Denizens of Wrigley Field call it the “knothole:” the fenced open section along Sheffield Avenue where passersby can peek in from the sidewalk to watch a Cubs game. And if you listen to representatives from some of the neighborhood groups ringing the ballpark, that’s the only perspective they have of the ongoing talks aimed at renovating what the Cubs call “the friendly confines.”
“We don’t have a seat at the table,” said attorney Jill Peters, who as head of the Southport Neighbors Association represents the most vocal opposition to many of owner Tom Ricketts’ plans for the area around Clark and Addison. “I don’t really know what’s going on behind closed doors.”
Indeed, none of the neighborhood groups with a stake in the future of the ballpark are directly represented at conversations between the Cubs and the city of Chicago. Instead, their interests are being represented by 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney. Tunney attended a meeting of SNA members back on April 22nd to brief them on the latest plans for the area around the ballpark, and Lake View Citizens Council president (and West Lakeview Neighbors’ president) Will DeMille said his organization is in touch with Tunney or his office “a few times a week” on the issue. “These are very similar conversations that are held monthly throughout the city about business and entertainment issues,” he said.
The lack of a direct voice in the negotiations over night games, the seven-story hotel and retail complex planned for the current McDonald’s location across Clark Street from the ballpark, and other neighborhood issues also does not seem to concern Wrigleyville Neighbors president Bridget O’Rourke. That’s likely because her group is most supportive of the Cubs’ wish list. “We want to be a voice to let them know that there are residents who support what they want to do,” she said, adding that WN has had no direct discussions with Tunney or his office. “We would be happy to sit down with him,” she said.
But how much direct input is realistic for neighborhood groups to expect in a massive, multi-million dollar project like this? “It’s kind of hard to quantify, but I would say a decent amount,” says Tunney’s chief of staff Bennett Lawson. “We’ve run anything that requires an ordinance change or a (planned development) through the community.”
What’s being presented is causing some concern for both Peters’ and DeMille’s groups. Peters says the plan for that 91-foot-tall hotel and retail complex is “out of scale” for the one- and two-story buildings already on Clark Street, and raises concerns that other developers will build even taller buildings in response to the new arrival. DeMille points out that while the hotel proposal puts it at roughly the height of the ballpark, it will come up against residential areas west of Clark. “On Cubs game days, how are the cabs and traffic going to impact the people on Patterson and Racine?” he asked. “[Those are] some of the details the Cubs will get into as part of the proposed [planned development ordinance].”
O’Rourke said her group is unconcerned about the scale of the hotel and its impact on traffic in the area. “I don’t think it’s going to be out of place in the neighborhood,” she said. “In the off-season, it’ll be nice to have a place where [neighbors' families] can stay and not have to go downtown. It’s economic growth for the whole community.”
Up until now, the size of the development has been largely unknown, despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s insistence that the team and the city have worked out “a framework of an understanding.” Now that specifics and renditions are being made public, Lawson says Tunney and the Cubs are beginning to share those details with the park’s neighbors.
“There is a lot of detail that has to run through the community,” Lawson told Center Square Journal. “The Cubs are now doing presentations to all the community groups.” Work is also progressing on a comprehensive traffic study of the area that may inspire more changes when it is completed in the next month. Already, Peters called the Cubs’ offer for 500 additional remote parking spaces for fans a “positive step forward.”
But when Cubs executives get around to briefing the Southport Neighbors, they may want to prepare a charm offensive. SNA’s Jill Peters says the rapport and framework the team established with the group over years of Tribune Co. ownership “appears to be off the table.” She then went on to use phrases like “bad start” and “ill will” to describe the association’s initial contacts with the Cubs under Ricketts. “Can it be turned around? I hope so,” Peters continued. “They’re trying to backtrack.” DeMille said LVCC has a “healthy” relationship with the Cubs. “We’ve worked through issues. To me this is just another milestone with the relationship between the neighborhood and the Cubs.”
“I’m putting my good faith in the process,” Peters continued. “[Tunney] is doing a great job trying to represent our interests. I’m very hopeful that this community process will be more than symbolic. I hope that the mayor is listening.”
Of course, this is the same mayor who told City Hall reporters in March that the time had passed for negotiating on controversial plans to close dozens of Chicago public schools, even though hearings were still on the calendar and a Board of Education vote was five weeks away.
Does the city’s apparent process for school closings give Peters reason for concern about how Wrigley Field changes will be done? “Absolutely,” she said. “The mayor is putting pressure on us to compromise. He’s taking big risks by making so many demands on our community.”
And as Ricketts suggests the Cubs would consider moving out of its longtime home if it does not get additional electronic signs inside Wrigley Field, Peters has a veiled threat of her own when asked what might happen if the community’s concerns were dismissed: “Well, there was an Illinois Supreme Court case that held a community has rights with respect to night games.” She quickly added that it would be “premature” to discuss specific actions. DeMille said from LVCC’s standpoint, talks with the Cubs are “nowhere near” any kind of breaking point.
However, the neighbors are committed to making their voices heard, even if they are reduced to yelling through the “knothole” on Sheffield.