Concerns over traffic, noise, property taxes, the impact on schools and the village’s thriving downtown, topped the list of concerns expressed by a half dozen Arlington Heights residents Monday night about a proposed Chicago Bears stadium and community development on the Arlington Park Racecourse property.
In a special meeting of the Arlington Heights Village Board, meeting as a Committee-of-the-Whole Monday night in the theater at Forest View Educational Center, village staff presented an overview of the village’s discussions with the Chicago Bears team officials regarding the team’s plans for Arlington Park. Staff also outlined next steps in the process.
“We’re off to a great start with the redevelopment of Arlington Park,” said Mayor Tom Hayes, “but there is a long way to go in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redevelop 326 acres of prime real estate within the village of Arlington Heights. From Day 1, the village board’s goal with the redevelopment of the property is to ensure it is put to its highest and best use and befitting of the legacy of Arlington Park.”
The team’s plans call for “a multi-purpose entertainment, commercial/retail, and housing district that will provide considerable economic benefits to Cook County, the surrounding region and State of Illinois,” according to a public statement from team officials.
All village trustees were in attendance at the COTW meeting Monday night but did not take any action on what staff presented. Chicago Bears representatives were not present. Anticipating a large crowd, the village changed the meeting venue from the usual Village Hall to education center, but only about 30 people attended – compared to the more than 700 at the Sept. 8 meeting hosted by the Chicago Bears at Hersey High School.
Hayes assured community residents and stakeholders they will have opportunities throughout the process to provide input on the project — which could take up to 10 years to fully develop.
Last September, the Chicago Bears signed a $197.2 million purchase agreement to buy the former racetrack. Then last Thursday, team executives presented a conceptual plan for the redevelopment, illustrating a large stadium located in the northwest corner of the property closest to Route 53. The plan does not offer detail on the amount of housing or traffic patterns.
“Despite these significant steps, the Bears have not closed on the property just yet,” Village Manager Randy Recklaus said, stating that a potential agreement could be finalized in late 2022 or early 2023. He said the village does not yet have a formal proposal from the team and the Bears cannot develop the property without village approval.
“Tonight is a very early step in likely a very long journey,” the village manager said.
That journey begins this fall with the first two initiatives planned by the village: approval of a road map outlining all the zoning, planning and design steps of the project, along with an amendment to the new zoning overlay district to allow special use for a sportsbook waging facility requested by the Bears, officials explained.
At its regular meeting Sept. 6, the Village Board approved hiring two consultants to assist with the project. Hunden Strategic Partners will conduct a financial economic market analysis, and Sam Schwartz Engineering will do a traffic and parking analysis around the project.
Meanwhile, Recklaus said, village leaders have connected with leaders in Inglewood, California, and Las Vegas, both of which have introduced NFL franchises into their communities, to explore the positive and negative impacts of those moves.
“We haven’t heard about the negative impact, traffic, noise, specifically for people bordering the property,” said resident Tom Loch, who said he’s in favor of the Chicago Bears move from Soldier Field to Arlington Park. “They’re talking about residential development, what will the impact be on the schools?”
He said he was concerned about the quality of life for residents and the schools.
Village leaders said those were of primary importance for them, as well, but now is too soon to determine that impact. Arlington Heights has more than 77,600 residents, according to U.S. Census data. Township High School District 214, based in the village, has nearly 12,000 students enrolled across six schools. And the elementary school district, Arlington Heights School District 25, includes nine schools and has some 5,200 students enrolled.
“Quality of life is my No. 1 priority,” the mayor said. “We’re still in the preliminary stages. We don’t know how many residents will be in this development and we don’t know how many schools will go into the district. We have an open dialogue with all of these stakeholders.”
Resident Brenda Popovic, a Rolling Meadows High School teacher – which is part of SD214 – said she was happy to learn about the village’s initial steps.
“You’re talking to counterparts in other places and taking all of these steps, [that] makes me feel a lot better,” Popovic said. “My concern is property taxes and how that will impact people in our community. We already struggle with affordable housing … I would be concerned about losing members of our community.”
Recklaus recognized that paying for the Bears’ proposed project is a top concern for residents.
“The Bears stated publicly they are not planning on requesting any village funds to pay for a stadium,” Recklaus said. “We understand they may ask the village for assistance, contributions for public improvements, roads, water mains, other pieces of infrastructure. The Bears have not asked the village to pay … and the village has not agreed to pay for anything at this time.”
Theresa Jordan, a member of the village’s Environmental Commission, said she hopes the project will incorporate sustainability, citing other stadiums which utilize solar panels for electricity generation.
Hayes said the conceptual plan highlights green space, parks and water features.
Trustee Robin LaBedz shared her concerns about maintaining the viability of the village’s vibrant downtown area and the Arlington Alfresco outdoor dining space born out of the pandemic that is now a village mainstay..
“We want to preserve the specialness of downtown,” LaBedz said. “It is a jewel. We have an award-winning downtown, it is a reason people move here.”
Some residents also raised that concern and Hayes said the “Bears are fully committed to making sure whatever they do complements our downtown and existing businesses. They don’t want to do anything to harm our businesses.”
Trustees agreed this is a project that needs to make sense for the entire community.
“This should not increase our property taxes because they come to town,” Trustee John Scaletta said.
Elizabeth Owens-Schiele is a freelancer.