SBJ/March 24-30, 2014/Wrigley Field at 100

Upgrades to carry Wrigley into next century

Ask Ernie Banks about Wrigley Field’s place in sports history, and the greatest living ex-Cub puts the ballpark on equal footing with the Seven Wonders of the World.

“It could be like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with the [outfield ivy] vines,” said Banks, who played 19 years at Wrigley as a Cubs shortstop and first baseman. “The upper deck could be the Pyramids. It’s many things; that’s what I’m talking about.”

Multiple generations of Cubs fans feel the same way that Mr. Cub does about the historic Chicago ballpark. But that reverence for Wrigley has also slowed the Cubs’ attempts to completely renovate the facility and, in turn, generate more revenue to improve their on-field product.

The model above shows the new office building for the Cubs in the foreground, as well as the planned landscaped plaza.
Photo by: Don Muret
Over the past 10 years, the Cubs have dealt with many roadblocks for upgrading Wrigley, including the city of Chicago’s approval of landmarking several parts of the ballpark, which prevented them from doing things such as installing more advertising signs in the outfield. The Cubs opposed the landmark status move “all the way to the end” until the city amended those restrictions last summer, allowing the team to put up more signs, said team President Crane

SBJ Podcast:
MLB writer Eric Fisher and facilities reporter Don Muret on Wrigley Field's first 100 years, what the park means to Chicago and what its future holds

Kenney.

“You can’t landmark a ballpark. They have to evolve. … If they don’t, they die,” Kenney said. “We want to run the ballpark as we see fit, and it’s important for us from a revenue perspective to be able to do everything we can to provide revenues on the baseball side that we need.”

Most recently, renovation plans have been disrupted by the Cubs’ fight against the rooftop owners behind the ballpark over new outfield signs that could block the views of rooftop patrons (see story, Page 21). The Cubs hope to resolve the conflict by April 4, Opening Day at Wrigley, and they’re poised to start a multiyear renovation that will top $300 million, according to team owner Tom Ricketts.

The Cubs are privately financing the improvements, as well as a $200 million hotel development on Clark Street across from Wrigley’s main gates. It’s a project the Cubs are developing with Starwood Hotels, the team’s first Legacy Partner tied to the ballpark renovation.

Inside the park over the past several years, the Cubs have rebuilt the bleachers, squeezed more premium seats between the dugouts and built the PNC Club on the suite mezzanine level. Otherwise, the venue has remained largely untouched for years, with no significant adjustments.

That all changes over the next four to five years, when the Cubs add new clubs behind home plate and on the upper deck down the third base line, and a marquee restaurant in the team’s old administrative offices. In the upper deck, where 25 percent of the park’s seats are situated, the Cubs want to add more food and drink stands to provide more choices so fans don’t have to walk downstairs to get what they need. Out in the bleachers, the Cubs will build two fan decks in center field, install a 6,000-square-foot video replay board in left field, and expand the Budweiser Patio space in right field.

Wrigley Field stands out as the last major league sports facility without a replay board.

“I helped design [the board] and I think it will integrate well with the stadium,” said Carl Rice, the team’s vice president of stadium operations. “There are still going to be traditionalists who say we’ve ruined the ballpark experience, but I think it will be a good addition.”

Those traditionalists can at least rest easy knowing there will be no Kiss Cam and “Cheer louder” messages. “That stuff’s not going to happen,” said Kenney, noting that the Cubs have different intentions for the addition. “Our archives are vast, but the ability to use them without a video board is limited.”

Wrigley Field’s manually operated scoreboard, one of the park’s iconic features, will remain intact. The Cubs have a plan to install an elevator inside the structure to give fans a special experience.

“We’re thinking of taking them up into a glassed-in area to see what’s going on for five minutes, get a picture, and come back down,” Rice said.

The main grandstand itself provides some of the best views in baseball, overlooking the city and Lake Michigan. It will be left alone, a legacy left behind by Zachary Taylor Davis, the Chicago architect who designed Wrigley Field.

“Genius laid that out in 1914, and we’re still taking advantage of it,” Ricketts said. “The key thing with the renovation is we’re not going to fix what isn’t broken.”

But there are plenty of basic things apart from the seating bowl in desperate need of upgrades, including wider concourses, better concession stands and remodeled restrooms. Both points of sale for concessions and the number of washroom fixtures will increase by 40 percent after the renovation is completed, Ricketts said.

“It was pretty universal that the experience from your seat is spectacular,” Kenney said. “If you’re sitting in Wrigley and you don’t need to go to the restroom and you don’t need to buy your daughter her first Cubs hat and you don’t need to buy a concession item, don’t need to park your car, life’s pretty good. But all those other things don’t work.
They pull you away from the game. The goal here is [watching] more baseball: You want to spend as much time in your seat as you can and get value for your ticket price.”

A big piece of the project revolves around digging beneath the stadium to develop a 40,000-square-foot service level for Cubs stadium operations and Levy Restaurants, its food and retail provider. Wrigley Field lacks the support space newer ballparks take for granted. Creating a new basement at the park will make it much easier for Levy to expand its food preparation to improve the fan experience by offering fresher items and greater variety.

On the retail side, a much larger, 5,000-square-foot team store is planned near Gate D in the park’s right-field corner. To date, size restrictions limit Wrigley retail to a total of 2,000 square feet. As a result, the Cubs, have “always been at the bottom” of MLB for retail items sold at the ballpark, Ricketts said, despite the team ranking as one of the top clubs overall in licensed merchandise sales.

“We lose all of our potential revenue streams in merchandise to stores across the street … one more place where the inefficiencies of our old park cost us money,” he said.

Some early construction work is expected to start this year on the ballpark’s foundation to get ready for the first phase of improvements, which would start after the 2014 season, pending resolution with the rooftop owners, Rice said.

Some dramatic changes will occur outside the ballpark as well, in a triangle-shaped parcel of land along Clark Street that once held a car wash and a doughnut shop and a portion of which is still used for player parking. The blueprints call for designing a landscaped plaza to be used year-round by the Wrigleyville neighborhood for movie nights, small concerts and farmers markets. The Cubs’ vision is for that space to become a town square for those residents, something it currently lacks, Kenney said.

“When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they got off the plane and came to Wrigleyville,” he said. “They didn’t go to United Center, didn’t go to Daley Center [in downtown Chicago]. Wrigleyville is where the city goes to celebrate.

“But if you live here long enough, this jumps out at you — what it’s missing,” Kenney said. “In the plaza, you’ll be able to carve a pumpkin at Halloween, Easter egg hunt in the spring, light a Christmas tree in the winter. It will be an open public space.”

All told, the upgrades inside and outside the ballpark will go a long way toward preserving Wrigley Field for future generations to enjoy, said Cubs historian Ed Hartig, a writer for Vine Line, the team’s official fan magazine.

“I love history and I know if you want to go see where Babe Ruth played in New York, you’re looking at a parking lot,” Hartig said. “You can come to Wrigley and see where Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Gabby Hartnett, Hack Wilson, Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus played.”

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Wrigley Field at 100, Facilities

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