Comiskey Park, Our Laughable Landmark

We don’t like being laughed at, so we didn’t enjoy our conversation with Peter Bynoe, the public official responsible for building the new Comiskey Park and tearing down the old one.

The Romans who burned Carthage would admire Bynoe’s assignment, which is to wipe the old park from the face of the earth and seal the soil in asphalt. As Hot Type mentioned a few weeks ago, a gentler fate is now being promoted, namely sparing the diamond and playing field and enlarging Armour Square Park to the north to include them. A bit of the old brick wall, which dates back to 1910, when Comiskey was built, also would remain. This plan would sacrifice some 600 choice parking spaces, while pressing into service lots at nearby De La Salle High School and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The original sponsor of this proposal was a Park District planner named John Mac Manus. Appropriately, the idea has been taken over by a citizens group calling itself the Save Our Sox Field of Dreams Committee. Leaders of the committee are a publicist named Steve Knipstein, and Joel Malkin, who’s a mortgage company loan officer. They claim support from such bodies as the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the Society for American Baseball Research, and Friends of the Parks.

Hot Type is also in their corner. So when Peter Bynoe, the executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, found himself unable to discuss the “Field of Dreams” concept with a straight face, we took it personally.

“I am unilaterally, unalterably opposed to the concept,” said Bynoe, chuckling with disbelief. “We spend millions of dollars planning this whole thing. We spend millions of dollars building it. We get eight months from completion and someone wants to change it. That is not how you do multimillion-dollar deals in America.”

Bynoe scoffed at Malkin and Knipstein for throwing a new idea in his way “at the 11th hour.” But this is hardly the first time preservationists have spoken up for Comiskey Park. Two years ago, before the White Sox, the city of Chicago, and the state of Illinois completed their new stadium deal, various partisans of the old park testified that it should be spared and renovated. Bynoe heard from the Landmarks Preservation Council then. He heard from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Peter Bynoe seems to have forgotten that. Which is odd. For Bynoe wears several hats. He runs the Sports Facilities Authority. He’s also managing general partner of the Denver Nuggets basketball team, which takes him out of Chicago for days at a time and may account for his narrow focus on the stadium deal while he’s here.

And strangely enough, given his eagerness to level the oldest ballpark in the major leagues, Bynoe is chairman of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

We asked him if he wouldn’t mind commenting on Comiskey Park strictly from a preservationist’s point of view.

“Comiskey Park has been renovated, changed, at least four times in its history,” said Bynoe. “It no longer meets the criteria to become a Chicago landmark. That’s why it has not been treated as one. That’s why it is not one.”

This statement is ridiculous. The principal criterion for designating any building a Chicago landmark is that no major economic interest be offended. Just as Comiskey has not been designated, neither has Wrigley Field. Just as Wrigley Field has not been designated, neither has the Wrigley Building; neither was the Tribune Tower until a year and a half ago, when the Tribune Company cut a deal with Bynoe’s commission so larded with loopholes that it can still build almost anything it wants to on the property.

As Bynoe knows, the Department of the Interior declared two years ago that both Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field deserve to be national landmarks. The only reason they aren’t national landmarks is that they were privately owned and their owners objected. We reminded Bynoe that since Comiskey Park is now publicly owned, Washington can make it a national landmark anyway.

Bynoe laughed at that. “The only reason it’s publicly owned is so we could knock it down,” he said.

Aside from insisting that the momentum of a multimillion-dollar deal is irresistible, Bynoe raised a practical objection to the Field of Dreams proposal. “They’ve ignored the fact that there are two ramps going across 35th Street that will distribute 15,000 people every time the White Sox play,” he told us. “I don’t think they will appreciate being distributed to the middle of a playing field. I would like these geniuses to propose where these people are going to come in and out of the park.”

Knipstein told us there’s enough room between 35th Street and the old park’s playing field for crowds to descend onto a sidewalk. Even so, the field is certain to be trampled unless it’s guarded by a fence or the old brick wall, which would make it harder for departing crowds to disperse. That’s a price the Field of Dreams Committee must argue is worth paying.

There’s another problem. Knipstein and Malkin have been counting on neighborhood support. They may not get it. “We have three playing fields there now. It’s not like we need another playing field,” said a community spokesman. “We don’t get any cooperation from the Park District to get anything done there now, and it’d just be more headaches for us to have to deal with.”

Lights Out, Times Up

Sassy. Young. Hip. Urban. That was the concept, Neon was the product, and less than a year after it was born it’s dead. The Chicago magazine spinoff was tagged a “downtown book” by national advertisers, and these are times (hard enough for any magazine) that are deadly for downtown books: New York’s Details and 7 Days are two more luminous titles that preceded Neon into the grave.

Neon was supposed to go monthly in September. But in late July signals were switched–the September and October issues would be combined and the next publication date would be pushed back from mid-August to mid-September. But so little advertising was being sold that a few days later editorial director Hillel Levin bit the bullet; Neon was a project very close to his heart, but he shut it down.

“Just as we were getting some support locally, the bottom dropped out of national advertising,” Levin told us. “It’s a jungle out there. Fear and loathing stalk the streets, especially Madison Avenue. Advertisers want to put their eggs into proven, established baskets.”

There’s a backdrop to Neon’s execution. Levin and Kirk Cheyfitz, the other top executive at Chicago, are working on a three-way deal in which Adams Communications Corporation of Minneapolis sells Chicago to a new entity called Chicago Publishing Inc., consisting of Levin, Cheyfitz, and Landmark Communications of Norfolk, Virginia. “This gives us enhanced resources and a bigger well to draw on,” Levin told Crain’s Chicago Business.

But Levin and the other parties haven’t actually closed yet. There’s a perception around Chicago that Neon was thrown overboard to save the sale. Levin wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but he told us, “It didn’t help that we were in this limbo state.” Levin had told Crain’s about various new features he was about to add to Chicago. Now, “they’re in limbo, too.”

For another doleful tale, there’s Chicago Times. Publisher Todd Fandell just sent out a most unusual press release dumping on local financiers while announcing that he “is close to calling it quits on a year-long struggle to find adequate financing.”

Fandell has been looking for financing since the Small Newspaper Group decided not to throw good money after bad and gave him back his magazine, which Fandell had founded but seen snatched from his hands by the Small family, his principal investors. Fandell’s hopes tended to run high–we recently wrote about a deal he thought he’d struck with a Glenview holding company–but his pockets always wound up empty. Writing his press release, he let his exasperation rule.

“The larger problem for us all along has been the lack in Chicago of an active and interested business community attuned to consumer publishing . . . ” said the announcement. “There is precious little fundamental understanding and knowledge of publishing within the financial and business community here. . . . Many potential sources of capital have closed minds when it comes to the publishing business.”

Fandell continues to insist that he’s offering investors a golden opportunity, even though magazines are dying right and left. “When the rocky period’s over in another 18 months or so,” he told us, “the people who stick it out and are positioned to take advantage of an upturn will be better off. There’ll be less competition.”

Unfortunately, his optimism was not infectious. “People who were interested in us earlier in the year say now they’re too scared of the industry . . .

“So we’re sort of tapped out here.”

City News Party: Check It Out

Ever work for City News Bureau? The Paris Island of Chicago journalism is celebrating its centennial with a bash at the Westin Hotel October 6, and all alumni are welcome. If that means you, call CNB at 782-8100. Don’t worry about calling on deadline, City News is always on deadline. But you know that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.