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Chicago panel approves upgrades to Wrigley Field

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A Chicago commission voted on Thursday to approve most of a plan for $300 million in renovations to historic Wrigley Field, home of baseball's Chicago Cubs.

But the commission delayed until next month a decision on one of the most debated portions of the plan - a 6,000-square- foot video screen over left field in the 99-year-old ballpark.

Wrigley Field, located in a densely populated neighborhood on the city's north side, is a city landmark, so major changes, such as a proposed new western gate and expanded dugouts, needed approval of the Chicago Commission on Landmarks.

Wrigley also has been the site of generations of defeat. The Cubs started playing there in 1916 and have not won a World Series since 1908, which is the longest championship drought in Major League Baseball.

The Ricketts family, which bought the Cubs from the Chicago Tribune in 2009, say they want to change that losing record and need to revamp Wrigley to generate more revenue and upgrade facilities. The proposal contains luxury boxes, bullpens, and more space for concessions. The total project costs $500 million, including a neighboring hotel and pedestrian bridge.

Cubs Chair Tom Ricketts last month threatened to abandon Wrigley Field if the baseball organization does not get the amenities he wants.

But the Cubs welcomed the decision on Thursday.

"This was a really good win for us today but we also believe it's a win for the city of Chicago," said Cubs spokesman Julian Green. He said the goal is to renovate a deteriorating ballpark "so we can play baseball for the next 100 years right here in Chicago."

Landmarks commission approval allows the Cubs to pursue permission to build. The commission's hearing on the outfield signs will be held July 11. The redevelopment plan still has to go to the plan commission, and that decision then requires City Council approval.

However, the plans have run into complaints from Wrigley neighbors, including the owners of rooftop clubs beyond its outfield walls who fear the proposed "jumbotron" (giant video screen) and another 1,000-square-foot sign in right field will block their views of the field. The owners have a contract in with the Cubs to market rooftop seating.

At the public hearing of the landmarks commission, some neighborhood residents complained that the plan would narrow sidewalk and street space.

Tom Tunney, the alderman representing the neighborhood around the ballpark, said he would not support the plans without a number of changes, including cutting the "jumbotron" to half the proposed size.

Green said the Cubs need the elements they've asked for, but discussions continue. "We know this is a marathon," Green said. It is not clear when construction could begin.

Changing the historic field can be an emotional issue.

"Wrigley Field is a gem - leave it alone," said Michael Shapiro, author of the "The Last Good Season," about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Shapiro believes the money would be better spent on a winning team, and the Cubs should lower ticket prices, which are on average the third-highest in Major League Baseball and are driving away fans.

Wrigley Field is one of Chicago's top attractions and thousands of tourists and baseball enthusiasts from around the world go there every year.

Marty Sandberg, a Cubs fan and architect, said the team has had high payrolls and still lost, so the idea of changing Wrigley to buy better players is a "significant gamble with a significant downside."

"It will be a losing team with a plastic ballpark, like everyone else's," Sandberg said.

But Marc Ganis, a Chicago sports business consultant, said the outdated ballpark is one reason the Cubs haven't been competitive.

"The facilities there are so below standard of what a major league baseball club needs to have, from training facilities to batting cages," Ganis said.

The Ricketts family initially asked for public funding for the ballpark, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel resisted. The family plans to spend its own money.

The commission hearing focused on how elements of the ballpark would be changed while still keeping its historic character -- including its manually-operated scoreboard and ivy-covered brick outfield walls.

One Cubs fan who spoke out at the hearing, Trudie Acheatel, 67, of Chicago, said she loved the Cubs and went to a lot of games, but "the building is falling apart."

"We need bathrooms, we need elevators, we need stairs with railings," said Acheatel, dressed head-to-toe in Cubs clothing, including a blue hat covered with Cubs pins and other baubles. She said she was "100 percent" behind the renovation.

"I want the Cubs there for my grandchildren," Acheatel said.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Diane Craft)

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