Parks group fears Bears entertainment district — once envisioned for Arlington Heights — coming to lakefront instead

A Chicago parks advocacy group expressed concern Tuesday the Bears may bring the entertainment district they envisioned for Arlington Heights to the Chicago lakefront instead.

Officials at Friends of the Parks, which successfully fended off filmmaker George Lucas’ attempt to build a museum on the lakefront in 2016, said they’re frustrated at the apparent urgency of the Bears’ new plan, which calls for a domed stadium south of Soldier Field on the doomed Lucas site. The latest plan disclosed by the NFL franchise Monday comes about a year after its purchase of the Arlington Park property, where the team earlier unveiled plans for a $5 billion mixed-use district.

“The Bears have repeatedly prioritized commercial development in conjunction with a new stadium — it’s part of what drove them to buy and raze land in Arlington Heights,” according to the nonprofit group’s statement released Tuesday afternoon. “Ted Phillips, former Bears president and CEO, spoke of transforming the 326 acres into a ‘wonderful 365-day-a-year entertainment district.’ What new entertainment district are they imagining for the lakefront?”

A Bears spokesman Tuesday referred back to the statement issued by new team President and CEO Kevin Warren on Monday, in which he said the club is committed to contributing more than $2 billion in private funds to build a stadium and improve open spaces in Chicago, but more details would be released when plans are finalized.

“The future stadium of the Chicago Bears will bring a transformative opportunity to our region — boosting the economy, creating jobs, facilitating mega events and generating millions in tax revenue,” Warren said.

During a meeting at John Hersey High School in September 2022, then team-President Phillips and Chairman George McCaskey revealed an artist’s renderings for a transit-oriented, mixed-use district at Arlington Park that could include restaurants, stores, offices, a hotel, a performance venue, a fitness center, townhouses and multifamily housing, parks and open spaces. That 206-acre parcel to the south and east would lead to a 120-acre stadium district to the north and west.

An artist's rendering shows the view from the proposed Chicago Bears stadium at Arlington Park, looking east onto a central green and mixed-use district, with downtown Chicago in the distance. Courtesy of the Chicago Bears

Friends of the Parks, which has fought to keep the Chicago lakefront “open, clear and free” from private development since the 1970s, said plans to build a new stadium on the Soldier Field south parking lot would require significant public investment and could “profoundly affect the literal and figurative landscape” of the city and its neighborhoods.

Instead, the group suggested the Bears consider alternative locations more suitable for development, like the old Michael Reese Hospital site just to the south in Bronzeville.

Friends of the Parks sued the city of Chicago and Chicago Park District in November 2014 over plans to construct the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art south of Soldier Field. They argued a privately-owned museum violated the public trust doctrine that favors the public welfare over private interests, and that construction of the museum east of Lake Shore Drive would have violated the city’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which ensures lakefront parks are devoted to public purposes.

Friends of the Parks blocked filmmaker George Lucas’ plans to build a museum on the south parking lot of Soldier Field in 2016. The same site is now being eyed by the Chicago Bears for a new stadium. Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

A federal judge refused to dismiss the case, and Lucas abandoned the Chicago museum and decided to build it instead in Los Angeles. The building is currently under construction next to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and slated to open in 2025.

The Friends said they don’t want the Bears to leave Chicago, and they look forward to speaking with team officials.

“We hope the Bears will show more vision and patience,” the parks group said. “Instead of picking up their ball and going home, we urge them to toss balls around with stakeholders to find a way to stay home in a location that preserves our open, clear and free lakefront and is a boon for neighborhood development.”

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