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Wrigley talks in ‘bottom of the 9th,’ deal could extend ballpark’s walls

Wrigley Field is decked out for Chicago Cubs home opener against Milwaukee Brewers Monday April 8 2013. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Wrigley Field is decked out for the Chicago Cubs home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday April 8, 2013. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 13, 2013 6:38AM

Marathon talks to renovate Wrigley Field are “in the bottom of the 9th” inning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday, amid word that the deal includes expanding the stadium’s footprint to give the Cubs more interior space and minimize the impact on rooftop clubs.

“There’s improvements that have to happen at Wrigley Field and there’s things that Wrigleyville also needs. And I think we’re . . . kind of in the bottom of the 9th in that process,” the mayor said.

“We’re closer than ever before. … I want to thank Mr. [Tom] Ricketts for his commitment to staying in Chicago. ... The broad outlines of a framework are there. We’re just working on the details. We’re making very good progress. I want the conversations to just finish now so we can take it to the second stage, which is a submission to the planning development process.”

The mayor’s optimistic outlook about a deal that appeared to be sealed a week ago comes amid word that the right- and left-field walls of 99-year-old Wrigley would be extended as much as ten feet outward — taking out the sidewalk on Sheffield and a lane of traffic on Waveland — to give the Cubs more concession space and mitigate the impact of a giant video scoreboard in left and a see-through sign in right on rooftop clubs overlooking Wrigley.

The Cubs plan also includes a proposed ornamental bridge across Clark Street that would allow guests staying at the hotel the Cubs plan to easily access a new office building expected to include conference rooms. Those air rights over Clark may trigger compensation to Chicago taxpayers.

In 2006, the Cubs agreed to extend the outfield walls eight feet onto the sidewalks along Waveland and Sheffield to eliminate the need for sidewalk columns to support a 1,790-seat bleacher expansion. Chicago taxpayers got $900,000 in compensation for the air rights. But, the city was left with a narrower sidewalk.

Now, the city and the Cubs are talking about an instant replay.

Both sides agreed that demolishing the outfield walls in right- and left-fields was part of the plan, but the motive depends on whom you talk to.

The Cubs insist the move was being made solely to preserve rooftop views and mitigate blockage caused by the two new signs that will help bankroll a $300 million renovation of the landmark ballpark.

“The plan would be to move the wall as far back as possible so the Jumbotron would have less impact on rooftop views. There’s still some impact. But by moving it closer to the rooftops, their patrons would be able to look over the Jumbotron instead of having it block their views. Same with the sign in right,” said a source close to the Cubs.

“It does open up opportunities for us inside the ballpark — by making the concourses wider and opening up additional concession space beneath the bleachers. But, this particular idea originated based on the desire to accommodate the rooftops, period.”

City Hall had a different take.

“The Cubs came to us and said, ‘We’re landlocked. We need to get maximum use out of Wrigley Field.’ This way, they can expand their footprint even though they’re in a landlocked situation,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous.

“This is not being done for the rooftops. We’re doing this to help the Cubs. But, there is an added benefit that will further reduce the impact on [rooftop] sight lines.”

The top mayoral aide noted that similar street, sidewalk and alley “vacations” are routinely done for developers across the city.

“We’re doing it for Loyola [on Kenmore to create more of a campus atmosphere near new dormitories]. We’re also doing it for Norfolk Southern [RR]. It’s pretty normal,” the source said.

Until Thursday, the Cubs insisted that there had been no discussion of compensation for either the lane of traffic on Waveland or the sidewalk on Sheffield.

But the Emanuel administration insisted that compensation had not yet been determined and, according to the Cubs, demanded it Thursday after the Chicago Sun-Times asked how much the team would be charged for city land. Precise amounts were not yet known.

The issue of compensation is a sensitive one, given Ricketts’ decision to abandon his quest for a public subsidy and the history of land around Wrigley.

Years ago, the Cubs paid the city $2.1 million to purchase land adjacent to Wrigley that was once a continuation of Seminary Avenue.

The Cubs had used the land for decades as a players parking lot. The arrangement continued until the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a search of century-old documents determined that Chicago taxpayers owned the land and that the Tribune Co. bought it for $150,000, shortly after purchasing the Cubs in 1982, from a railroad that didn’t have the right to sell it.

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