SOLDIER FIELD — Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday unveiled her plan to build a dome over Soldier Field, an ambitious counteroffer to try to keep the Chicago Bears on the lakefront and away from northwest suburban Arlington Heights.
The $2.2 billion dome proposal is one of three options to improve the stadium as part of a grand plan to overhaul the lakefront’s Museum Campus. The other options would make the stadium “dome ready” for future construction or, if the Bears bolt for the suburbs, modernize it without a dome to make a stadium better suited for the Chicago Fire.
Lightfoot said she talked with Bears Chairman George McCaskey about the dome proposal two weeks ago but did not reveal his reaction. She said “discussions are ongoing” with the Bears and the NFL — and she believes the team will take the dome proposal seriously.
“It would be foolish not to,” the mayor said.
And if they leave town, Lightfoot didn’t rule out trying to lure another NFL team to Chicago. Asked if the city would build a dome for another team, Lightfoot smiled slightly and said, “I can see that as an option, yes. Plenty of cities that have two NFL teams.”
If the dome is chosen, it would extensively modernize the facility, enclosing the field to make it available year-round. The dome would sit on four “super columns” built around the existing structure, making it climate controlled.
The dome project would boost capacity from the current NFL low of 61,500 to 70,000. It would add seven additional suites for a total of 140, six new clubs and four times as much space for food and beverage sales.
“An improved Soldier Field will deliver a world-class visitor experience,” Lightfoot said. “Furthermore, any of these proposed renovations will allow Soldier Field to retain its role as an economic engine for Chicago for years to come, as these changes will allow us to keep bringing sports, music and other exciting events to our city.”
The dome project is designed by Robert Dunn, known for developing the stadiums for NFL teams like the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and others. He’s also president of Landmark Development, the group behind the potentially $20 billion One Central development proposed to soar over the train tracks just west of Soldier Field.
During a press conference Monday, he described how he would build a stadium around the existing Soldier Field, which was overhauled in 2002. But the Bears are just tenants in the stadium, which is owned by the Chicago Park District, meaning they pay rent and share revenue with the city. A suburban complex would give Bears control over revenue and allow them to boost capacity and attract year-round events.
Lightfoot has been adamant that she will “do anything” to keep the Bears in Chicago, previously saying the city would make “an extraordinarily compelling economic case” for the team to remain at Soldier Field.
Lightfoot and her deputies did not detail how they plan to finance a dome, but did say it could involve NFL financing, naming rights revenue and debt. Lightfoot said “of course” taxpayer money would be involved.
City officials plan to conduct an economic impact study over the next couple of months, complete with a detailed financing plan for the three proposals, Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar said.
“It’s premature to lay out all the detailed financing plans today, but that work is ahead of us and all options are on the table,” Mayekar said.
Lightfoot did not specify when the study would be completed but said the city will launch it “soon.”
Dunn said the dome project will be a far cheaper alternative for the Bears than packing up and heading to Arlington Heights, where they would build a domed stadium at the former Arlington Park. The Bears have a deal in place to buy the former racetrack’s property but have not yet closed the deal.
Bears officials said Monday they aren’t interested in anything but their impending stadium development in the suburbs.
“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,” Bears spokesman Scott Hagel said in an email. “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.”
But city officials are prepared for rejection with two other proposals, including one that calls for improving the facility for other major tenants such as the Chicago Fire.
That specific proposal would outfit the field portion of the stadium specifically for professional soccer, raising the field 42 feet to create an “optimal sight line ” for the sport. The adjustment would also open up the field for community programming that would generate new visits to the museum campus, Dunn said.
“Should the Bears choose to leave? Soldier Field will continue to be a premier multipurpose venue that is able to host an array of important and exciting events,” Dunn said.
But the city is still punching hard trying to market Soldier Field as the number one location for a professional football team.
“What does the city have to offer to a major tenant like a National Football League franchise … it is truly the most iconic location in this industry. That can’t be replicated. That cannot be repeated on any other site in this market,” Dunn said.
Earlier this month, the city revealed ambitious plans for the future of the Museum Campus that included pedestrian bridges, an ice rink and a possible entertainment venue next to Soldier Field.
The plan also included reconfiguring the Soldier Field’s seating plan and adding amenities for year-round use of the site. One of the changes included exploring naming rights sponsorships at Soldier Field — all while keeping the original name that honors its legacy as a war memorial.
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