'Luckily, we have the memories': Arlington Park grandstand no more, as Bears future there remains uncertain

From her seat on the Metra train these past four months, Alyssa Ali Murphy has watched as demolition crews slowly picked apart the place where she's spent most of her life.

She started coming to the Arlington Park backstretch - likely, as young as a baby - with her dad, a racehorse trainer. She helped him hot walk thoroughbreds as a teenager, later took an internship in the TV department, became an on-air horse racing reporter, and eventually the racetrack's director of marketing.

"I got married there. We had my son's baptism party there. Any milestone in my life you could think of was somehow tied back to Arlington," said Murphy, who was appointed in February to the Illinois Racing Board, a panel that oversees the horse racing industry.

Much of the bricks and mortar where memories were made for Murphy, other racetrack employees and patrons now is gone.

That includes Dick Duchossois' regal six-story grandstand with cantilevered roof that towered above the west side of Arlington Heights since 1989. The final support beams were taken down Tuesday afternoon - two years and one day after the last horse race at the storied local oval.

"It's been really hard to look out the window and see the changes on the ground," said Murphy, who now commutes from her Trout Valley home to a job downtown as director of marketing for @properties. "Luckily, we have the memories and we have the pictures. We have all of the good feelings inside all of us. But it is very hard to see the actual physical building grandstand that I spent all of my time working in personally be destroyed."

Officials with the Chicago Bears - the new property owner that has proposed a $5 billion redevelopment of the 326-acre site - say the demolition of structures that began May 30 remains on schedule, to be completed by year end.

The only buildings that remain are the old paddock, two-story buildings on either side of it that still contain utilities, and scoreboards on the racetrack infield. The synthetic racing surface has been left intact, with an eye toward repurposing the material at other racetracks across the country, Bears officials said.

The clock towers and east and west entrances were among the first to go, and most of the barns and dorms where backstretch workers lived met the wrecking ball in recent weeks.

The Bears say they're following village requirements to plant grass in some areas.

The club confirmed its demolition contractor, St. Charles-based Alpine Demolition Services, recovered a "small" number of bricks from the grandstand and donated them to the village, but most weren't salvageable.

Village officials originally planned to make about 1,000 bricks available to the public as mementos, but where and how those relics will be distributed hasn't been announced.

The public works department refinished benches that were on the racetrack apron along the rail, and placed them in the village senior center patio at 1801 W. Central Road. Other memorabilia donated by previous owner Churchill Downs Inc., as well as other items received from the Bears at various stages of demolition, are in storage and will be cataloged in the next couple of months, said village spokeswoman Avis Meade.

The Bears' building teardowns were prompted by a desire for tax savings amid Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi's higher assessed valuation of the property, and the resulting dispute over the NFL franchise's tax bill to three area school districts.

Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren said demolition of the buildings would "reduce our operating cost and lower the assessed value of the land so that we can realize a realistic property tax during the predevelopment period," according to a May 4 letter he sent to the school superintendents.

At the same time, the tax and assessment issues in Arlington Heights have led to renewed talks between Bears brass and the city of Chicago, and meetings with municipalities like Naperville and Aurora that have tossed their hats into the suburban stadium conversation.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said he doesn't believe the Bears have had discussions of "substance" with any of those towns.

"We're trying to get them to fully commit to Arlington Heights as the best option going forward for all the various obvious reasons that we've talked about for the past two and a half years," Hayes said. "I certainly understand their obligation to explore all options, but we do think that Arlington Heights is the best option, and we've told them that repeatedly."

Hayes said his sole focus now is to get the Bears to make a final decision and isn't yet considering a plan B for the property if the team doesn't come to town.

The team closed on its $197.2 million purchase of the sprawling site in February.

When asked about the organization's commitment to Arlington Heights, a Bears spokesman referred back to Warren's Sept. 13 statement noting continued dialogue with officials in Arlington Heights and other suburban locations, and "positive and productive" discussions with Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. Warren also announced a pullback of lobbying for legislation this fall that would give the team a massive long-term property tax break for a new stadium.

"Our process to find the best stadium solution for our franchise, our fans and the region continues to be methodical and intentional," Warren wrote.

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Images: Arlington Park grandstand demolition from June to September, 2023.

  What once was a regal six-story grandstand now is a pile of rubble at Arlington Park, where the Chicago Bears have proposed a $5 billion redevelopment anchored by a new stadium. Paul Valade/
  Most all of the barns and dorms have been demolished on the Arlington Park backstretch. Racing thoroughbreds moved out after the last race two years ago. Paul Valade/
  Only a few buildings remain at Arlington Park, where the Chicago Bears are clearing the site to realize a property tax savings and possible redevelopment as a stadium campus. John Starks/
  Crews from Alpine Demolition Services were still at Arlington Park Wednesday to process materials after the final support structures of the old grandstand were taken down Tuesday. Paul Valade/
  Demolition crews took down the final support beams of the Arlington Park grandstand on Tuesday, completing a process that started nearly four months before. Paul Valade/
The six-story grandstand at Arlington Park opened in 1989 - four years after a fire devastated the old one. Daily Herald File Photo, 1989
The sun set on Arlington Park after the final race on Sept. 25, 2021. It opened to horse racing fans in 1927. Daily Herald File Photo, 2021
Spectators spread out on blankets and filled the grandstand for the 1992 Arlington Million at Arlington Park. Daily Herald File Photo, 1992
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