Ballpark Frankness

In early 1986, after the Chicago White Sox had declared venerable Comiskey Park--then the oldest ballpark in America--obsolete and were threatening to leave for greener pastures in Florida, architect and baseball fan Philip Bess became alarmed. He'd heard rumblings that the White Sox were pushing for a massive "suburban" stadium, symmetrical in design and surrounded by parking lots, and felt such a structure would kill the Comiskey neighborhood on Chicago's south side and the baseball experience to be had there.

Bess was a 35-year-old one-man architectural firm with no clout among Chicago's movers and shakers. But he thought there was a better alternative for the area: Why not build a modern version of a ballpark from baseball's past, one that featured real grass, scenic views of the city skyline, quirky angles in the outfield, and seats that put fans in close proximity to the field of play?

The ballpark he proposed, named Armour Field (after the Armour Square park it would displace south of Comiskey), was patterned after Chicago's other famed baseball venue, Wrigley Field, and was able to accommodate more than 42,000 fans. The design included 66 revenue-generating luxury boxes, plus several thousand high-priced "club" seats. The plan also called for turning the old Comiskey playing field next door--where Shoeless Joe Jackson once roamed, and the site of the first all-star game in 1933--into a community park. The new ballpark would have caused minimal destruction to neighboring homes and perhaps served as a catalyst for an influx of new retail shops, offices, and housing in the area, a working-class neighborhood where little development had occurred. The estimated cost for the ballpark: $140 million.

This past month Minnesota Twins president Jerry Bell signed a letter of intent to move the team from the Metrodome in Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, where Mayor Norm Coleman has unveiled plans for a ballpark that would be "cozy and intimate with quirky outfield dimensions." It would seat 38,000 to 40,000 fans and include 65 luxury suites and approximately 4,000 club seats. Other than that, the plans are vague, though they seem to be based on a design proposed by the locally based architectural giant Ellerbe Becket for Twins owner Carl Pohlad in 1997, the main difference being that the 1997 design called for a retractable roof. (For more on the imprecision of the mayor's pitch, see accompanying sidebar.) The estimated price tag for Coleman's plan: $325 million.

Why so much? Have construction costs more than doubled since the late Eighties?

No. The fact of the matter is, the publicly financed stadium Coleman is pushing isn't "intimate" at all--nor, aside from its location, is it particularly "urban." The same can be said of all the pseudo-quaint (and exorbitantly priced) baseball-only venues that have been popping up at taxpayers' expense throughout this decade, from Baltimore to Cleveland to Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, and Arlington, Texas. Virtually all of the newly built facilities boast so-called retro features that purport to evoke baseball's bygone glory days: They're open-air structures with attractive brick façades and a pretty view of the city skyline, and they make some use of existing buildings nearby to provide a sense of connection with a particular place.

But it's mostly a veneer. Today's retro ballparks are huge structures, often 50 percent larger than an urban ballpark like Armour Field, and represent nothing more than an extravagant sham perpetrated by wealthy team owners, abetted by the politicians who shill for them. As ballpark consultant and former Los Angeles Times architecture critic John Pastier has suggested, "[J]ust stop calling these vast new stadiums traditional parks. Instead, label them what they really are: nostalgically packaged revenue machines geared to business entertainment."

Coleman and the Twins want a massive edifice like those that have been built in other cities, one that will allow the team to include bars, restaurants, swimming pools, amusement areas, and any other potentially revenue-enhancing amenity that a colossal public subsidy might buy. The only limits to the team's wish list will be its perception of what the local market will bear. In New York, for example, the Yankees demanded that a billion-dollar stadium/entertainment complex be built in Manhattan, while the Mets have their hearts set on an extravagant $500 million facility that features a retractable roof and a natural grass field that can actually be moved in and out of the stadium.

Coleman is brushing aside the fact that his ballpark can't be built in downtown St. Paul for anything close to $325 million. With the existing arrangement of highway ramps and maze of narrow streets, it will be impossible to move 40,000 baseball fans in and out of the city 81 times a year without creating horrendous traffic jams. (The place is a virtual parking lot during state tournament time, and fewer than 20,000 spectators attend those events.) Alleviating these problems in St. Paul would require significant capital expenditures, which, based on other cities' stadium projects involving freeway access and road improvements, could easily reach $150 million in additional costs.

Of course, money is no object when you're aiming to make your town a "world-class city." As with his plan for St. Paul's new hockey arena, Coleman expects to fund his new stadium by persuading the state Legislature to issue 30-year bonds that would be repaid with equal contributions by the state, the city of St. Paul, and the Twins. The mayor hopes to raise St. Paul's share of this estimated $25.5 million annual payment by persuading city voters to go to the polls in November and approve a nonbinding referendum that will allow the city to double its half-percent sales tax.

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