Big billboard in left field at Wrigley?

Tunney questions request for 75-foot illuminated sign

March 17, 2010

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter

The Tribune Co.’s 28-year stewardship of the Cubs featured battles with City Hall over everything from lights and the number of night games at Wrigley Field to landmark status, signage and bleacher expansion.

It looks like the Ricketts era could be off to a similarly rocky start.

The Cubs filed a permit application this week for a “projecting, illuminated” billboard rising high above the left-field bleachers that has the potential to rake in big bucks from advertisers at the expense of offending purists.

But, there’s a problem. The 75 foot high, 360 square foot billboard has raised the eyebrows of local Ald. Tom Tunney (44th). And it may not pass muster with the Commission on Historical Landmarks, which must decide whether new signage conforms with Wrigley’s landmark designation.

“There’s been signage allowed in the ballpark under the landmark ordinance. But, this is a different level of advertising that’s a lot less discrete. It’s actually coming out of the left-center bleachers,” Tunney said.

“I’m not sure how well received it’s gonna be. The fact that it’s a free-standing sign is challenging. And I’m concerned if you put up one, you might put up more.”

Tunney noted that the 2004 ordinance that authorized a bleacher expansion and landmarked “historic elements” of Wrigley took pains to “integrate the field into the neighborhood and make it part of the vista.”

“We were very concerned about the way the bleachers didn’t block the view of the neighborhood. This [new billboard] is in the way,” he said.

Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Zoning and Land-Use Planning, said the permit application was filed Monday after the Cubs discussed “several hypothetical scenarios” with Landmarks Preservation staffers.

“Staff did indicate in general that it would be concerned with the visual impact of any proposed signage on the historic character of the ballpark — both its exterior and interior. But, no determinations have been made. It’s under review,” he said.

Jim Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois, added, “There’s a way that some signage can go in there [tastefully]. But, it’s all a question of design, height, scale and placement.”

Mike Lufrano, vice president of community relations for the Cubs, could not be reached for comment.

Until now, advertising creep at the 96-year-old shrine of Major League Baseball has been subtle. There are ads behind home plate, in the dug-outs, on the green doors of the outfield walls and in narrow electronic bands in the upper deck. The Chicago Board Options Exchange also has its initials — CBOE — on the brick wall in front of its premium seats along the third-baseline.

The new billboard — obscuring the view of a Horseshoe Casino sign on a nearby rooftop — would break new ground for advertising intrusion.

The casino promo is on a building at 3701 N. Kenmore owned by Tom Gramatis, who could not be reached for comment. He bought the building for $8.35 million in 2008 and made $1.2 million of it back over two years by putting the casino sign on the roof.

The sign got so much TV exposure, it caught the eye of new Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, who wanted the team to cash in, instead of Gramatis.

Last fall, Ricketts put up blank billboards to obscure the casino sign, setting the stage for the permit application filed this week.

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