Ballpark Frankness

 

 

Philip Bess says a Twin Cities version of his stadium could be constructed in downtown Minneapolis for less than half the price of the mayor's proposal--about $150 million, including associated land-acquisition and infrastructure costs. It would satisfy the longings of Twins fans starved for outdoor baseball, create an intimate venue that could be woven into the city's existing fabric of buildings and streets, and make the ballpark affordable enough for the Twins to finance on their own. That would be good for fans, for taxpayers, and for the team, which could boast a unique, classic ballpark that would become its own attraction.

Like Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston, and Detroit's Tiger Stadium--the only classic urban ballparks that remain in existence (all but Wrigley are slated for demolition)--Bess's design would be tailored to its site's existing street grid, rather than made to overlap onto neighboring parcels. It would occupy a much smaller "footprint," thus dramatically reducing the costs of land acquisition, site preparation, raw materials, and labor. It would also provide the very intimacy that retro parks falsely lay claim to. In the 1997 Ellerbe Becket stadium design, for example, the upper deck is actually 9 feet higher up and 22 feet farther from home plate than the current setup in the football-oriented Metrodome. Bess's design, on the other hand, would call for the upper deck to sit directly above the lower deck, supported by columns. While these columns would necessitate a minuscule number of obstructed seats--perhaps 350--the tradeoff yields better seats for everyone else.

The typical knock against traditional urban ballparks, voiced most stridently by team owners and unquestioning sportswriters, is that they're great for fans seeking a link with baseball's nostalgic past but economically obsolete for owners in need of enormous revenue streams to keep their teams competitive. Not true, says Bess: A ballpark inspired by the traditional model can incorporate most of the amenities the new retro stadiums provide, including the big revenue generators like luxury boxes, club seats, and a stadium club. There's also room for catering facilities, as well as a restaurant and lounge.

How is this possible, given the traditional ballpark's smaller footprint? According to Bess, it's all in the design work. "The problem with today's [retro] stadiums is that they are not as cleverly designed as traditional urban ballparks," says Bess, now a professor of architecture at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. "The building program is inflated, and concourses and vertical circulation spaces [i.e., ramps and stairwells] are excessive."

This, Bess explains, results in stadium square footage that is two to three times greater than is necessary, which accounts for the retro parks' exorbitant cost. (Unlike that of a retro park, Bess's design would require an adjacent building to house team offices and possibly some workout facilities.)

But since the Twins wouldn't be paying for their stadium, they don't have to use any fiscal restraint when envisioning what will be built. They certainly don't have to be creative. In other words, they don't need someone like Bess, whose concerns run more to Wrigley-inspired ivy-covered walls and Green Monster-like features à la Fenway. As Bess sees it, those elements are what makes a ballpark special--and what binds fans to a team.

"Traditional ballparks are better for fans, better for neighborhoods, better for taxpayers, and in the long run, better for baseball," he says. "You'll have franchises that are identified with a place, because the place has character, and ultimately it becomes part of the team's character and the city's character."

First, though, you have to build them. In Chicago, after securing $150 million in public financing, White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn convinced the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority to retain the services of the architecture firm Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc. (HOK), who erected for them the "new Comiskey." To serious baseball fans, the stadium is a joke, a badly designed, mall-like behemoth with little character and upper-deck seats so far from the action that one could find more intimacy in front of a TV set. HOK went on to design Camden Yards in Baltimore, Jacobs Field in Cleveland, and Coors Field in Denver, and also has ballparks under way in San Francisco and Houston. (Ellerbe Becket, meanwhile, created Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix and the new Turner Field in Atlanta.)

As for Philip Bess's design, it never got anywhere. Despite stories in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and the Wall Street Journal that featured his ideas and renderings of Armour Field, the White Sox declined to review his proposal.

 

 

To understand why a publicly financed retro ballpark that costs more than $300 million, rather than a classic and intimate park that can be built for half that price, has become the prototype for new ballparks in the 1990s, it is necessary to know only that those who control a two-billion-dollar-a-year monopoly sport can pretty much do whatever they want. To understand how that kind of leverage was acquired, one must look back to the building of Chicago's new Comiskey Park, and how that process, coupled with the exponential growth of broadcast revenues in a sport that has no significant revenue sharing or salary controls, touched off a stadium-construction boom that has yet to abate.

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