How could Arlington Park be redeveloped? Experts outline the options and challenges
While hopes of a legislative rescue of Arlington Park as a horse racing venue remain alive, last week's announcement that owner Churchill Downs Inc. would not seek the casino license long touted as the key to the track's survival has created speculation about redevelopment of the 336-acre Arlington Heights site.
Many factors determine a property's potential for repurposing, including size and location, said Larry Goldwasser, executive director of Cushman & Wakefield, the Chicago-based commercial real estate broker that recently sold Maywood Park racetrack in Melrose Park for redevelopment.
But one factor stands above the rest, he said.
"First and foremost is what the municipality wants to see there," Goldwasser said.
In this case, Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes isn't resigned to Arlington Park's demise.
Hayes said the village hasn't begun to draw up a fallback plan for the racetrack property in the event it closes.
"I'm not going to speculate now because I hope the racetrack is going to be here another 100 years," he said.
Nevertheless, it seems unlikely the village would let such a large and valuable property sit idle for long if Churchill Downs did pursue its already outlined option to move its racing license.
Similar repurposing has already taken place in the suburbs. After Motorola Solutions and AT&T moved out of their large corporate campuses in Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates respectively, officials in those villages soon began working with developers interested in building virtually self-contained communities on the land left behind.
Though Churchill Downs has committed to keeping Arlington Park open at least two more years and applying for a sports betting license, CEO Bill Carstanjen said current gambling tax rates in Illinois leave horse racing venues with casino gambling at a steep financial disadvantage to stand-alone casinos.
The company has expressed greater enthusiasm about expanding its Rivers Casino in Des Plaines and pursuing a license to operate a potential casino in Waukegan. Meanwhile, all options for Arlington Park, including moving its racing license elsewhere in the state, remain on the table, Carstanjen said.
Arlington Heights Planning & Community Development Director Charles Perkins said his village did explore other possibilities for the Arlington Park site after the devastating fire there in 1985, and during the voluntary closure of the rebuilt facility in 1998 and 1999. Those plans are irrelevant in today's changed market and not even a starting point to determining current options, he said.
Perkins agreed with Hayes that such planning is premature at the moment and the village's priority is staying on top of activity in Springfield that could keep Arlington Park as it is today.
"It's a world-class facility, one of a kind," Perkins said.
All he would say of any alternative future for the property is its high visibility and access to major roadways and an adjacent Metra station would be nothing but an asset.
The Maywood Park track Goldwasser's firm helped sell is being converted into 40 acres of industrial property and 15 acres of retail.
Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood, California, which was owned by Churchill Downs Inc. from 1999 to 2005, closed permanently in 2013 under later ownership. The site is being redeveloped as the Los Angeles Rams football team's new stadium, set to open next year.
But Goldwasser emphasized the former use of a site isn't of great importance in determining its redevelopment potential. Just because two properties had similar functions in the past doesn't mean their futures will be anything alike, he said.
Maywood Park, for instance, was of a significantly different size than Arlington Park and located in a more densely populated area closer to Chicago, Goldwasser said.
The immense size of the Arlington Park property -- six times the size of Maywood Park -- and its proximity to a Metra commuter station would seem to put it in the running for just about anything, he said.
"I think it's a definite benefit, but the most important thing is understanding what the demand is," Goldwasser said.
A newcomer's impression that a lot of office development could fit on the site is irrelevant if there's no demand in for new offices in the area, he said.
Arlington Heights already seems to have a variety of land uses well represented throughout the village, but perhaps the retail presence is a bit thinner near the racetrack, he suggested.
As with the redevelopments of the former corporate campuses in Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates, Goldwasser believes there's a good chance a single master developer could be interested in buying the entirety of the Arlington Park site and then spin off parts of it to smaller projects, if the site becomes available.
But who could Churchill Downs sell the property to if it gives up on the racetrack before the village, which calls the shots on land use, is ready to move on?
"It's a good question," Goldwasser said. "Without being very close to it, it's hard to say what's going on behind closed doors."
He added this could be one of those unexpected opportunities where everyone -- himself included -- needs time to stand back and take a breath to properly assess the potential of the site if it didn't have a major horse racing venue on it.
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Bob Susnjara contributed to this report.