For White Sox stadium at The 78, a home run —or a strike — is in the details

The Chicago White Sox and Related Midwest are in talks about building a new stadium along the Chicago River south of Roosevelt Road.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere, AP Photos

At first blush, a new White Sox ballpark on the southern edge of downtown, with gleaming skyscrapers, the Chicago River and a planned new neighborhood called The 78 as a backdrop is an exciting prospect for Chicago.

But the devil is always in the details when it comes to big projects. And the public deserves to see a lot more of the particulars before declaring the proposal a winner.

For instance, how do you orient and build a Major League Baseball stadium in a way that doesn’t merely fit on The 78’s narrowish site but also contributes to the ongoing redevelopment of the South Branch and brings people — not just paid ticket holders — closer to public spaces along the river edge?

And what happens to Guaranteed Rate Field if a new stadium is built?

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Then there is the likely billion-dollar question: Who pays for a new stadium and needed infrastructure improvements?

Mayor Brandon Johnson met last week with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to discuss the stadium proposal.

“We have not gotten into the intricacies and the details just yet,” Johnson said afterward. “There’ll be time for that.”

Yes, but if the goal is to craft a deal that benefits Chicago, and not just Reinsdorf and the Sox, the time to work out those intricacies and details is now.

A new stadium — but what about Guaranteed Rate?

As the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman, Tim Novak and David Roeder first reported, the Sox and Related Midwest are discussing building the 35,000- to 38,000-seat ballpark at The 78, a 62-acre parcel along the eastern edge of the Chicago River south of Roosevelt Road.

There were already plans to develop the site into a mixed-use community, but under the new effort, Related Midwest would build 5,000 residential units — with 1,000 of them affordable — plus an office building, a hotel and dozens of restaurants and bars along the riverfront.

The (potential) good: Done correctly, the stadium could be a shot in the arm for The 78’s development and helping the project feel more like a destination neighborhood, albeit a dense one with mid- and high-rises, rather than bungalows and two-flats.

But here’s where things get tricky. Reinsdorf wants a new home for the Sox, but a big reason why Guaranteed Rate Field hasn’t worked well for the Sox … is Reinsdorf himself.

Built and owned by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, Reinsdorf’s input into the stadium’s original design lead to the creation of what was then one of the ugliest parks in baseball: an unfriendly ball of concrete that turns its back on the city’s fabled skyline.

While renovations that began in 2001 have significantly improved the stadium, Reinsdorf for years has wrongly resisted efforts to redevelop the 70 acres of surface parking surrounding the stadium into a mixed-use neighborhood that could make the ball field more of an attraction.

Why the resistance? Reinsdorf’s lease agreement with the ISFA lets him keep gross receipts from the parking lots.

Add to that the fact the franchise has mostly fielded season after season of mediocre teams since winning the World Series almost 20 years ago.

With all those unforced errors, City Hall must make sure a new stadium is planned and built with the public’s interest — not just Reinsdorf’s — in mind.

Lastly, one of the toughest calls would be deciding the fate of Guaranteed Rate Field. The 33-year-old stadium is maintained by ISFA bonds backed by a 2% statewide hotel tax.

The ISFA still owes $50 million on that debt, so we’d hate to see the ballpark wrecked.

A better option — at least one worth investigating by the city and the ISFA as part of any new stadium deal — would be to grow Guaranteed Rate’s live performance business, finally redevelop the surfacing parking lots … and aggressively scout for a new tenant.

Who pays?

If we had our druthers, a professional baseball franchise that’s worth $2 billion, and a deep-pocketed real estate developer who has control of 62 acres of some of the most valuable land in the city, would entirely pay for their own stadium.

But that probably won’t be the case. The ISFA, created by the General Assembly in 1987, likely would be called into duty at some point to help foot at least some of the bill.

And the public might well be asked to kick in the millions of dollars for infrastructure.

After his talk with Reinsdorf, Johnson said he “did appreciate … what they’re considering, it’s the way new stadiums should and could look. That they have community benefit.”

But the track record nationally is that publicly funded sports stadiums tend not to bring a boost to local economies, including more jobs and growth in income.

Could Chicago be different? Only if Johnson and his administration are up to the task of making sure the public indeed benefits.

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