From favorites to long shots, experts outline what really could happen to Arlington Park
Speculation about the future of Arlington Park began long before the iconic horse-racing track's owners put the 326-acre parcel up for sale in February.
For years, as the racetrack's fortunes slid, the property has been eyed for a bevy of alternate uses. But now, with Churchill Downs Inc. setting a deadline of Tuesday for purchase offers, the future is here.
What will become of the site?
There's been talk of a stadium for a Chicago professional sports team. Perhaps a developer would create a massive entertainment venue. A red hot market might spur residential development. Maybe some philanthropic soul will buy it to turn into a public park.
It could become a warehouse and logistics hub. Some are interested in continued operation as a racetrack, too. Or the site could become a combination of all of the above.
Experts in real estate investment, including Brian Properties President Mark Meskauskas, commercial developer Warren Baker, Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Maisch, and two former local leaders who oversaw major developments, former Hoffman Estates Village Manager Jim Norris and former longtime Wheaton City Manager Don Rose, share their thoughts on what makes specific uses favorites or long shots.
Pro sports stadium
After the "For Sale" sign was planted at Arlington Park, a new home for the Chicago Bears football franchise was one of the first ideas floated. The team hasn't denied interest. Meanwhile, the idea of the Chicago White Sox baseball team relocating to the suburbs also was introduced.
Both teams are in facilities that are older -- and smaller -- than most of their counterparts, potentially making the move to the suburbs and a new, bigger home all the more attractive.
"It's unlikely this could be done without some public dollars going into it," said Norris, who was involved in redevelopment of the former AT&T corporate headquarters into a mixed-use "metroburb" in Hoffman Estates, which is still in its early stages.
"Does that money come from the state or a tax increment financing district or something similar? And can you get community buy-in?" Norris asked. In a TIF, tax money generated by rising property values is reinvested into the development.
Strengths: There's a lot of land to develop at the site beyond just the footprint of a stadium, which could generate taxes and other revenue beyond game days. The infrastructure to support stadium crowds also is likely already in place because of the track's 30,000-plus capacity, an adjacent Metra station and close access to the Route 53 expressway. Established neighborhoods abutting the track could help support any retail development.
Weaknesses: Residents might not want the hubbub that comes with living next to a pro sports stadium. Any team would need to clear a significant financial hurdle to make it happen at a time when the state has lost its appetite for stadium funding. Plus, making the property viable year-round would require more than just a stadium, such as retail, restaurant and residential components, most experts agree.
"The last thing you want is a dormant facility a good portion of the year," Meskauskas said.
Arlington Park has been in business since 1927. While the track's fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, developing the property around the oval to bring in more visitors all year could make it more lucrative, especially if a new owner could take advantage of the sports betting, table games and slots made available to the track in the past two years by state legislators.
Strengths: It's already there. The track is beautifully designed and the structures are in good shape. The state in 2019 offered the chance to expand gambling opportunities to attract visitors when there's no racing.
One proposal by a group led by former Arlington Park President Roy Arnold would keep the grandstand and racetrack in place while relocating and constructing a new backstretch stable and adding a hotel and entertainment district, as well as industrial, retail and residential components.
"The best success I could see it having is to keep the track and operate it as a year-round entertainment venue," Meskauskas said. "It's shown you can make money there racing horses."
Weaknesses: Interest in horse racing is waning as gamblers have more opportunities to wager on other things. The current owners might be unwilling to sell to a developer who wants to expand gambling at the track because Churchill Downs owns Rivers Casino down the road in Des Plaines. Anticipating this, Arlington Heights trustees took action last month to prevent Churchill Downs from barring gambling or racing as part of any potential land deal.
This is likely a long shot because of current village rezoning efforts, though Baker, who runs Chicago-based Baker Development Corp., notes logistics is one of the "hottest" segments of real estate development these days.
"If I was a planner, I would probably look at a concept that contemplates logistics or residential properties," he said. "But with logistics or warehouses, you're smack dab in the middle of a residential area."
Strengths: This type of development would generate property tax revenue while not contributing a soul to local school districts' student head counts. The racetrack is in Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214.
Weaknesses: Arlington Heights officials actively are developing zoning for the area that would prohibit this type of land use.
Building a massive subdivision on the track's site might sound attractive given the current heat on the residential market, but many experts believe it will take more than houses to make the development successful.
"I would consider investing in a plan that's going to have a mixed use for that site given the market, but also the affluence of that part of the state," Illinois chamber CEO Maisch said. "The reality is, if the track isn't economically viable anymore, the owners should be able to go ahead and do whatever they want with it and find a way to repurpose so it becomes a center for job creation and recreation."
Strengths: It's a sellers' market. New homes are at a premium because of the supply shortage created by the pandemic. The property is next to established residential neighborhoods and near transit and an expressway.
Weaknesses: Schools would not be happy.
"In my experience, any school district would be very concerned about any development that would put increased demand on their system," said Rose, former longtime Wheaton city manager, who oversaw the city's growth and downtown redevelopment during his tenure.
Construction supplies are still at a premium, as well as other home furnishings. Many experts believe it would take years to fully realize that type of residential development.
"The last thing you want is for that land to go years without producing property tax revenue or any other type of revenue," Norris added.
Public open space
Another long shot. So far, the only people clamoring for this aren't the ones with the necessary deep pockets.
Strengths: Provides the area with a mammoth swath of passive- and active-use green space. Puts no strain on infrastructure or schools.
Weaknesses: Those same school districts would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, and potentially millions with the right redevelopment, in property taxes.
Before the pandemic, a proposal focusing on a large corporate center or fleet of professional buildings might have seemed more realistic.
"There's just so much commercial property available right now," Rose said. "Businesses have learned what their space needs really are in the last year."
Strengths: It would provide property tax revenue.
Weaknesses: There's a glut of empty commercial space in the suburbs. You need tenants to generate property taxes.
Creating some type of concert or entertainment venue, and then developing other land uses around it is not a unique idea. And it's certainly not unprecedented in the Northwest suburbs. Between Rosemont's Parkway Bank Park entertainment district and the retail corridor surrounding Hoffman Estates' NOW Arena, the region has tried, with varying degrees of success, to create a viable entertainment district.
Strengths: A successful entertainment district would provide a bevy of revenue opportunities throughout the year. The area doesn't have a large-scale amphitheater that could attract national acts in the warmer months.
Weaknesses: Too much nearby competition. In addition to NOW Arena and the Rosemont entertainment district, Rosemont's got the Allstate Arena, making a concert venue on the Arlington Park site less likely, the experts said.
"There's enough already," Meskauskas said. "This would be a tough sell."