keeping its colonnades and horseshoe end zone seating. It includes 14 acres of athletic fields and park space, much of it on the old football field, that could be used for local youth sports, farmers markets, classes and graduations.

Warren said the plan actually increases open space along the lake, and makes it much more usable.

Much of the initial infrastructure work would improve access to and from DuSable Lake Shore Drive, including moving the 18th Street ramp to 19th Street, eliminating the light at McFetridge Drive, and reducing auto and pedestrian conflicts by putting them on different levels. This would increase lane capacity by 50% to the site, the Bears said, with a 20-minute reduction in exit times.

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But Friends of the Parks, a not-for-profit group that advocates for the city’s Lakefront Protection ordinance, which limits the lakefront to public use, criticized the stadium plan as rushed and not transparent, comparing it in a statement to other faltering mega-developments like The 78 and Lincoln Yards.

“Chicago has a long history of closed-door planning and rushed decision-making that does not end well for taxpayers,” the group stated.

The stadium would be owned by the Chicago Park District, the team said.

Karen Murphy, the team’s executive vice president of stadium development and chief operating officer, called the project one of the biggest private investments into a public facility in Illinois history. All of the team’s investment would pay for 72% of the stadium itself, with a Chicago hotel tax helping fund the rest plus all the infrastructure costs.

The project would require an increase in bonding by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.

The team rejected a moveable roof because it would cost a couple of hundred million dollars more and they’re trying to be fiscally responsible, Warren said.

A diversity, equity and inclusion program would allow women- and minority-owned businesses and people of color an opportunity to work on and with the project.

There will be a project labor agreement and a stadium oversight committee to keep the project accountable, Warren said.

As the Chicago Bears prepare to unveil their vision for a new downtown stadium, projects in other NFL cities could prove instructive

The team has taken a long, strange trip to get to this point. In 2021, officials agreed to buy the former Arlington International Racecourse for $197 million, closing on the deal last year. Under prior President and CEO Ted Phillips, the team made an elaborate presentation of its plans for a $5 billion mixed-used development on the 326-acre site, with an enclosed stadium, housing and entertainment.

But since Warren became team president and CEO last year, the team has been unable to reach an agreement over property taxes with local schools in the Arlington Heights area.

As the Minnesota Vikings did when Warren was an executive with that team, the Bears reversed course from a suburban stadium site to downtown. Warren has extolled the beauty and energy of the city, talked of his rapport with Mayor Johnson, and has said the lakefront is the “ideal location.”

“Absolutely we can build something that would be magnificent downtown,” he said.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said that while the Bears’ announcement was “not unexpected,” he didn’t think the proposal accomplished the goals the team laid out when it first announced plans to purchase the former racecourse in 2021.

“We believe that Arlington Heights is still their best option,” he said. “We don’t have a lakefront but we have everything else.”

He said the village would wait for the organization to do its “due diligence” on its lakefront options. A long-promised village analysis of the team’s pitch for the Arlington Heights property was difficult to begin without a more detailed proposal for the site, he said.

The team wouldn’t necessarily have to move right away, with a lease at Soldier Field through 2033. But Warren has talked about the importance of momentum in getting the stadium project done. State lawmakers are scheduled to meet until May 24, then have a veto session in the fall, and a brief lame-duck session in the new year.

Pioneer Press’ Rhonda Gillespie contributed.