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Practice center near United Center could be a boon

 Michael Jordan statue United Center Wednesday June 13 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Michael Jordan statue at the United Center, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 15, 2012 3:35PM

If the Chicago Bulls bring their practices into the city, the team will have to step up its game — not in wins or losses, but in commercial development and community engagement.

Real estate experts and urban planners said Wednesday that a location near the United Center would make the most sense for the project. But they said such a facility must have a public component, maybe an entertainment complex, to be a Chicago asset.

Would the Bulls open practices to the team’s fans? The team declined to say. At its Berto Center in Deerfield, the practices are closed.

The team used the word “downtown” in describing its relocation plans, suggesting that more than the United Center neighborhood was in play. One available site in the East Loop is the vacant Lakeshore Athletic Club, a 140,000-square-foot facility at 211 N. Stetson.

Laurence Geller, chief executive of Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc., has been working to gain control of the foreclosed property. “I have suggested it to the Bulls, but my instinct is that it is low down on the priority list,” Geller said.

Berto is hidden in an industrial park north of Lake Cook Road. Something in Chicago would probably demand a deeper connection to its surroundings, with at least some storefront retail space.

“Pick a site and design it in a way that enhances what’s around it,” said Martin Stern, executive vice president of U.S. Equities Realty. “You don’t want just a warehouse with basketball players inside.”

In announcing Wednesday that they have answered Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s entreaties and agreed to relocate, the Bulls left key questions unanswered. They said they are looking at several sites, but they had no timetable for going forward and stated no requirements for a new home, other than to suggest expanded space for the team’s use.

The Bulls separately have shared with lawmakers plans for a mall and restaurant center on the United Center’s east parking lot, the one with the Michael Jordan statue. The Bulls haven’t said that they plan to work the practice center into that project, although one source said he believes that’s the case,

Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, partners in the United Center, have asked for legislation to extend a current property tax cap on the stadium.

Chicago developer Steven Fifield noted that Reinsdorf is “no slouch when it comes to real estate.” Reinsdorf co-founded Balcor Co., a large syndicator of partnerships that invested in real estate. He sold it in 1982 to American Express Co.

Fifield said that if Reinsdorf wants a practice center exclusively for the Bulls, he’ll build it on cheaper land west of the United Center. If he wants restaurants and the like, it’ll go between the United Center and downtown, closer to the crowds, Fifield said.

Either way, building near the United Center is an alluring prospect. It could help regenerate the area and there’s available land.

“There’s really an excess of parking around the United Center” with many lots not affiliated with Reinsdorf and Wirtz, said Earnest Gates, executive director of the Near West Side Community Development Corp.

Putting the Bulls there “would be a good opportunity for the city,” Gates said.

Sports and entertainment complexes are no sure bets to success, as Reinsdorf well knows. His Chicago White Sox hold spring training near Glendale, Ariz.’s Westgate City Center, part of the Glendale Sports and Entertainment District.

The center houses shops, restaurants and hotels. But huge chunks of the complex and vacant land surrounding it went into foreclosure last year, according to the Arizona Republic. Reinsdorf reportedly has complained about the inability of the area to attract more tenants.

The stadium for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, whose owner put the team into bankruptcy in 2009, anchors the center. And the Arizona Cardinals play across the street at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council did consulting work for the Bulls a couple years ago as the team crafted plans for the retail complex east of the stadium. Joanna Trotter, community development director for the council, said the Bulls understand “that sports facilities are reinventing themselves as entertainment complexes.”

Nevertheless, Trotter said the Bulls never broached plans to integrate a practice facility into that complex.

Putting it near the United Center would reduce the “huge sea of parking lots that cuts people off from the community,” Trotter said. She also said it could provide further cause for the Chicago Transit Authority to add a nearby stop.

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