CHICAGO – Wrigley Field took a step in the direction of every major league baseball park in the country Thursday when a city commission unanimously approved a major expansion of planned renovations including several more electronic signs and erecting a Jumbotron in the iconic home of the Chicago Cubs.
After more than a dozen people spoke on behalf of long suffering Cubs fans – discussing the neighborhood, the rooftop venues across the street and even birds that fly over the famous ballpark – the city's landmarks commission agreed without any debate to a renovation project that is dramatically bigger than a $500 million plan approved last year.
Besides the Jumbotron above the ivy-covered outfield leftfield wall and another electronic sign above the right field wall that it already approved, the commission agreed to the Cubs request to add five more electronic signs, expand the bleachers, erect outfield light standards and build bullpens beneath the bleachers. Expansion of the bleachers could begin as soon as the baseball season is over, the team said.
If the city council gives final approval to the Wrigley makeover, the century-old ballpark packed into an urban neighborhood could have a more modern look, much to the dismay of the owners of buildings across the street, who fear the signs will block the view of fans who watch the games from rooftops.
The rooftop owners all but promised a lawsuit if the Cubs go ahead with the expanded renovation.
"If it looks like it violates our contract, we'll have to take action accordingly," said Ryan McLaughlin, a spokesman for the rooftop owners.
But the team apparently has run out of patience.
"We cannot wait any longer," said Crane Kenney, the Cubs president of business operations.
Cubs' owners have said the renovations are essential to bringing in more revenue for the team, which hasn't won a World Series since 1908, the longest losing drought in Major League Baseball.
The Cubs' ownership on Thursday did not sound like they were willing to entertain the solution put forth recently by the rooftop owners, who pay the team a chunk of their revenues under a 20-year agreement. The rooftop owners want the team to limit the number of signs to two and forget about the other five.
"We got approval for seven signs," Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, said after the nearly four-hour meeting. The Ricketts family, whose scion Joe Ricketts founded the online brokerage company Ameritrade, bought the Cubs in 2009 and has been sparring with the rooftop owners since.
The commission was required to vote on the project because Wrigley is a landmark. The issue now goes to the City Council for final approval. The councilman for the neighborhood including Wrigley voiced his opposition to the commission even voting on the project, saying neither he nor the community had been given a chance to express their concerns.
"What we're doing today is not fair," Alderman Tom Tunney told the commission. "You know it."
But while other members of the council often defer to the wishes of the local representative, they also are known to do what Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants. He has touted the renovation as creating jobs and bringing revenue to the city.
The commission vote may have moved the renovation closer to reality, but one thing is clear: Nobody is touching the ivy. That issue was settled weeks ago when the Cubs retreated from a proposal to tear out several feet of ivy to accommodate the bullpens.
When the ivy climbs one of the most famous brick walls in the United States it is, in itself, a protected landmark.