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Cubs learning from Fenway makeover

By Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune –

While Anthony Rizzo’s debut signals the start of the rebuilding project, the Cubs’ renovation plans for Wrigley Field remain on hold while the Ricketts family continues to try to secure funding for the long-delayed project.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox have enjoyed 754 consecutive sellouts at Fenway Park, a byproduct of the successful teams Cubs President Theo Epstein put on the field for years there and an innovative ballpark renovation that added popular sections like the Green Monster seats and rooftop seating in right field.

Janet Marie Smith, currently the Orioles’ vice president/planning and development, knows what the Cubs are up against in their struggle to modernize a historic ballpark. Smith was instrumental in the Fenway makeover during her stint with the Red Sox, and the Cubs consulted her on their renovation plans a few years ago.

In Smith’s eyes, Fenway and Wrigley are birds of a feather.

“The parks were both built long before our current zoning codes were in place,” she said. “Both of them shared the need for better exiting, wider concourses and more space to move around, just in terms of sheer fan safety and the expectations of what we look for in a ballpark today.

“And that’s before you get to things that make the building profitable from the standpoint of concessions, retail-merchandising opportunities, a range of different kinds of seats in the ballpark. … without altering the fundamental, wonderful qualities that had allowed them to survive for 100 years.”

The Green Monster seats at Fenway were considered controversial when installed in 2003 because of the iconic status of the left-field wall. But now the “barstool” look is being replicated in other ballparks, including Camden Yards and the new right-field patio section at Wrigley.

Smith credits Red Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner and President Larry Lucchino with the plan.

“They thought that putting too many seats on top of the Green Monster would take some of the novelty out of it after a couple of years,” she said. “The idea of making them interesting spots so they’d continue to be popular long after the newness had worn off is something they really deserve credit for. And D’Agostino Izzo Quirk, the architectural firm now working with the Cubs, offered those designs.”

The Cubs insist the Green Monster didn’t “inspire” their patio, though Smith said they “certainly” are similar concepts.

“It’s certainly the trend in parks today,” she said. “Not everyone is sitting in their seats keeping a scorecard after every pitch. It’s nice to have opportunities for those who want to be at the ballpark, be a part of the scene and love the game, but are interested in social interaction as well.”

The Cubs have had a difficult time getting public support and funding for their plan, and their relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel has cooled considerably over the last couple of months. Smith said the Red Sox were fortunate to have a good working relationship with government officials.

“There was some concern, because of its historic character, that we would be put through a very rigorous review process (with) a lot of people picking apart whatever designs were submitted,” she said.

“We found just the opposite at every level of government: city, state and federal. There was so much enthusiasm and relief that the team was investing these millions, and what turned out to be hundreds of millions, to Fenway. They delighted in the fact the ballpark was preserved as it initially was conceived — as a ballpark.

“For instance, preserving Fenway as a tourist attraction, even if it was authentically correct, wouldn’t be as appealing to the preservationists as what we did — to make alterations and continue to use it as a baseball park.”

One addition the Cubs brought in was an LED board in right field that shows advertisements before and during games. It’s a revenue-enhancing addition disguised as a place for fans to get more statistical information. It may portend a Jumbotron at Wrigley.

Would a Jumbotron detract from the Wrigley experience?

“Not if it’s done in a way that’s thoughtful and respectful of the park,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t be afraid of that. It’s just a matter of how to do it so it’s architecturally in sync with everything else around the neighborhood.”

Whatever happens with the Rickettses’ funding plan, Smith is rooting for a solution that works.

“Everyone recognizes how important it is to baseball and to Chicago,” she said. “It’s the gold standard — the park everybody wishes they had because it has been so loved for so long.

“And the Cubs, to their credit, did such a wonderful job of taking care of it over the years. It probably seemed like their relationship with the neighborhood and the city had been contentious, so kudos to everyone for having worked that out enough so that it’s still there for all of us to enjoy.”

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