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Rooftop Owners Wary of Wrigley Facelift

Chicago — The Chicago Cubs have been fighting for years to get back to the World Series. They may have a fight on their hands to upgrade Wrigley Field, too.

The Cubs unveiled details yesterday of their $500 million plan to renovate the 99-year-old ballpark. It calls for more night games, a new hotel, a new clubhouse, extended beer sales, various upgrades for fans — and a massive electronic video screen that could spark a legal battle with rooftop owners who have a financial stake in being able to view the games from across the street.

The proposed 6,000-square-foot screen in left field is nearly three times as large as the venerable scoreboard currently atop the centerfield bleachers. Team chairman Tom Ricketts said “significant” advertising-related revenue from the video screen and a 1,000-square-foot sign in right field would be pumped back into the team.

“If this plan is approved, we will win the World Series for our city,” Ricketts of the Cubs, who have not won it all since 1908 and haven’t played in the series since 1945.

The Cubs say rooftop views would be “largely preserved” and that the sign and screen are “far less than our original desire for seven signs to help offset the cost of ballpark restoration.” Ricketts would not say what the team means when it says the signs would have “minimal impact” on the views from the rooftops. Nor would he discuss the likelihood of a lawsuit, saying only that “we will take that issue as it comes.”

The rub is that the rooftop owners have a contract with the Cubs in which they share revenue from the rooftop seats — an unusual arrangement, to be sure. The rooftop owners have 11 years remaining on the contract, and they showed no sign of endorsing the big new signs the Cubs want to put up.

“We have a contract with the Chicago Cubs, and we intend to see that it’s enforced,” said Beth Murphy, who owns rooftop bleachers and Murphy’s Bleachers, a popular tavern just beyond Wrigley’s centerfield wall. “We have fulfilled our end of the contract; we pay them 17 percent of our gross revenues every year.”

Murphy said the rooftop owners were shut out of negotiations between the city and the team. She said she couldn’t imagine how a 6,000-square-foot sign — slightly more than a tenth of an acre — could be installed without disrupting views from the rooftops.

Ricketts said the two sides have a ways to go, that the agreement must be approved by city planners and the City Council. But he said Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the alderman whose ward includes Wrigley Field, Tom Tunney, support the overall plan. The mayor’s office has, in fact, agreed the signs can be installed, but there has been no agreement on size or design.

Only Boston’s Fenway Park is older than Wrigley Field among major league parks. Baseball purists love its intimacy — the ivy-covered walls, the commitment to day games — but the team says it spends $15 million a year just to keep up with basic repairs and desperately wants new revenue to pay for new amenities. A better showplace could perhaps help the Cubs snap a World Series championship drought that dates to 1908, six years before Wrigley was built.

Under the plan, the number of night games could be increased from 30 to 40, and construction would include a 175-room hotel, an office building with retail space and health club, and 1,000 “remote” parking spots that would be free and come with shuttle service. Emanuel has hailed the “framework” agreement, noting that it includes no taxpayer funding.

If the deal wins approval from city officials, Ricketts said work could begin after this season ends and be completed over the next five years.

A final deal, when it comes, will end lengthy and sometimes contentious negotiations. The Ricketts family has been pushing for an overhaul of the aging ballpark and ways to bring in more money since buying the Cubs in 2009 for $845 million. Ricketts said the goal was always to keep the Cubs at Wrigley, where he met his future wife.