Prolific stadium builder Bob Dunn, advising the Lightfoot administration on how to fix Soldier Field to keep the Bears in Chicago, released detailed plans Sunday for transforming the isolated stadium into a year-round commercial and entertainment hub, served by a transit station that would underpin his goal of residential expansion on the Near South Side.
Dunn estimated that his proposal to dome Soldier Field, working within its existing footprint, would save the Bears at least $1 billion over the cost of building from the ground up in Arlington Heights, where the team has a contract to purchase land.
Dunn, president of Landmark Development, said the proposed new Soldier Field and surrounding activity would fatten city tax coffers while giving the Bears and the team’s fans a facility that would be among the tops for NFL teams.
His credentials include involvement in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and every stadium for the Bears’ rivals in the NFC North Division.
In an interview, he offered images that promise that Soldier Field’s design, which has been likened to a crashed spaceship, could become something thrilling.
“Having built a number of NFL stadiums, having built other sports venues … having built Lambeau Field, which is consistently ranked as one of the top buildings in all of sports by fans, taking that building and then transforming it to become what it’s become, there is not an opportunity in the sports industry in the United States, I would argue, that matches the opportunity here,” Dunn said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot brought in Dunn last July to help in her effort to keep the Bears in Chicago. He said he’s unpaid for the role, that he has developed the plans at Landmark Development’s expense. He timed the release of his plan to the Bears’ final game of the season.
He spells out his vision with a website, reimaginesoldierfield.com, that includes a video narrated by former TV news anchor Bill Kurtis.
Dunn said he hasn’t reviewed the plan with the Bears.
Team officials have they they are sticking to a contractual obligation and talking only with Arlington Heights officials about what they can build on the former site of Arlington Park racetrack. The Bears have a contract to buy the 326 acres for $197.2 million but could back out of the deal.
The Lightfoot administration has estimated that a Soldier Field redevelopment, dome and all, could cost $2.2 billion.
Dunn’s plan includes a glassy north wall he said could be opened depending on the weather. Stadium capacity could be in the “high-60s,” he said, compared with the current 61,500 seats.
City officials promised a feasibility study of public financing options last year but have provided no updates.
Funding would surely be controversial because of the likely hit on taxpayers and the amount still unpaid on debt from Soldier Field’s 2003 renovation. The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which handles the debt, said the amount owed is $631.5 million on notes due by 2032.
Dunn said the city’s $2.2 billion cost estimate was reasonable but that inflation and rising interest rates inevitably would affect the project. He wouldn’t discuss taxpayer funding.
He predicted that Arlington Heights would cost far more and deliver less for the team and taxpayers.
Soldier Field draws from a central area that gets 50 million visitors a year, with 100 million vehicles a year zipping by on Du Sable Lake Shore Drive.
“Those are Disney-like numbers,” Dunn said.
Arlington Heights, he said, might draw eight to 12 million annual visitors.
Dunn said the city and the Bears could strike new revenue-sharing deals covering parking, concessions, corporate sponsorships and other income sources.
“You have to have a different revenue mix,” he said. “It can be solved. It’s been solved in a lot of markets across the country.”
The Lightfoot administration responded to questions about Dunn’s plan with a written statement that offered no new details of public funding options.
“Mayor Lightfoot has been vocal about the need to reimagine the experience at Soldier Field,” the statement said. “The city still believes that Soldier Field is the best home for the Chicago Bears and continues to . . . explore the future of the stadium.”
With less than two months before the mayoral election, Dunn’s expanded presentation could be seen as a move to boost Lightfoot’s chances by showcasing her commitment to the lakefront asset. Dunn said his concern is planning, not politics.
“We have to have a vision here for the future of Soldier Field” whether the Bears move or not, he said. “I think any administration would look at this very favorably.”
Scott Hagel, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Bears, stuck with the tenor of the club’s recent statements about stadium matters, saying, “The only proposal we are exploring is in Arlington Heights.”
In Dunn’s outline, Soldier Field would keep its name and its tradition of honoring veterans, with a memorial to armed forces within the building. Its colonnades would stay in place, but the space around them would become active with shops and maybe a food hall.
His plan calls for a concert stage north of the arena near the Field Museum.
The dome would be supported by four columns added near the end zones, prime opportunities for corporate sponsors, Dunn said. Building into what’s now dead space around the stands, he said, would put an end to the current cramped concourses.
The project could take three to four years to complete, he said.
The proposal has two main assumptions.
One is that costs could be held down by using 70% of the existing stadium structure, including the seating bowls, which Dunn said provide an intimate view of games.
The other assumption is that he can change how fans get to Soldier Field. Most drive now, but Dunn said that, with a transit connection next to the stadium, 40% of the crowd could arrive by rail, comparing the game-day commuting patterns to Wrigley Field.
The transit hub is a clue to Dunn’s vested interest in helping Soldier Field. It’s a principal part of his plan for a megadevelopment of up to nine highrises built over Metra’s tracks west of the stadium. The plan is called One Central and, as previously sketched out, could cost $20 billion and include more than 9,000 residences.
One Central needs that transit station — seen as a junction for the CTA, Metra and Amtrak — to get people to the future buildings. But its cost is estimated at $6.5 billion. Dunn has promised to fund the construction, provided the state repays him from sales taxes resulting from the development.
Critics have called the public obligation risky. The state has ordered a feasibility study of the transit hub but reserved any decision for giving Dunn a go-ahead.
He still needs city zoning approval to build One Central, and his original plan has drawn fire from nearby residents and some politicians. Much of the opposition centers on density and access to the site.
Dunn said the plan could be downsized.
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve learned a lot, and I think we’ll be able to demonstrate that in what we learned, we made some very significant improvements in the plan.”