By Cheryl Kent
Special to the Tribune
10:25 AM EDT, April 22, 2013
Whoa. Just hold on. Anyone who has been a Cubs fan for more than one season should know something about skepticism. It's time to recall that training, friends. This proposal for Wrigley Field is neither a good deal nor a done one. The changes being proposed are indefinite, and there are no architectural plans offered yet.
Getting scant attention from either Tom Ricketts or Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the agency holding power over any changes to Wrigley Field.
Wrigley is a historic protected structure with its very own city ordinance saying what can and cannot be done to it. It got all that in 2004, five years before the Ricketts family bought the Cubs. That is to say Ricketts knew exactly what he was getting.
And while we agree that Wrigley is "not a museum," as Ricketts says, this proposal is no "restoration" either, as the city would have it.
Fortunately, just about any alteration to Wrigley has to be cleared by the Historic Preservation Division of Housing and Economic Development.
Happily, the staff there has more control and negotiating power with these protections in place than it did, say, with Prentice Hospital, which the mayor and his appointed wrecking crew (aka landmarks commissioners) ran by themselves.
What's protected at Wrigley? All four perimeter walls, the roofline, the exposed structural system, the "marquee" sign at Addison and Clark streets, the brick wall encircling the playing field (and that includes the ivy), the dugouts, the scoreboard and the "generally uninterrupted sweep and contour of the grandstand and bleachers."
In addition to all that, any new signage has to be OK'd before it can be added to Wrigley Field, making the proposed 6,000-square-foot video screen considerably less than the sure bet suggested by the city and the Ricketts family.
The purpose of architectural protection is to preserve and restore unique, valuable historic structures while accommodating contemporary functional demands for safety standards and modern systems like elevators. The trick is to find the balance between the two and to get the details right.
Wrigley is the finest intact baseball field in the country, representing the early 20th century's golden age of ballpark design. Only Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, is older than Wrigley Field. Wrigley is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get place. The slight asymmetry of the playing field came courtesy of the street grid surrounding it. And you don't have to be an engineer or architect to see how it works. Just stand at the corner of Addison and Clark and look at the 41/2-story open steel frame. It's all there, perfectly legible.
So far, the Preservation Division has demonstrated sympathy toward owners' needs. The park has been enlarged twice under its protective ordinance without damaging the park's integrity. The bleachers — which are protected — were enlarged so successfully that many who love Wrigley may not have noticed the expansion.
Under the protection ordinance, the Toyota sign got a pass.
Sophisticated preservationists get it. A historic structure like Wrigley has to be financially viable or it will not be maintained. No maintenance is just a slower means of destruction than the wrecking ball. Nobody wants that.
But so far, what can be pieced together from press releases, public statements and very sketchy renderings suggests Wrigley's protective ordinance is being tested rather than observed.
Were the plan suggested so far to be fully implemented, Wrigley would be fundamentally damaged to dubious purpose.
There's probably no problem with the proposed upgrades to the team facilities like batting tunnels and the clubhouse or locker room. These changes need to be fleshed out, but they appear to be tucked out of sight behind or beneath existing structure. Likewise, the renovation and modernization of the existing concourse could likely be approved as long as the expressed structure is respected. But these are impressions taken from undetailed sketches and renderings.
What about the "Jumbotron"? At 6,000 square feet it could measure 60-by-100, about three times bigger than the current center field scoreboard. So, if it were vertical, picture an eight- to 10-story building (100 feet tall) as wide as an articulated bus (60 feet long) sitting on top of the left-field bleachers.
The Rickettses are withholding a drawing presumably showing the scale of the video screen. It's impossible to admit such an animated monster and preserve the essential intimacy of Wrigley Field. It would overwhelm the park and dominate its views.
People at Cubs' games do not sit slack-jawed looking at video in between plays or innings. They talk to one another, they argue, they attend to their scorecards, they explain a bunt to a child, they sing and stand and stretch at the seventh inning. That's the point of going to a ballgame instead of watching it at home.
What does any of that have to do with historic architecture? Everything. Good architecture intentionally creates atmosphere. If it did not, more people would be making noise in church.
The proposal would also move the two protected perimeter walls along Waveland and Sheffield avenues back 10 feet. (The city would not be compensated for the sacrificed public space of sidewalks and parking lane.) The convoluted justification for this — No. 1 — assumes the "Jumbotron" and additional overscaled proposed signage will be allowed and — No. 2 — accommodates a dumb contract signed by the Cubs giving neighbors with rooftop seating unobstructed views of games. Supposedly, the moved walls would allow the rooftop viewers to see over the signs. Call it the "Peeping Tom" clause.
If there were no contract, nobody other than 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney would be paying any attention to the rooftop owners.
It's absurd to irrevocably alter a historic structure for a false assumption and a contract Cubs owners would be the first to wish away and that will expire one day.
The Ricketts family touts its largesse. It will cover the entire $300 million proposed renovation to Wrigley. Well, it should. Does the family imagine the Cubs would get the same attendance numbers in Rosemont?
The Rickettses neglect to mention the public contribution they would receive in the form of tax credits. In exchange for responsible historic renovation, the property tax bill on Wrigley could be cut to just 10 percent of its current rate for 10 years, according to the city's landmarks website.
Admission to the National Register of Historic Places for Wrigley that is being sought by the Ricketts would mean additional tax breaks at state and federal levels.
Taxpayers indirectly pick up a big part of the renovation.
That is all to the good. Those credits will not be given lightly, and the more architecture professionals there are at the table negotiating with the Rickettses, the better the renovation and more respectful it will be to Wrigley.
After the negotiations, the landmark commissioners will have their say — five of them sit on the permit review committee and the full commission gets to vote after them. Let's hope, with guidance, they turn in a better performance than they did with Prentice.
Cheryl Kent writes on architecture for the Tribune and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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