While driving back from a family camping trip in Colorado this past August, my family and I spent the night in Omaha, Nebraska. Pulling into the city later than expected (travelling with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old lends itself to certain unforeseen delays), we stopped at Anthony’s Steakhouse just off the interstate for a late dinner.
As we paid, my wife and I got to talking with our waitress about the taxes extensively broken out on the bill. She apologized for the amount of taxes but was excited about one of them - the tax that helped fund construction for the TD Ameritrade Park, home of the college baseball world series. From that baseball park, we started talking about the Cubs and the Ricketts family (owners of the Cubs who hail from Omaha and founded TD Ameritrade).
“The new ballpark here is a great thing,” the waitress said as she brought our credit card and receipt back. “It’s changing the neighborhood and the city for the better.”
My wife and I talked about that conversation on the second leg of our trip from Omaha back to Chicago. We both remarked that it is pretty amazing that it took a family from Omaha to renovate the Cubs in a way that no one from Chicago could for more than 100 years. Our family lives right by Wrigley, and my background is in real estate, land use, and zoning, so we have watched the development closely.
I published an article about the Wrigley Field construction back in September, 2014. I wrote then that the Cubs’ biggest long-term challenge is expanding a ballpark physically confined by an urban area. I recommended that the Cubs rethink the definition of “Wrigley Field” and encouraged the baseball organization to consider purchasing land around the ballpark, including the rooftop buildings, that could be incorporated into the ballpark operation. The only way to truly redevelop Wrigley Field would be to expand the physical footprint of what is “Wrigley Field”.
A year and a half later, it is good to see the Ricketts family purchasing the property adjacent to the ballpark (I would like to think that they did this on the advice of my earlier article). Since September, 2014, the Ricketts family purchased, or purchased a controlling interest in, nine of the 16 rooftop operations adjoining the ballpark’s outfield. The Ricketts also purchased the McDonalds property on the west side of Clark and the adjoining parking lot. These acquisitions added almost 960 rooftop seats to the Ricketts holdings for which the family recently started a website to sell tickets. The family also is renovating the areas immediately west and south of the ballpark.
Critics of the Ricketts and their ambitious plan to renovate the ballpark say that the team’s owners are destroying the charm of Wrigleyville. The critics charge that the renovations will turn the area into an expensive entertainment district, siphoning revenue away from nearby businesses and adding more traffic and noise. The plans for the sale of liquor around the park on non-game days are seen as an attempt to effectively turn the Wrigley Field area into a high-priced, year-round bar that happens to have baseball games roughly 4% of the time.
Despite the criticism, a reasonable land use analysis shows that the Cubs appear to be doing a fine job managing the complexities of sports, business, and land use law. From a land use perspective, the team appears to be doing virtually everything right.
Basic land use principles call for implementing the highest and best use for a property in a way that emphasizes high density, multi-use, walkable development. The team owners are investing $575 million into an area historically underutilized. The Wrigley Field development appears to satisfy these principles, and below is a brief breakdown to explain why:
• Highest and Best Use: Property generally should be used in a way that maximizes its use. This is especially true in urban areas where land is at a premium. The Wrigleyville area has never been used particularly well. Parking lots, open areas, game-oriented retail, and an overabundance of game-day bars have been the primary uses. Today’s visitors may not realize that the area had significant gang and crime problems not too long ago. If you compare the Wrigley development plans with the area around the Wellington el stop, just two stops south, it quickly becomes apparent that the Wrigley development is making a good use of the land.
• High Density: Land use planning favors high-density developments that create walkable neighborhoods and take advantage of public transportation. The goal is to create a neighborhood feel that is not dependent on cars. The entire Wrigley Field development is contained within virtually just one city block. The entire area is easily walkable from the Addison el stop and the nearby bus stops. The development promises vibrant, year-round entertainment and shopping densely contained in the existing footprint of the Wrigley Field area.
• Four Season, Multi-Use: The Wrigleyville area currently is highly-dependent on the baseball games. The bars and stores thrive during the 81 home game days, but the area is desolate and underutilized during the rest of the year. The stores and bars regularly change names and owners, showing that annual customer business is not strong enough to be sustainable. Beyond the bars and the memorabilia stores, there is not much in the area. The team’s proposal is to create a variety of year-round amenities that will create a more diverse and sustainable economic backbone to the area.
• Historical Ties: The Ricketts have done a good job of maintaining the historic feel of the ballpark, even with the installation of two electronic scoreboards. This is due in part to the requirements for receiving government historic tax credits, but it also shows a respect for the history and feel of the ballpark.
The Wrigley Field development is not perfect, but it is better than most alternatives. If you compare it to the sprawl of the University of Phoenix stadium outside of Phoenix, the difference between the car-dependent Phoenix stadium and the walkable nature of Wrigley quickly becomes apparent. The respect and care the Cubs owners have taken to maintain the historic feel of the park also are very apparent when compared to the Soldier Field renovation, which resulted in the football stadium losing its landmark status. One also needs to keep in mind that the Ricketts are paying for this primarily out of their own pocket. The Cubs are not getting a sweetheart ballpark deal from the State of Illinois like the owners of the White Sox did.
For a non-local family from Omaha, the Ricketts appear to be doing a fine job implementing sound land use and urban planning practices in their Wrigley Field renovations. As seen in the new Rams football stadium plans, the Wrigley development may even be the model for future sports stadiums. The Wrigley renovations may pose an existential dilemma for the surrounding Lakeview area, but when the renovations are finally finished, it will be a good thing for the team and the neighborhood.
Now, if only they could do something about the cost of a beer in the park…