By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
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.
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.
In the early 1980s, shortly after buying the White Sox, Reinsdorf and Einhorn began complaining that their franchise wasn't sufficiently profitable. It's an old refrain in baseball; the desire for greater profits fueled the franchise moves of the Fifties and Sixties (including the one that brought the Washington Senators to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins), and in the Seventies usually led to a team winning some capital improvements or a larger percentage of concession revenue from the public entity that served as the stadium's landlord.
The White Sox, however, owned Comiskey Park, which was in need of major improvements. Rather than borrow money and rehabilitate a classic old ballpark, they suggested that a publicly financed stadium be built in suburban Addison, Illinois. When a referendum there failed, they threatened to move the team to St. Petersburg, Florida. Thanks to intense lobbying by baseball officials and pressure applied by then governor Jim Thompson, the state Legislature approved funding for construction bonds and the Sox got a stadium in Chicago.
To architects and visitors alike, the edifice is a travesty: It's a "superblock" suburban building that squats on a 15-acre parcel of land--a footprint that's 50 percent bigger than the one the old ballpark occupied. The structure soars 146 feet above the city streets--almost twice the height of its predecessor. The upper deck seats are so distant from the field and angled so sharply that the last row of seats in the old Comiskey was actually closer to home plate than is the first row of upper-deck seats in the new park. Additionally, the stadium is surrounded by a sea of parking lots, and ancillary development in the area has been nil.
Still, for the fraternity of baseball owners, the construction of the new Comiskey was a watershed. It legitimized blackmail, public financing, and sweetheart leases as standard parts of stadium negotiations, and established an architecturally unconstrained, outrageously priced facility as the norm. In Baltimore, the Orioles followed the White Sox' tactical lead but managed to avoid aesthetic catastrophe by implementing a quasi-urban design featuring a beautifully manicured field set against a nostalgic backdrop of older buildings and the Baltimore skyline. And when Camden Yards opened to sellout crowds, every owner in baseball wanted one just like it. During this decade eight new stadiums have been built; another four are under construction, and ground will probably be broken for as many as five more in the next few years. All but one--Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco--have been financed almost entirely with public money. According to published figures for stadium costs, by the end of the year 2000, municipal debt for baseball park construction and financing could exceed five billion dollars.
"The Twins want the public to enable them to make as much money as possible," says Neil deMause, who along with co-author Joanna Cagan wrote the exposé Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit. "Teams don't even have to decide on an architectural plan until after the money's been approved. They say, 'What can we do for this amount of money?' That's why the Seattle Mariners had huge cost overruns on Safeco Field--they came up with all these design changes after the concrete had already been poured."
With site requirements that often force the removal of older buildings and housing units and invariably lead to more parking lots and plazas (Coors Field in Denver avoids some of these pitfalls), retro parks promote little urban revitalization or economic development in the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, Mark Rosentraub, a professor of urban planning at Indiana University who has extensively studied the impact of sports facilities on jobs and revenues, found that the $400 million construction cost of Jacobs Field in Cleveland yielded a net job creation of only 2,000 lower-paying service-sector positions in the Gateway region that surrounds the ballpark.
"For publicly financed auto plants--like Isuzu in Indiana--government expenditures can run as high as $100,000 per job, and these costs are often criticized. But at least these are high-tech positions," says Rosentraub. "At a cost of $200,000 per job created, the issue of economic benefits connected with Jacobs Field isn't even worth mentioning."
Rosentraub also notes that the issue of potential job gains from ballparks is moot when you consider the net tax loss to the public: In Baltimore, for instance, Camden Yards yields $3 million in revenue for the city, while taxpayers foot the annual $14 million tax payment on the state bonds issued to pay for the stadium's construction.
As the White Sox settled into their new stadium, disparities in revenue between small- and large-market clubs were growing. Huge increases in the demand for local and regional sports programming brought on by advances in broadcast technology yielded a veritable pot of gold for large-market teams such as the Yankees, Mets, and Dodgers. The Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves, owned by media conglomerates, kept pace by building large national followings through team-controlled cable networks.
Although the White Sox's owners didn't benefit from any significant gain in broadcast revenues, they did have a new cost-free ballpark--a competitive advantage not lost on other clubs. What better revenue stream could one possibly imagine than a taxpayer-funded ballpark? Given free stadiums, teams like the Orioles, Indians, Rangers, and Rockies could afford to vie for high-priced free agents. The result has been an enormous increase in player salaries, with superstars now pulling down as much as $15 million annually--two to three times what they earned as little as three years ago.
The Twins, a small-market team that has not had a meaningful free-agent signing since they snagged Paul Molitor in 1995, now insist that a brand-new retro park is necessary for them to "compete" in this out-of-control market. But even if the Twins enjoyed greater revenue streams, any potential increase in payroll will undoubtedly be matched dollar for dollar by all of the large-market teams, not to mention all the other small-market clubs that will soon boast their own publicly donated stadiums. Mark Rosentraub sums it up this way: "Even if the public builds the Twins a stadium for free, they will never be competitive and profitable in this market."
New stadiums and high payrolls don't guarantee winners, either. The Orioles, whose staggering $78.5 million payroll is the second-highest in baseball, are just a few games better than the Twins, whose payroll ranks among the lowest. And the Twins could always follow the lead of the San Diego Padres: After San Diego agreed to build its team a new stadium, last year's National League champs slashed their payroll and jettisoned many top players.
