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Neighbors and Cubs battle over digital billboards on Wrigley Field rooftops

Updated: February 28, 2013 6:59AM

Erecting digital billboards on rooftops around Wrigley Field will junk up the neighborhood.

But so what?

The buildings across the street from the ballpark have been butt-ugly since the once quaint custom of apartment dwellers watching the Cubs from folding chairs on rooftops turned into a multimillion-dollar business for corporate guests partying from bleachers jutting into the sky.

If I were king of Chicago, there would never have been any private rooftop “clubs” allowed to parasitically feed off an entertainment mothership to which they only belatedly contributed while blighting the view from the stands.

Unfortunately, the previous king felt otherwise, and that ship has sailed.

Given those realities, the proposal put forward Friday by the Wrigleyville Rooftop Association to allow digital advertising on buildings beyond the outfield walls — and to give all the revenue (estimated at $10-$20 million annually) to the Cubs and the city — strikes me as another major step forward in striking the deal that will finally allow Wrigley Field to be renovated.

When coupled with the plan advanced by the Cubs this week to invest $300 million in overhauling the park in exchange for less interference from the city in its stadium operations, you can see the outlines of an eventual deal — the most appealing feature of which is it that uses no tax dollars.

Basically, this now boils down to a negotiation between the Cubs and the rooftop owners with Mayor Rahm Emanuel refereeing to presumably protect the interests of everybody else.

The Cubs immediately balked at the rooftop owners’ proposal, arguing it won’t generate as much money as their own plan to add more advertising inside the Friendly Confines.

It is expected signs above the walls at the back of the bleachers would block the views from rooftops but would show up more often on Cubs telecasts, making them more lucrative.

That’s beyond my expertise but my gut tells me there’s still quite a bit of money to be made from rooftop signage, especially if a deal clears the way for a Jumbotron-style digital scoreboard on one of the buildings.

From an aesthetic standpoint, putting signage on the rooftops definitely beats the alternative of the Cubs junking up their own landmark property.

Renderings offered by rooftop owners Friday depicted no signs taller than the existing profile of their seating structures. For some reason, the Cubs have made public no materials showing what their signage would look like.

The Ricketts family, owners of the Cubs, no doubt feel they are holding the stronger hand here from a political standpoint with Mayor Rahm Emanuel sending signals he’s in the team’s corner and pushing to get a deal done quickly for the obvious economic development lift.

But the legal edge may be with the rooftop owners, who struck a 20-year agreement with the Chicago National League Ballclub Inc. (a k a the Cubs) in 2004.

Although I’m no lawyer, a common sense reading of the 2004 agreement indicates the rooftop owners had a reasonable basis to believe the Cubs could not block their views through the end of 2023 — as long as they upheld their end of the deal to pay 17 percent of gross revenues to the team. At that point, all bets are off, and both sides can go back to fighting about the legitimacy of the rooftop clubs.

The Cubs, though, say the agreement does nothing to prevent them from interfering with the rooftop views if it’s being done for “legitimate business purposes.” Under this interpretation, the ballclub could put up signs to generate money to repair the park but can’t erect screens as it did in 2002 just to force the rooftops to the bargaining table.

Interesting argument, but nobody is going to lend the team the money to embark on the project until that question has been decided in the courts, which puts this back in the realm of a stalemate.

The good news; there’s plenty of room for compromise.

The rooftop owners say they want an extension of their current agreement with the Cubs beyond 2023.

The Cubs don’t like that idea either, but if they want the deal done now, I don’t see that they have much choice.

Likewise, if the rooftop owners want assurances their investments will still be paying dividends decades from now, they need to make sure this Wrigley Field deal goes all the way.

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