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Bears stadium rendering

A rendering of the proposed new Bears stadium, with a deconstructed Soldier Field in the foreground. A site farther south — and close to the lake — is worth considering, according to Civic Federation President Joe Ferguson. It’s where Michael Reese Hospital once stood.

Courtesy of Chicago Bears

Bears stadium debate should shift south to Michael Reese site, Civic Federation president says

With the Bears’ hurry-up offense stalling in Springfield, Civic Federation President Joe Ferguson called Thursday for the political equivalent of a halftime adjustment.

He wants to switch from building a domed stadium on lakefront parkland to using the stadium project to jump-start development of a new Chicago neighborhood on the old Michael Reese Hospital site.

Bears President Kevin Warren has said the 48.6-acre Michael Reese site — acquired by the city for an Olympic Village that was never built — was one of “10 to 12” Chicago stadium sites the team considered before settling on the lakefront.

Warren said the Bears rejected it as “too narrow,” saying it “doesn’t work from an NFL standpoint” because the stadium would have to be built “over an active train line.” The marshaling yards for trucks serving McCormick Place also would have to be relocated, he said.

None of those impediments bother Ferguson, the city’s former inspector general.

“There are alternatives. And we’re not talking about the alternatives right now,” Ferguson told the Sun-Times.

The Reese site is “eligible for TIF funding to accommodate — not only the stadium, but the building of a whole new economic anchor point that is the gateway to the South Side,” Ferguson said.

“It could be done as an economic development project ... that includes a stadium that keeps the Bears in Chicago that involves far more creative, less taxpayer-burdensome funding sources,” he added. And in using the long-vacant Reese site, it “actually brings back online one of the most valuable pieces of urban property that, right now, is not performing at all from a tax perspective.”

Ferguson reflected on “how shocking” it was, on April 24, to see the Bears unveil what he called an “unfinished” plan to build a domed lakefront stadium with Mayor Brandon Johnson as lead blocker. Gov. J.B. Pritzker and legislative leaders were and still are on the other side of the line of scrimmage, opposing any public funding.

A few days later, the estimated price tag climbed higher — to $5.9 billion, when the full cost of financing the new stadium and retiring existing debt is factored in. That debt is for the 2003 rebuild of Soldier Field and renovations to Guaranteed Rate Field, where the White Sox play.

Yet another surprise was that in the new stadium, the Bears want a dramatically sweeter stadium lease with the Chicago Park District. Its current Soldier Field lease has been an almost constant source of contention over the years. In a new stadium, the Bears want to keep all revenue from concerts and other non-football events.

It was “a political misjudgment” not to have worked with Springfield on the plan, “when Springfield ultimately was needed. It looked to me like the whole thing was set up on the notion that a fastball could be thrown through the car wash without getting wet because we had people in City Hall that really could be rolled on this,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson acknowledged that Warren, a “very smart man,” was a driving force behind building the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis during his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings.

But Ferguson said, “Chicago is not Minnesota. This is not Lake Wobegon.”

Asked to comment on Ferguson’s suggestion, Bears’ spokesperson Tarrah Cooper said: “Our focus remains on the Museum Campus lakefront site.”

Scott Goodman, a principal of the Farpoint Development-led team that purchased the Michael Reese site from the city, declined to comment.

In early March, Friends of the Parks first suggested Reese as an alternative stadium site and a way to avoid the legal battle that prompted filmmaker George Lucas to abandon plans for a movie museum on the same lakefront site now eyed by the Bears.

Around the same time in early March, Goodman said he’d had no conversations with the Bears, but he maintained the site was wide enough to accommodate a football stadium.

If, as expected, the spring session of the Illinois General Assembly ends with no action on a Bears stadium, Ferguson said he knows what must happen next: an “independent, comparative economic analysis that is very transparent and objectively done” between a lakefront site he called “stadium-centric” and a Michael Reese site that could be so much more.

“What we need is an economic development and community-centric proposal that includes a stadium. That’s how we keep the Bears in Chicago in a way that allows for an upgraded stadium. That is also how we attend to our deep commitment to [keep] the lakefront clear and free,” Ferguson said, paraphrasing legendary planner Daniel Burnham.

What about Warren’s claims about the “active train line” on the Reese site?

“That’s what architects and planners are for,” Ferguson said.

“There was a railroad line in the middle of what we now relish … all year-round in Millennium Park,” he added. “Rich Daley figured it out. I’m thinking Kevin Warren can figure it out with people in Chicago, too.”

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