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Feds accuse Chicago Cubs of eliminating disability access at Wrigley Field

The government claims recent renovations expanded luxury amenities at the century-old stadium at the cost of eliminating accessible seating for fans with disabilities.

CHICAGO (CN)  — The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois sued the Chicago Cubs and the owners of Wrigley Field on Thursday morning, claiming a stadium makeover resulted in violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The suit alleges recent $1 billion renovations to the 108-year-old baseball stadium failed to provide - and in fact eliminated - proper accessibility features for baseball fans with disabilities.

The renovations were collectively deemed The 1060 Project, after Wrigley Field's address at 1060 W. Addison Street on Chicago's North Side. Construction began after the end of the 2014 season and largely concluded in 2019. Billed as a "long-awaited restoration and expansion of Wrigley Field," it added numerous luxury amenities to the stadium, including new premium seating areas, indoor restaurants and bars.

"This multi-year upgrade is designed to ensure the viability of the ballpark for future generations of Cubs fans, while preserving the beauty, charm and historic features fans have come to know and love," an overview of the project states.

According to U.S. Attorney John Lausch's office, these new premium features came at the cost of eliminating wheelchair-accessible general seating on multiple levels of the stadium. Combined with the high price of the new luxury seating areas, it effectively limits wheelchair-bound general admission fans to only a handful of seats.

"Wrigley Field previously had 15 general admission wheelchair seats with excellent, unobstructed views over standing spectators on the main bleacher concourse in right field, but the Cubs eliminated those wheelchair seats during the 1060 Project by converting that space into the Budweiser Patio, a group seating area," the lawsuit claims. "Wheelchair users can sit inside the Budweiser Patio, but only if they are part of a group that has rented the space."

Even for those fans with disabilities who can afford to reserve space in the new luxury areas, the suit claims several lack wheelchair-accessible entrances and proper wheelchair seating.

"The newly constructed Hornitos Hacienda group seating area in left field does not have any wheelchair seats or an accessible route allowing wheelchair users to reach the space. An older club constructed in 2005, the 'Fannie May Bleacher Sweet' in center field, does not have an accessible route either," the complaint states.

The Justice Department began its investigation into Wrigley Field in 2019, after attorney David A. Cerda filed a federal lawsuit against the Cubs in 2017 on behalf of his son, David F. Cerda, who has muscular dystrophy. That suit has yet to be resolved.

"In 2017, [Cerda] attended Cubs games at Wrigley Field and though he would have liked to, he was unable to sit in the right field bleachers because there are no wheelchair seats in the right field bleachers," the 2017 suit claimed.

The seating that remains available to wheelchair-bound fans is located in areas of the stadium that are known for poor visibility and uncomfortable conditions, the suit from Lausch's office claims. One such area situated on ground level along the center field, known as the Batter's Eye, is known for getting uncomfortably hot in the summer and is separated from the rest of the bleachers. It is also often used by TV camera crews or as standing room for able-bodied fans, further reducing the space available for fans in wheelchairs.

The suit further alleges that the 1060 Project construction eliminated 19 wheelchair-accessible seats in the stadium's upper deck to make room for a premium seating area called the Catalina Club.

"Wrigley Field previously had 19 general admission wheelchair seats underneath the press box and directly behind home plate, but the Cubs eliminated these wheelchair seats to make room for the Catalina Club and moved them down the first and third base lines," the suit reads.

The suit claims that overall, Wrigley Field has less than a quarter of the wheelchair-accessible aisle seats it is supposed to have per the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of its approximately 3,734 grandstand aisle seats, there should be 187 that are wheelchair-accessible, evenly distributed across the stadium. There are currently only 44.

Besides the seating itself, the suit also claims there are numerous architectural barriers in Wrigley Field that prevent fans with disabilities from fully enjoying the game. Some of these barriers were put in place by the 1060 Project construction, the suit alleges. Others are preexisting features that could have been removed during the renovations, but weren't.

"For example, counter surfaces throughout the stadium are too high for wheelchair users, including ticket windows, concession stands, and condiment stations," the suit claims. "Additionally, Wrigley Field has protruding objects along circulation paths that impede individuals who are blind or have low vision, as well as restrooms...with inaccessible elements (e.g., paper towel dispensers that are too high and out of reach for wheelchair users)." (Parentheses in original)

To rectify these accessibility issues, the U.S. Attorney's Office is asking a federal judge to levy an injunction on the Cubs and Wrigley Field's owners that compels them to build more accessible seating and remove accessibility barriers throughout the stadium. Prosecutors are also asking for compensatory damages "in an appropriate amount for injuries suffered as a result of the defendants’ noncompliance with the ADA."

A statement from the Cubs legal team released Thursday states that the team is "disappointed" by U.S. Attorney's Office decision to file suit. In response to the 2019 investigation, the statement claims the team has "fully cooperated with every inquiry" and made a conscious effort to improve Wrigley Field's accessibility.

"Wrigley Field is now more accessible than ever in its 108-year history," the statement says, pointing to the addition of 11 elevators and new listening technology for hearing-impaired fans.

The U.S. Attorney's Office disagreed with the team's assessment.

“For 32 years, the ADA has set clear requirements to ensure that public venues such as sports facilities are accessible,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a prepared statement accompanying the suit.  “The Justice Department will vigorously enforce the law to ensure that fans with disabilities and their families are able to enjoy their ballpark experience.”

Stantec Architecture, Thornton Tomasetti and Pepper Construction, three architecture, engineering and construction firms involved with the design and construction of the 1060 Project, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. They are not named as defendants in the suit.

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