Monday, January 21, 2013

What we know and don’t know about the Wrigley renovations

This past weekend, the Ricketts family released another round of pretty drawings giving fans an idea of what might happen during a massive renovation of Wrigley Field.

The presentation coincided with an announcement that the Cubs are not going to look for public financing of part of the renovations and that the Ricketts family will finance the renovations through their own funds.

Their current cost estimate for the renovations?  $300 million.

That’s important.  $300 million.

That is a cost reduction of between 33% and 50% over previous estimates.  Did rebuilding the ballpark suddenly get cheaper?  Instead of concrete, are they going to use wood?  Instead of a new clubhouse, are they going to use RV trailers?  No.

The Cubs released 20 some odd renderings over the weekend.  Did anyone notice what was missing from those renderings?

There is no triangle building.

Earlier renovations plans revolved around a $200 to $300 million renovation of the existing ballpark and $200 to $300 million in investment in the area surrounding the park including the triangle building.  The deal was that if the city and state would sell the bonds to help the Cubs finance the renovation of the ballpark, the Cubs would contribute at least that equal amount in the areas around the ballpark.

A couple weeks ago the Cubs held a meeting for the people of the Wrigleyville neighborhood to discuss the team’s plans for the area.  As most of us heard, the team plans to put up a hotel on the site of the McDonalds on Clark St (on an acre lot the Ricketts family bought about one year ago).  We also know that they talked about a more permanent ice rink, outdoor movies and a farmers market…all which, we assume, would be done on the triangle parcel next to the ballpark.

For years we were told that building the “triangle building” was critical to a successful renovation project.  That appears to no longer be the case.   What has changed?  Well, quite simply, the Ricketts family is using other Cubs owned properties around the area to achieve this.  The McDonalds property will house a boutique hotel, which is a somewhat vague term.  We know that a McDonalds will be incorporated into the property, but other shops, bars and restaurants will likely be added as well.  While a hotel wasn’t part of the Triangle building plans, the restaurants and shops were.

The other big thing the triangle building was supposed to include was offices for the Cubs increasing front office staff.  The office space problem appears to have been remedied a year ago when the Cubs renovated a building at the corner of Clark and Waveland and moved the front office personnel into it.

One last thing the triangle building was supposed to provide was parking…mostly for VIPs, players, executive management and media.  While parking availability for fans has always been a problem at Wrigley (and will likely continue to be), the Cubs own a significant amount of land to accommodate the said people.  In fact, most people would be surprised to know that the Cubs own a number of parking lots around the ballpark, including a very large vacant lot on Grace St.
The blue highlighted regions show areas around Wrigley
that the Cubs own or  use regularly on game day.
The triangle building isn’t really a necessity anymore.  As a result, it would appear the Cubs are going to use the triangle parcel as more of a community park, which is what a number of the residents of the neighborhood have preferred.

Now on to the nitty gritty of the renovations.

The most important part of the renovations, in my opinion, is going to be the player facilities which are currently the worst in baseball.  The renderings shown below show an expanded clubhouse, batting cages, a weight room, a new media room, trainer facilities, a players’ lounge, coaches’ offices and so on.  While the layout will definitely bring the Cubs facilities up to a major league quality, what is being show to us right on is far from being the best facility in baseball.  The Ricketts family stated that they intended to have the best facilities for its players…and that appears to be what they are doing with the new spring training site in Mesa and their academy in the Dominican Republic.  Unfortunately, based on these renderings, the Wrigley facilities, where a player will spend a majority of the season, will not achieve this goal for the Ricketts family.
The new clubhouse has everything a baseball player could have dreamed of...15 years ago.  
What else?  Most of the renderings showed vastly improved food and restaurant options within the ballpark along with expanded luxury suites and a new press box.  How do they plan to do this within the current confines of the park?  I’m not exactly sure.  The drawings show new concession prepping areas, something Wrigley lacks entirely at the moment (most food is precooked and then trucked in), new bars and clubs, new restaurants and so on.  While they’ve promised wider concourses, in the lower deck, it appears very little has been done to actually achieve this.  While the Cubs appear to be moving all their offices out of the ballpark, as well as a gift shop or two, the lower deck of the ballpark is likely to be as cramped as it was before  due to all the new things they are adding to the stadium.
Sorry, but this concourse isn't any wider than what they have now. 
On top of that, what isn’t shown anywhere, are these promised expanded bathroom facilities. Most of the lower deck bathrooms are currently wedged into the outside layer of the ballpark and are sharing room with the ramps, offices and concessions on that side of the concourse.  Very little appears to have changed as far as creating space to help expand these out.  It's possible they are planning to more, but smaller bathrooms wedged in to several areas around the lower deck, but we really have no proof of this.

