A Stadium in the Park
Soldier Field in Chicago
By Kyle Ryan
Chicago's (in)famous old stadiums have been replaced one by one. Comiskey Park gave way to U.S. Cellular Field. Chicago Stadium was razed to build the United Center. Only Wrigley Field, due to its legacy and fame, has withstood more or less intact. The other holdout, Soldier Field, home to the NFL's Chicago Bears, is a much different place now than it was when it opened in 1924.
Notorious for its uncomfortable seating, lack of bathrooms and poor sight lines, it had numerous renovations over the years, but by 2001, Soldier Field was hopelessly outdated. But its aura and role as a memorial to the men and women of the armed forces spared Soldier Field from the fate of Chicago Stadium and Comiskey Park. The new stadium would be built inside the old.
When the Bears played the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football last September, the Soldier Field that greeted the nation was vastly different from its predecessor.
Architects Wood + Zapata created a sleek, modern-looking, rounded stadium rising above the classically designed rectangle of old Soldier Field. There were twice as many restrooms and four times as many concession stands. There were 60 percent more seats on the sidelines. There were two 23-foot-by-82-foot video screens. There were wider aisles, whole new areas, new roads and parkland around the stadium.
There were also new bugs to work out. Fans could enter at any gate, but that could make for long walks to their seats. Staff was redeployed, and signage posted outside the stadium to prevent that. To alleviate any bottlenecks at the turnstiles, stadium officials opened new gates.
"Over the first several games, we tweaked the pedestrian traffic plan for accessing and exiting the stadium to provide fans with the most convenient options," says Linda Daly, capital projects manager for the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field.
For the most part, the new stadium's first season was a smooth one—a good thing, considering it cost $606 million.
Part of the city's Lakefront Redevelopment Plan, the renovation included construction of underground parking garages and 17 new acres of lakefront parkland. Of that, the Bears paid $200 million and were responsible for any cost overruns—about $50 million, according to Daly—in exchange for control of the building process.
"The structure of this redevelopment was quite different with having the Chicago Bears essentially act as the 'developer,'" Daly says.