As a nominal Cubs fan, I’m as interested as anyone in the outcome of the Ricketts family vs. the entire world saga that’s going on right now. The plan announced earlier this week to renovate and expand Wrigley Field was no surprise to anyone–big signs and scoreboards featuring plenty of ad space, some not-undesirable concourse improvements (save the troughs!) and the by now standard-issue historicist-lite satellite buildings (including a hotel on the site of a McDonalds that holds a dear place in the heart of everyone who went to Wrigley as a 12-year old and stopped for a burger and fries first). From an architectural point of view it’s all fairly predictable, not inspiring, probably smoothing out a few too many rough edges, but undoubtedly welcome to the team’s demographic.
The controversy now seems to revolve around an increased night game schedule, the scale of the hotel, and–inevitably–the fact that the signage will impinge on views from the neighborhood rooftops, a business venture that started as a fairly charming goof and is now so thoroughly corporatized that the rooftop seating comes with concession stands. Whether all of these might get ironed out or not is small beer, though, compared with the disastrous PR strategy being pursued by the Ricketts and the city, which seems to have been premised on shoving whatever the team asked for down the neighborhood’s throat. Ricketts has–again–threatened to move the team to a site in Rosemont–at the end of one of O’Hare’s busiest runways, which no one seems to have noticed–and what could have been a conversation about how the team and the neighborhood co-existed has become an all-out ground war.
What makes this interesting is that Wrigley is one of the shining–but unspoken–examples of how preservation can, in fact, be good for business. Tom Ricketts is quoted as saying “”All we really need is to be able to run our business like a business and not a museum,” a line that preservationists hear all the time. But Wrigley isn’t like a museum–it’s a bit like the 96th, the restaurant on top of the Hancock building. No one really goes to the 96th to get the best meal in town, they go for the view. And as long as I’ve been a fan, the ‘product’ the team has put on the field has been, with a few exceptional years, pretty terrible. But attendance at the ballpark hasn’t been–in fact, if you look at their W/L record side-by-side with their attendance figures, you can see that people go to Wrigley no matter how bad the team is. Last year? Their W/L record was barely a good batting average. Yet attendance was over 2,800,000. (Attendance last year at the Museum of Science and Industry? 1,500,000. Sounds like Wrigley’s outperforming other ‘museums’ pretty well).
Like the view from the 96th, one of the big appeals of going to a Cubs game is the park itself. They sell tickets to tour the park when the team isn’t even playing. A long-held conspiracy theory among Cubs fans is that the team has never felt the need to field a good ‘product,’ because people will come no matter what happens on the field, especially if the weather’s good. There is no urban sports experience left like the one at Wrigley or Fenway, where you can spend an afternoon in the sun watching baseball with pretty much the same view as someone three generations ago might have had. Add to that being in a real neighborhood, where you can walk across the street and enjoy a cold beverage in the company of a few (ahem) other fans to round out the afternoon? Never mind being able to walk or take the El and avoiding the drive home. That’s a huge draw whether the team is winning or losing.
The threat, currently, is that the team can build an ‘exact replica’ of Wrigley on the Rosemont site with hotels and parking that would be far more convenient for the suburban fan. True enough. But the ridicule that this suggestion has met so far illustrates just how much value can be associated with an historic building and its relationship to its neighborhood. I would bet almost anything against the team moving, because the Cubs would lose the single most important piece of their business plan–a beloved, reasonably efficient building that relates to its neighborhood, offers easy pedestrian and mass transit access, and a real connection to history.
The Red Sox went through a similar crisis twenty years ago, with an owner who claimed that the antiquated and cramped Fenway Park prevented the team from maximizing its profit potential. Plans for a ‘replica’ park across the street, or alongside the Patriots’ stadium in Foxboro, all came to naught. In part that was due to public opinion, but it was also due to a city government that refused to buckle to the team’s threat to leave the city. Ultimately the bluff was called, ownership changed, and Fenway underwent $285 million of renovations, some of them controversial, others roundly welcomed (oh, and did I mention that the Sox finally won the World Series…twice). While some of the new stuff at Fenway seems a bit over-sponsored and corporate, ultimately the park feels more or less like it did twenty or thirty years ago. Hope Wrigley goes the same route, because its loss would be an unthinkable one for both baseball and for the city.