Arlington Park grandstand demolition begins
Almost 34 years to the date the new Arlington Park grandstand rose from the ashes and welcomed back horse racing fans after a devastating fire, the stately building that towers over the shuttered racing oval finally is meeting the wrecking ball.
Officials in Arlington Heights' building and life safety department on Friday approved the Chicago Bears' building permit for exterior demolition of the six-story grandstand and several other structures on the 326-acre property, where the NFL franchise envisions its new domed stadium and entertainment complex.
Demolition started Friday afternoon, but it wasn't a large-scale implosion in the same way other former sports venues have been taken down. Instead, the teardown will be done piecemeal, with crews beginning work at one end and finishing at the other.
At precisely 1 p.m., a pair of excavators began to chew their way into the southeast corner of the grandstand, facing the track. At 1:23 p.m., the first rows of seats in that corner began to collapse.
Further preparatory interior work at the grandstand is expected to be done by the end of summer, with the structure to be fully demolished by the end of the year. The exterior work started on the east and will then move to the west before proceeding toward the center.
The grandstand entrances, however, are expected to be gone by the end of the month.
Demolition of the office, paddock and jockey buildings are scheduled to start in the fall and also be done by year's end.
The village's building department on May 26 approved the Bears' first demolition permit, covering the interior of the grandstand and the two-story office and jockey building. Demolition equipment and crews have been on site since May 30.
The latest approvals by village officials allow the Bears' demolition contractor, St. Charles-based Alpine Demolition Services, to do the full-scale teardown of the first two buildings, plus the west and east entrances, paddock, concession, main shed, scoreboard and guard house.
The work is expected to cost the Bears $3.8 million, village records show.
While observers in and around village hall have predicted it could take a decade for the Bears' full $5 billion redevelopment concept to come to fruition, the building teardowns at the old horse racing facility are being done -- at least in the short term -- with an eye toward tax savings for the new property owner.
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 superintendents of three area school districts.
Warren and other Bears brass are engaged in tense negotiations with the schools over the amount of property taxes the NFL club should pay over the next two years.
It comes after Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi raised the assessed value of the property from $33.5 million to $197 million -- almost identical to the amount the Bears paid Churchill Downs Inc. for the property in February -- thereby raising the annual property tax bill from $2.8 million to $16.2 million.
The tax and assessment issues in Arlington Heights have led Warren to meet with leaders of other municipalities that want the Bears to come to their towns -- including Naperville Mayor Scott Wehrli -- as well as Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who wants the team to stay in the city.
"We will continue the ongoing demolition activity and work toward a path forward in Arlington Heights, but it is no longer our singular focus," the Bears said in a statement released after the June 2 meeting with Wehrli. "It is our responsibility to listen to other municipalities in Chicagoland about potential locations that can deliver on this transformational opportunity for our fans, our club and the state of Illinois."
Warren will be in Arlington Heights on June 26 for a community conversation hosted by Touchdown Arlington, a coalition of Arlington Heights business owners who support the Bears' move to town.
• Daily Herald staff writer Eric Peterson contributed to this report.