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Commentary: The fine print on Soldier Field
Everybody knows the sinking feeling you get after you shake hands on a deal, then realize you've been snookered. It might happen at a used car lot.
And now, as Chicagoans may be coming to realize, it can also happen when your mayor signs off on a massive public subsidy to rebuild a stadium on the city's precious lakefront.
I'm talking, of course, about the city's $632 million plan to renovate Soldier Field, which, we know now, is being backed by one of the largest government handouts in the history of professional sports.
On Sunday, Tribune reporters Andrew Martin, Liam Ford and Laurie Cohen revealed that fact while also documenting the shrinking public benefits and soaring public costs of this misguided exercise in urban planning.
For example, there will be less usable parkland than Daley promised. In addition, taxpayers may have to reimburse the Chicago Park District $900,000 because, according to an internal Park District analysis, the agency will make that much less in profit from operating the new stadium in its first full year. (The Park District now disputes its own document.)
Above all, in every other case of public support for a football stadium (save one -- in Jacksonville), the question was put before taxpayers in a referendum. Not here.
The deal has brought a court challenge from Friends of the Parks and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, which assert that it is illegal to use public money to benefit a private company -- namely, the Chicago Bears professional football team.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Madden is scheduled to hear the case on Thursday and could issue a ruling soon afterward.
When Daley announced the stadium renovation plan in November of 2000, he dangled a major public benefit before Chicagoans' eyes: a new swath of parkland that would erase a longtime lakefront eyesore, roughly 5,000 surface parking spaces around Soldier Field.
All this green space, promised then-Chicago Park District President Michael Scott, would transform Soldier Field from a stadium in a parking lot to "a stadium in a park."
But in reality, as the Tribune reporters revealed, the Soldier Field project is creating only about 10 acres of usable parkland, not the 19 acres that officials had at first claimed. These officials, it turned out, were counting landscaped median strips as well as berms alongside the new parking garage as part of the acreage.
That's a significant loss of usable public space -- the equivalent of nearly seven football fields.
It's space where you can't picnic, can't play Frisbee or touch football, and can't even have a cookout, unless you like to have your burgers and hot dogs scented with a little car exhaust.
It's like buying a house with what's advertised as a big front yard -- only to learn after you sign the contract that you can only use half the yard.
Not surprisingly, since Daley often seems to care more about how public space looks than how it is used, the mayor brushed off this loss of usable space when a Tribune reporter asked him about it on Saturday.
So, given the mayor finds it acceptable to count landscaped medians as "parkland," let me humbly suggest we all honor him by naming the many landscaped medians he has built around the city in his honor.
I know the "Richard M. Daley Ashland Avenue Median Strip" may sound clumsy, but why not attach the mayor's name to one of those skinny "parks"?
If nothing else, it would serve as a reminder that public officials have a tendency to stretch the truth when they're shilling for subsidies that benefit the corporate elite.
As for those benefits, they are big and getting bigger.
The public share of the stadium project, which is being backed by city hotel taxes, was originally not to exceed $406 million. But as the Tribune showed, another $26 million is hidden in bond documents, bringing the total public subsidy for Mike McCaskey and the other Bears owners to $432 million.
Add the total project cost of $632 million to the $370 million (or more) that's going for the mayor's over-budget, behind-schedule Millennium Park, and you have two lakefront projects that are sucking up more than $1 billion in public and private funds.
To put that expenditure in perspective, it is happening while Daley tells city union workers that they must consider unpaid furloughs if they want to avoid layoffs and help officials solve a looming $25 million budget gap.
Meanwhile, other pressing lakefront needs -- new pedestrian bridges that would connect neighborhoods like North Kenwood to the south lakefront's Burnham Park, for example -- continue to go unmet.
Only the courts, of course, can determine whether the Soldier Field deal is legal or not.
But does it make sense?
Only if you think you're never going to get a bad deal at a used car lot.