Chicago Tribune Op-ed: Soldier Field revamp hit taxpayers hard. So will the Obama Center.

“The president and CEO of the Chicago Bears, Ted Phillips, recently announced that his organization put in a bid to buy the Arlington International Racecourse. Why? Surely, to build a new stadium for the Chicago Bears to replace the outmoded facilities at Soldier Field, whose small capacity shrinks profits during the season and whose “domeless” configuration will never host any Super Bowls or similar events. So Phillips wants to maximize profits in greener pastures.

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot is rightly miffed that Phillips has a short memory. Twenty years ago, the city and state moved heaven and earth to plop a spaceship on top of Soldier Field, a World War I memorial built on public trust property. The new stadium contained lucrative skyboxes and expanded seating. Dark-of-night legislation with no hearings saddled hotels and restaurants with a hefty $600 million tax bill ultimately designed to provide hundreds of millions of revenue and value to the Bears. The revamp removed a once splendid edifice from the registry of national landmarks.

“We were two of the lawyers who sought to stop this one-sided transaction. Unfortunately, the courts deferred to the city and Chicago Park District without considering expert economic evidence that proved the one-sided financial deal. Stubbornly, the city and Park District ignored the detailed alternative plan by a prominent Chicago architect to construct a state-of-the-art domed stadium located near old Comiskey Park, complete with a retractable roof, all for a fraction of the cost of the transformation of Soldier Field. That plan would have allowed Soldier Field to remain an upgraded public facility, once again suitable for soccer, track and field, and outdoor concerts. But Chicago politics left that plan without takers, and now the city could well be left holding the bag.

“Unfortunately, history could repeat itself if the ill-conceived Obama Presidential Center is built in Jackson Park. Today we represent Protect Our Parks and six other plaintiffs determined to block the city and the Obama Foundation from building in Jackson Park. The construction would include a 235-foot tower at the water’s edge, along with an unneeded conference center, a redundant athletic facility, an ill-placed public library, and an expensive underground parking lot, all on 20 key acres in Jackson Park. This construction would close four roads, disrupt traffic, and impose critical environmental costs in Jackson Park and its environs.

“Given its awkward location, the OPC will never generate sufficient traffic to become economically viable. But left unanswered is this question: What happens if the foundation decides to walk away from its new project 20 years down the road when attendance is down and costs of operation are up. Under those circumstances, an overtaxed public will have to bear the high costs of either running or dismantling the entire operation. This potential calamity is a far bigger deal than the Soldier Field misadventure. Redoing Soldier Field was an aesthetic disaster and a short-term financial Band-Aid, but at least it generally stayed within its old footprint so that it did not disrupt Lake Shore Drive and its immediate environment.

“We can address this today. First, the plaintiffs’ effort to enforce compliance with the various applicable statutes dealing with environmental, historical and transportation issues should stop the foundation’s effort to deface Jackson Park. Secondly, an alternative site with good transportation connections lies just outside Washington Park at the corner of Garfield Boulevard and Martin Luther King Drive. The foundation can lease or buy that site without federal oversight, leaving everyone better off. Those options should be looked at, and looked at now. Otherwise, Jackson Park could suffer the same fate as Soldier Field, with taxpayers picking up the tab both now and later.” (Rachlis and Epstein, Chicago Tribune Op-Ed, 6/28/21)

Read the full Op-Ed at Chicago Tribune

Op-ed: Soldier Field revamp hit taxpayers hard. So will the Obama center, Michael Rachlis and Richard A. Epstein, Chicago Tribune Op-Ed, 6/28/21

The Storied (and Sometimes Strange) History of Soldier Field, Andrew Schneider, Curbed Chicago, 2/3/16

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