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Cubs' Dispute With Rooftop Owners Gets Even More Contentious

You didn't think this would get resolved peacefully, did you?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The dispute between the Cubs and owners of rooftop clubs surrounding Wrigley Field has dragged on for years. It delayed the beginning of the Wrigley restoration project under threat of lawsuit.

This report in the Tribune indicates that things still aren't good between the team and the rooftop owners. Why?

At a meeting of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which has approved several outfield signs that could obstruct rooftop views, a lawyer for a handful of rooftop clubs accused a team official of using the proposed signs to intimidate owners into selling their businesses below market value.

"Crane Kenney repeatedly told rooftop owners that ... he could now block their views and put them out of business," attorney Tom Moore said of the team's president of business operations. "Alternatively, he said that he would buy their businesses at fire sale prices — take it or leave it."

George Loukas, who owns three rooftop clubs, told the Tribune that the negotiating playing field is not level, but he was more diplomatic about the situation.

"The Cubs are holding all the cards," he said. "They have all the leverage."

About a month ago it was reported (and chronicled here at BCB) that Loukas was in negotiations to sell a couple of the buildings he owns to the Ricketts family. To my knowledge, that deal has not yet been completed.

The Tribune article quotes Ricketts family spokesman Dennis Culloton about Moore's statement:

"Mr. Moore zealously advocates for his clients, but the Cubs and the Ricketts family are doing exactly what the team chairman said he would do last summer," Culloton said. "The team spent a year negotiating with rooftops and amid threats of litigation won the right to put up signs. Ultimately, all of the discussions have involved the team discussing values far in excess of what North Side real estate would justify."

The rest of the article sums up the dispute to date, and also gives this interesting information from Max Waisvisz, who is a part-owner of one of the clubs:

Last month, partners in three rooftop buildings on Sheffield were threatened with foreclosure in a lawsuit brought by Fifth Third Bank. The bank accuses the owners of failing to make payments on two multimillion-dollar mortgages.

Max Waisvisz, one of the partners, said the bank also pulled the rooftops' line of credit — $1.4 million — that they expected to help pay the bills during the offseason and is limiting preparation for next season.

He said they are working on a bank loan but still would need an additional $5 million from investors, a feat Waisvisz conceded is proving tough.

"People don't want to invest in my rooftops because of the uncertainty of the views," he said.

"We just want to get out of it," he added.

This would seem the likely endgame for pretty much all the building owners on Waveland and Sheffield. These businesses began, and had their heyday, from the late 1990s to the late 2000s, a decade during which the Cubs had attendance peaks and multiple playoff appearances. During that time it was likely easy for the rooftop clubs to sell out most games and make money. With the team playing poorly over the last five seasons and the economy still recovering from recession, it's no surprise that these businesses have had some problems.

As I've written before, it was one of Tribune Company's biggest mistakes not to buy all these buildings in the early 1980s when they could have been had for relatively small sums. The Ricketts family will have to pay more for them, obviously, but whether those are "fire sale" prices or not remains to be seen.

In my view, the Cubs and/or the Ricketts family will wind up owning most if not all of the buildings on Waveland and Sheffield and can thus expand the team's footprint. What they eventually use those buildings for is a question that might not be answered for many years to come.