Chicago Bears Bid for Suburban Racetrack Property in Potential Move From City
A Relocation Could Reshape Commercial Real Estate in City for Decades
Arlington International Racecourse has been a fixture in suburban Arlington Heights, Illinois, for nearly 100 years.
The Chicago Bears might leave their home of 50 years at downtown Chicago’s Soldier Field to relocate to the suburb of Arlington Heights, a move that could transform commercial real estate in both high-traffic areas for decades to come.
The NFL team, owned by the McCaskey family, said it made an offer to purchase Arlington International Racecourse, an iconic, megasized property that has hosted horse racing since the sport began in the United States in the 1920s.
“It’s our obligation to explore every possible option to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our organization and its future,” Bears CEO Ted Phillips said in a short statement. “If selected, this step allows us to further evaluate the property and its potential.”
The bid, one of fewer than 10 submitted to Arlington Heights, about an hour northwest of downtown Chicago, potentially opens up a number of possibilities for the storied football team, referred to as the Monsters of the Midway.
Opened in 1924, Soldier Field is the oldest and smallest NFL stadium. It underwent a $632 million update nearly 20 years ago that increased its capacity to 61,500 and improved its interior. The controversial addition of glass bowl-shaped seating that obstructed the original colonnades ended up costing the stadium its national historic landmark status.
The Lake Michigan site is an integral piece of the popular Museum Campus tourist area, but it’s still widely considered cramped and, because of its open-air design and size, has not been deemed acceptable to host the Super Bowl.
A relocation of the Bears to Arlington Heights could be considered a priceless gift to the suburb, which is losing its crown jewel as the racetrack’s owner, Churchill Downs, looks to close the stable doors after this year’s season, a decision prompted by the sport’s paling popularity.
The bucolic 326-acre property that has given Arlington Heights worldwide renown for nearly 100 years went up for sale earlier this year. Whatever becomes its next highest and best use — and horse racing is not completely out of the picture — will become the mark of the bedroom community.
The village has crafted what it calls a “table-setting ordinance” to outline general parameters for the type of development that would best enhance “this truly unique and special place by preserving the natural amenities on the property and including sustainable features,” Charles Witherington-Perkins, the town’s planning and community development director, told CoStar News.
“This is a very significant piece of property,” he said. “Any development will need to be part of a master-planned unit development. We don’t want to see piecemeal developments on the property.”
Arlington Heights has drawn up a list of uses it does not want to see, too, ranging from industrial warehouse or manufacturing sites to auto service stations and car washes.
Though Witherington-Perkins said the village welcomes the Bears’ purchase bid to Churchill Downs, he warned that a new home for the team was still a very premature matter. “There’s a long way to go on this with them and other potential interested parties,” he said, noting that the property owner has a big say in who purchases the land.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made it clear a move out of Soldier Field, where the Bears have a contractual obligation through 2033, will not be made without a fight. When asked for a request for comment, her office emailed a statement from her Twitter account:
“As part of the city’s recovery, many organizations are doubling down on their commitment to Chicago, and we expect the Chicago Bears to follow suit. ... This announcement from the Bears comes in the midst of negotiations for improvements at Soldier Field. This is clearly a negotiating tactic that the Bears have used before. ... I am committed to keeping the ‘Chicago’ name in our football team.”
The Bears have used threats of relocating in the past to gain leverage with the city, and in the 1970s even floated the idea of Arlington Heights. But former Mayor Richard J. Daley famously threatened legal action over using “Chicago” in the team's name, questioning how much interest there would be in the “Arlington Heights Bears.”