A note: The roof over the upper deck and the one over the back of the lower deck are finally to be replaced.  These are currently the original roofs on the ballpark and are still made out of wood.
The changes to the upper deck appear to be much more radical.  The team appears ready to expand upon the “patio” idea they created back in 1989 when they added the present day press box.  Added patios will be built on top of the original lower deck roof which will allow for expanded concession and other amenities.  What this does is allow the Cubs to expand the upper deck bathroom facilities, which are even more lacking than the lower deck facilities.  It also appears that a new press box will be constructed creating sorely need space for the broadcasters and media members.  The upper deck also appears to be getting a “club”, perhaps similar to the current PNC club on the luxury box level of park.

Moving most of the upper deck concessions onto the lower deck roof creates more room for expanded bathrooms.
Most of this seems good.  But what is missing?

Well, reports state that the Cubs are going to gut and replace the entire lower deck seating bowl.  What does that mean exactly?  Well, there is the obvious replacing of the structural concrete and the actual replacement of the seats as well.  Similar replacements will be done to the upper deck.

Personally, I think this is where the Cubs need to be careful about what they do.  The biggest problems Wrigley has, from a fan experience point of view, are with the cramped, uncomfortable seating conditions.  The seats are narrow, the aisles can only fit a single person, the leg room for a seat really is only enough for a person under 5’6”.  Nothing in any statement or drawing has indicated that the team intends to fix some of these problems.  If they are replacing the seating bowl entirely, these problems really need to be considered too.

Wrigley Field was designed to cram 40,000 people into it, but was really set up to only hold 15,000 people in on a daily basis.   When the stadium was built, a sellout was a very rare occasion and not the norm as we see today.  Comfort for 40,000 people was not taken into consideration.

Successfully finding a way to fix this inherent problem with the ballpark is actually a pretty important issue, believe it or not…and there is actually pretty good example of this for the Cubs to learn from.

For years the Cubs have said that they want to use the renovation of Fenway Park as a guide on how to accomplish the renovations at Wrigley…and it appears that is exactly what they are going to do.  The Fenway Park renovations were concluded a few years ago to rave reviews from players and fans alike.

But as the Red Sox have started to struggle in the standings, some grumbles about the old ballpark have started to resurface again.  The Fenway renovations added concessions, increased capacity, installed new restaurants and added new video boards along with other fan friendly amenities.  They didn’t, however, address some of the major problems with the existing seating bowl including cramped seating, poor sightlines, and obstructed views.  In fact, when I last was Fenway Park (which was before the renovations), I considered it to be the least comfortable ballpark I’ve ever been in and it appears little has been done to change that opinion.

Now with these major renovations complete, there are many people calling for the Boston ownership group to start looking at doing something about these remaining problems at Fenway.  To resolve these problems is not going to be easy if they choose to undertake them (and ownership has said nothing of the sort anyway).  One of the biggest problems Fenway has had in its 100 years of existence has been its small size and thus its small capacity.  Many of the renovations done to the ballpark over the last decade have revolved around adding as many new seats at possible to increase this capacity, and they have successfully done so.  In the last couple decades, Fenway's capacity has increased by over 5,000 seats...and those are 5,000 very comfortable seats. To resolve the comfort problems with the rematining 32,000 seats would likely require the Red Sox to reduce the seating capacity of the park by a rather significant amount.

That brings us back to the Cubs.  Wrigley suffers from many of these same problems.   Seats are almost as uncomfortable and cramped.  There are a ton of obstructed views throughout the ballpark.  While the sightlines at Wrigley are not nearly as bad as they are at Fenway, particularly in the lower deck, the upper deck seats do suffer from problems with this, particularly in the outfield corners.

For fans, many of these proposed renovations will receive rave reviews when initially completed.  I suspect, unless something is done about fan comfort in the main seating bowl, not long after the renovations are complete, grumbles will quickly return like have started at Fenway.  It's not a solution that can be solved easily because any solution would likely require a reduction in capacity of the ballpark.  In fact, many of the renovations being discussed, especially in the upper deck and in the outfield, will probably result in a reduction in the number of seats.

Look for new LED boards in center and left field to go along with new patio seating in those locations.  
Overall, what is being proposed for Wrigley is a good thing.  The players facilities will be significantly upgraded, which is great as the current facilities really are a disadvantage for the team and truly do contribute, in some way, to the continued struggles this franchise has had.  From a fan’s point of view, the renderings we’ve seen promise a lot, but logistically don’t quite add up. In fact, the Ricketts family has continued to parade the idea of more bathrooms, more restaurants and clubs, and better concessions and that’s all fine, but the logistics of getting all that and also resolving the space issues of the seats themselves has continued to be a huge question mark.  The plan calls for opportunities for the Cubs to financially cash in on the ballpark which is something we all should be in favor of.  The triangle building appears to be completely off the table now and that is probably fine, even though I think that limits the ability to create more space from within the ballpark.

The Ricketts family seems upset over the fact they were not able to move forward on any renovations this past off I would expect any plan that they have to begin immediately after this year is over...if not a little sooner.  We'll see.