Ricketts vs. rooftops: Cubs pushing to start Wrigley renovation

Ricketts vs. rooftops: Cubs pushing to start Wrigley renovation
January 18, 2014, 6:30 pm
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One year ago, they made a Cubs Convention splash, unveiling all those cool futuristic drawings of a Wrigley Field tricked out with party decks, luxury suites and a Jumbotron.

The Ricketts family changed the argument and promised to pay for all of it — if the city would just let them run their business and not treat the old ballpark like a museum.

But major construction hadn’t begun by the time Cubs executives returned on Saturday to the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. The threat of litigation from the rooftop owners has left that $500 million Wrigleyville project in a holding pattern.

After losing one offseason of building, chairman Tom Ricketts now says the five-year plan could be squeezed into a four-year window with hopes to green-light the renovation in 2014.

“We may have found a way to shorten that,” Ricketts said. “I think we can get it done in four now if we just switch some things around.”

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President of business operations Crane Kenney said the Cubs met with city officials and a bloc of rooftop owners last week, trying to resolve several issues. Kenney outlined the team’s demands — enforcing capacity limits at the rooftop clubs, protection against “ambush marketing” and a clear understanding of how the Cubs can expand the bleachers and put up advertising signage “without their interference.”

“We’d like them to not sue us,” Kenney said.

The stalled renovation is a key piece to the business/baseball plans that are supposed to lift the Cubs out of last place and make them relevant again. Now Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department is hoping that the new clubhouse and batting tunnels that were supposed to be ready by Opening Day 2014 will be built for the 2015 season.

“It’s just another one of the things that we basically inherited that we’re working to address,” Ricketts said. “All the rooftop owners — I do like them personally and the experience is unique and it does give Wrigley a little bit of charm.

“But (if) this is a private investment of hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, we just have to know in 2023 when we no longer have a contract (with the rooftop owners) that we can do anything we want to the park and do what’s right for the team and not have to worry about the people across the street.”

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Ricketts doesn’t see the Cubs buying up all those neighborhood properties, which in hindsight is something the Tribune Co. should have done years ago.

“We’ve talked about it a little bit with some of the guys, but there’s a whole bunch of different owners,” Ricketts said. “They all have different goals and different timelines. It’s just not as simple as that. They enjoy the lifestyle. They enjoy growing their business. It’s not like you can just write a check.”

In one PowerPoint presentation, Kenney portrayed the rooftops as a $20 million drag on the team’s business.

“It’s funny — I always tell this story when someone brings up the rooftops,” Ricketts said. “So you’re sitting in your living room watching, say, Showtime. All right, you’re watching ‘Homeland.’ You pay for that channel, and then you notice your neighbor looking through your window watching your television.

“And then you turn around, and they’re charging the other neighbors to sit in the yard and watch your television. So you get up to close the shades, and the city makes you open them. That’s basically what happened.”

Whenever the big renovation actually starts — and however long it takes — the Cubs have no plans to play on the South Side at U.S. Cellular Field or inside Milwaukee’s Miller Park.

“We studied all the options, and it became pretty clear to us that the best answer was to do it in consecutive offseasons,” Ricketts said. “Asking our fans to go watch Cubs baseball somewhere else just didn’t feel right anyway.”