The Chicago Bears Have A Suburban Vision And Experts Say There's Enough Demand To Make It Happen
The Chicago Bears’ decision last week to sign a $197M purchase agreement for Arlington International Racecourse in northwest suburban Arlington Heights sets up the possibility of the city losing its storied football team. But before the Bears and racetrack owner Churchill Downs Inc. complete that deal, many questions will have to be answered.
Although neither the team nor Arlington Heights officials have spoken much about what will replace the historic racing palace, the Bears are likely to use the racetrack's 326 acres to foster a mixed-use development, and attempt to attract fans and customers year-round, even when games are not underway. Going in that direction will require massive private investment as well as buy-ins from developers and prospective tenants who believe in the site’s long-term potential.
But brokers and developers familiar with suburban Chicago say such a strategy could succeed. The demand for such a development likely exists, which would both help finance a new stadium and greatly inflate the team’s value.
“Any municipality would be drooling over something like this,” Colliers International principal Steve Kling said. “There are millions of people in suburban Cook, Kane and Lake counties, and that can drive demand for a megadevelopment. And the location is great; it’s near both I-90 and Route 53, and you’ve got a Metra commuter station right at Arlington Park.”
Much like the mixed-use developments that have arisen around other stadiums such as SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, jointly used by the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers, or the St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium, Kling and other experts say Arlington Heights could support new restaurants, retail, entertainment options, residences and office space.
The Bears-Churchill Downs transaction is far from a done deal and the parties said it could take until late 2022 or even early 2023 to finalize it.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last week she remains committed to negotiating with the Bears to reach an agreement that would keep professional football on the city’s lakefront. But the 2002 renovation of Soldier Field cost more than $600M, with taxpayers picking up more than $400M of the tab, and there’s little appetite for a budget-busting deal.
Developers say whatever concessions she could offer, whether it’s allowing the establishment of a sportsbook, selling naming rights, or improved concessions or seating, the benefits would still pale in comparison with the potential riches to be found in the suburbs.
Presiding over a new suburban development would make the Bears, which currently have a lease that runs through 2033 at Soldier Field, a regional player in commercial real estate. The team is already valued at about $4B, according to an analysis by Forbes, but owning a multibillion-dollar stadium, along with a massive mixed-use development, could boost the Bears up to the level of the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and New York Giants, suburban-based teams worth between $4.85B and $6.5B.
“The issues with Soldier Field are not dissimilar to the ones in other urban areas,” Glenstar Managing Principal Michael Klein said. It has limited parking, forcing fans to walk long distances, often in winter, is hemmed in by protected parkland, and it’s difficult to reach.
“It’s great that it’s on the lakefront, but unlike Wrigley Field and [the White Sox’s] Guaranteed Rate Field, you don’t have an El stop or other mass transit right there,” he added. “Is there anything creative that the city could come up with? That’s the hardest part.”
What makes the Arlington Heights site especially appealing is the sheer amount of land available, Tucker Development CEO Richard Tucker said. That gives the developer the flexibility to create a number of uses, which could then feed into one another. High-end residential development, for example, could draw in both retailers and office users who would see potential customers and employees.
“Time will tell, but I think some of these opportunities would be there in Arlington Heights even if they didn’t have a football stadium,” he said.
“I think it’s a very viable opportunity for a multitude of uses,” Baum Realty Group Managing Director and broker Doug Renner said. “This potentially could be one of the best developments that Chicagoland has seen in years.”
Tucker’s firm in 2012 developed a hotel next to Newark’s Prudential Center where the New Jersey Devils play, but the downtown location was tight, so there was little opportunity to do more, he added. Now, however, it’s about to break ground on its District 1860 in northwest suburban Lincolnwood, where it plans to replace the former Purple Hotel with 300 residences, an Amazon Fresh grocery store, restaurants and, perhaps, a hotel.
“We’re doing all that on 8.5 acres,” Tucker said. “And if you have more than 300 acres, that gives you the space to do so much more, and all of those uses will benefit all the others.”
Lightfoot's fight to keep the Bears at Soldier Field, the National Football League’s smallest stadium, means battling a strengthening trend, Klein said.
“If you look at where teams have gone over the past 10 to 15 years, many have migrated to the suburbs because that’s where land was available,” he said.
That includes the San Francisco 49ers, which in 2014 moved for the city’s Candlestick Park to the $1.2B Levi’s Stadium in suburban Santa Clara, and the Rams, which left the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the $5.5B SoFi, located next to Hollywood Park, a master-planned community with a casino, a retail district, a 6,000-seat arts venue, and office space for the NFL, currently being developed by Rams owner and Chairman Stan Kroenke.
St. Louis held onto the Cardinals, its major league baseball team, but Klein said that was partly because, unlike Chicago, the city had a vast amount of available land downtown around the Busch Stadium site. It was enough to create Ballpark Village, a dining and entertainment district that opened in 2014, as well as a residential tower, offices and other amenities.
“There is clearly a pattern,” Klein said, and potential investors in the Bears project will have noticed. “It’s going to be helpful that they won’t be pioneers.”
Any mixed-use project on the former racecourse site could also include a museum dedicated to Bears history and a relocated Halas Hall, the team’s training facility, now in north suburban Lake Forest.
“There is no reason you couldn’t move Halas Hall there, which will attract more people over the summer,” Klein said.
“Other teams have done it and done it well,” Savills Corporate Managing Director Jon Azulay said. “Whatever the Bears are planning for Arlington Heights, as long as it’s executed well, I do believe demand will follow, and people will want to be out there.”
But a lot of decisions lie ahead, he added. The Bears will need to conduct more market research, decide which uses make the most financial sense, choose one or several developers, as well as architects, clear the plans with municipal zoning and planning officials and decide how to finance it all. They will also have to explain how Illinois Route 53 and the Metra system will handle increased activity, especially the burst of fans during games.
“That’s the other really big piece,” Tucker said. “Not that it can’t be done, we just need to know what is the cost of doing it.”
Transportation experts are also concerned.
“It is hard to envision the Bears' move leading directly to commitments by public agencies to adding more lanes on our expressways,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.
“As a result, traffic headaches will likely follow," he added. "Metra may need an extra track at the Arlington Park station, since some games will be on weeknights, interfering with normal rush-hour trains. Fortunately, we would [have at] least a half-decade to work towards a solution.”