CHICAGO -- A panel appointed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recommended the city explore enclosing Soldier Field, part of an effort to convince the Chicago Bears to remain in their lakefront home rather than leave for the suburbs.
The panel also recommended expanding the capacity of the stadium with the fewest seats in the NFL, as well as installing synthetic turf and selling naming rights. Adding a roof or a dome might lure Super Bowls and Final Fours, as well as more concerts.
“Although enclosing Soldier Field would incur significant investment, further analysis is required to fully understand the specific costs, the potential direct and indirect economic impacts, and the full range of potential funding sources available to determine options that are respectful to Chicago taxpayers,” the panel said.
The group's work is part of a bigger proposal to transform a stretch of land that also includes the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and the McCormick Place lakefront building. It includes improved transportation and making the area more bike friendly.
The recommendations for Soldier Field could also be seen as an attempt by Lightfoot to deflect blame if the Bears leave.
The Bears took a step toward leaving Soldier Field in September 2021, when they signed a $197.2 million purchase and sale agreement (PSA) with Churchill Downs Inc. for the 326-acre Arlington Park property in suburban Arlington Heights after the track, which hosted thoroughbred racing since 1927, was put up for sale. The Arlington Park site is 30 miles northwest of Soldier Field.
“The only potential project the Chicago Bears are exploring for a new stadium development is Arlington Park,” the Bears said in a statement released Friday. “As part of our mutual agreement with the seller of that property, we are not pursuing alternative stadium deals or sites, including renovations to Soldier Field, while we are under contract. We have informed the City of Chicago that we intend to honor our contractual commitments as we continue our due diligence and predevelopment activities on the Arlington Heights property. In the meantime, we remain committed to fulfilling our Permit Operating Agreement (POA) at Soldier Field. To this end, we maintain a strong working relationship with Rosa Escareno, the new Chicago Park District General Superintendent, her staff, and the ASM Global management team.”
At the NFL owners meetings in March, Bears chairman George McCaskey reiterated the team is still in the initial phase of deciding how it will develop the land at Arlington Park.
Team president Ted Phillips has said that deal likely won't close until early 2023, at which point the organization will decide whether it’s “financially feasible to try to develop it further.”
The Bears' lease at Soldier Field -- their home since 1971 -- runs through 2033. The stadium, owned by the Chicago Park District, underwent a $690 million transformation in 2002 that forced the team to play home games at the University of Illinois in Champaign and ultimately led to the loss of its National Historic Landmark designation.
The interior was demolished, replaced by a flying saucer-like, glass-dominated structure cantilevered over the famous Greek and Romanesque colonnades. The clash of styles drew widespread criticism, and the renovation reduced seating for Bears games to 61,500, lowest in the NFL.
In March, McCaskey noted “tremendous attachment” to both Soldier Field and nearby Wrigley Field, where the Bears played for 50 years prior to their move to the lakefront.
Contributing: ESPN Bears reporter Courtney Cronin