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A Battle For Rooftop Views Near Chicago's Wrigley Field

Legendary Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, seems magical for some fans — with its red brick walls, green ivy and sun-splashed bleachers. But the nearly 100-old-building is falling apart. The Cubs want to spend $300 million to renovate Wrigley if they are allowed to change the landmarked structure. That's got Wrigley's neighbors crying foul. Nearby buildings have bleachers on their rooftops and the owners charge admission to watch games from there. The owners fear a renovation would include jumbotrons and the like, which would block their rooftop views. And they could be right. Every other major league team rakes in huge sums from advertising on massive signs and screens.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The Chicago Cubs' home opener, on Monday, will mark the start of a 99th baseball season at historic Wrigley Field. The old ballpark has had some facelifts, but the most dramatic and controversial may be yet to come. The team's owners, and the city of Chicago, are close to a deal for a $300 million expansion. But as NPR's David Schaper reports, it may make some of the ballpark's neighbors very unhappy.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Other than Fenway Park in Boston, there's no other sporting venue quite like Chicago's Wrigley Field. It is steeped in baseball tradition, with its red brick and ivy-covered walls and its massive, manually operated scoreboard. Another thing that makes Wrigley unique: It is smack dab in the middle of a dense, residential neighborhood with elevated trains rumbling by and apartment buildings right across the street.

BETH MURPHY: Have you been on the rooftops before?

SCHAPER: Beth Murphy leads us up a cold, concrete stairwell at the back of one of those apartment buildings. And from her rooftop, she has an almost perfect, birds-eye view of Cubs' baseball.

MURPHY: We're looking over right field, and we're looking to home plate. We can see most of the field. There's some plays that go on in the outfield that we can't see.

SCHAPER: This rooftop is not that far from the action; closer, actually, than the cheap seats inside some other ballparks. So back in the '80s, Murphy and her late husband put up bleachers and started charging admission, as did some of her neighbors. Now, more than a dozen rooftop businesses sell game-day packages - including food and drinks - to hundreds of fans. A decade ago, when the Cubs wanted to expand the bleachers, which would have blocked some rooftop views, the team and the rooftop owners agreed to a 20-year contract that gives the Cubs 17 percent of the rooftops' gross revenues. That deal doesn't expire until 2024. But the Ricketts family, which purchased the Cubs in 2009, wants to make changes now.

MARC GANIS: Unfortunately, the stadium just kept getting older and older and older.

SCHAPER: Marc Ganis is a Chicago-based sports business consultant.

GANIS: You've got mesh to hold up, in case concrete falls from the upper deck. You've got bathrooms, you know, where you still have troughs in there, in the men's bathroom. You've got concession facilities that are outdated.

SCHAPER: Ganis says the aging stadium also lacks batting cages, and other modern workout and training facilities. And because parts of Wrigley Field are designated city landmarks, the team doesn't have a huge video screen or much corporate signage around the park, missing out on what Ganis says would be tens of millions of dollars of ad revenue.

GANIS: I have absolutely no doubt that at least for the last two or three decades, Wrigley Field has been a competitive impediment, a competitive disadvantage for the Chicago Cubs.

SCHAPER: The Cubs' owners are not looking for any public funding for Wrigley Field and say they'll pour $300 million of their own money into updating the ballpark, if the city and the neighborhood's alderman approve a $200 million hotel-retail complex across the street and allow that huge video screen and advertising all around - which just might block the coveted views from the rooftops. But that doesn't seem to bother some neighbors.

TOM ZULO: My opinion of that is that the rooftops are actually stealing a product that they don't own.

SCHAPER: Tom Zulo has lived in the neighborhood called Wrigleyville for 20 years, and says the Cubs' owners should be allowed to put signs anywhere they want.

ZULO: And that revenue that's not realized right now, doesn't help them build a better business or a better Cub organization.

SCHAPER: But back up on her rooftop, Beth Murphy disagrees. She says the nostalgia of Wrigley Field, and the unique charm of the neighborhood, is actually what makes the Cubs the Cubs - a perennial loser on the field, and a cash cow off of it. In fact, Forbes recently ranked the Cubs the fourth most valuable team in baseball, and the most profitable.

MURPHY: You've got to wonder why a team that lost 101 games is the most profitable team in baseball. I think it has everything to do with the neighborhood and Wrigley Field.

SCHAPER: And the rooftops, Murphy says, are an integral part of both. She also cites her contract with the Cubs that runs another 11 years. So any changes the team makes that blocks rooftop views could be challenged in court.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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