Stadiums do contribute to a huge growth in the bar and restaurant business, as well as the parking industry. (The city of Detroit is even allowing casinos to be built around its new downtown ballpark, slated to replace Tiger Stadium next year.) This, in turn, reinforces the image of downtowns as entertainment zones rather than as places to live. Fine if you think $325 million is an appropriate subsidy for a few more Twin Cities dining and drinking establishments, but not so good if you're honestly after a "new urban village," as Norm Coleman claims he wants to build around the ballpark.
Because publicly financed stadiums are typically owned by a governmental agency that doesn't pay any property taxes, a new stadium also removes a sizable chunk of land from a municipality's property-tax rolls. With teams often enjoying complete control over all stadium-generated revenues (rather than just those that result from baseball events), rent payments are merely the return of a subsidy that would have come directly to the stadium authority had it retained management control of the facility. In most cases the public actually suffers a net tax loss.
At the same time, however, a publicly financed stadium enhances the value of a franchise--which helps explain why octogenarian billionaire Carl Pohlad continues to hang on to the Twins despite losing millions of dollars every year. The fact that the Baltimore Orioles were sold at a profit of $103 million after Camden Yards was completed in 1992 hasn't escaped him, nor has the fact that the Cleveland Indians, now on the market for $350 million, were purchased for a mere $35 million in 1986.
It's unfortunate that Coleman, like baseball's number one booster, Commissioner Bud Selig, has no interest in numbers unless they bolster his argument. Because if he were to take a look at baseball's attendance figures, he'd learn that the sport never recovered from the fan alienation caused by the 1994-95 strike. In other words, without the advent of public stadium subsidies, many teams would still be suffering annual losses of five to ten million dollars.
In 1993 major league baseball set an all-time attendance record of 70.2 million, thanks in part to 7.5 million fans who came to watch expansion teams in Colorado and Florida, as well as strong turnout at the year-old Camden Yards. Then came the strike and subsequent lockout, resulting in attendance of just over 50 million in both 1994 and 1995. The following year numbers rebounded to 60.1 million--14.4 percent below 1993, the most recent complete regular season. In 1997 attendance grew a mere 1.3 percent, to 62.6 million. Which brought us to 1998, a year Selig anointed as one that would represent the "middle stages of a remarkable recovery [from the strike]."
Indeed, abetted by the greatest home-run race in history, a perfect game, and a dominating New York Yankees championship team, baseball did set a new all-time attendance record last year, with 70.6 million fans. But 6.1 million of those fans were accounted for by the expansion cities of Tampa Bay and Phoenix. With those numbers subtracted, attendance grew all of three percent last year--down eight percent from 1993's all-time high. And this year, even with honest-to-goodness pennant races under way, another perfect game, and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa locked in a second consecutive home-run duel, attendance through August 15 is up just one percent over last year. Perhaps tellingly, the biggest attendance gain--a whopping 30 percent--has been posted by Detroit, a losing club that's playing its final season in one of the only remaining traditional ballparks. Meanwhile, turnout at the year-old, state-of-the-art Bank One Ballpark (complete with swimming pool!), where the resident Arizona Diamondbacks lead their division and boast the best left-hander in baseball in Randy Johnson, is down 18 percent compared to last year.
Says Field of Schemes co-author Neil deMause: "The new-stadium rip-off is just a way for owners to avoid admitting that they don't know how to draw fans, that they are unable to successfully market baseball as a game," rather than as a gimmick. And the massive public-financing deals have simply given the owners the financial wiggle room to ignore their sport's ills until another clever strategy can be hatched--be it international expansion, ads on players' uniforms, or demands for outright subsidies once stadium revenues run dry.
Baseball used to be a game for everyone, drawing people from all backgrounds and economic classes. Though they may have paid different prices for their tickets, fans generally ate the same food, drank the same beer, and used the same bathrooms. They also sat in better seats, thanks to ballparks that put everyone as close to the action as possible. Nostalgia aside, those days are gone.
Next to the public-financing myth, the biggest lie about retro ballparks is that their smaller seating capacity makes them more intimate. Retro parks are designed to please owners rather than fans, and teams have made a deliberate effort to target corporate "clients" and the affluent at the expense of the middle class. Consider, for example, the publicity materials distributed by Ellerbe Becket in 1997 to describe the amenities of the proposed new Twins park. Seats in the lower deck would "provide fans with the ballpark's most intimate seating options," while fans sitting in the skyway level ("just 22 feet above the playing field") would have "an incredible view of the action...." Contrast these delights with those available to fans in the upper deck, 71 feet above the action: "Fans will enter this deck at row eight with the option of going up or down." Makes the average fan pretty eager to whip out his wallet to help pay for a ballpark, doesn't it?
At the same time the typical fan is being pushed away from the action in a retro ballpark, he or she is being made to pay more for the privilege of sitting there. Building amenities such as cafés and bars into the prime seating area of the lower deck translates into higher ticket prices. At Camden Yards ticket prices have doubled in less than seven years. And with lower-deck and club seats available on a season-ticket basis only in most new parks, the best seats simply aren't available to the average fan. Now contrast Philip Bess's 42,000-seat stadium design with the currently touted Twins plan, which costs twice as much to construct yet presumably includes only 26 rows of lower-deck seats (versus the 36 rows at the Metrodome) and has room for only 38,000 fans. But then, Bess didn't include important amenities like "access to personal computers and online services" that will be available to guests in the Twins' proposed new luxury suites.
While Minnesotans starved for outdoor baseball may not appreciate these concerns now, once the rediscovered novelty of the fresh-air game wears off, fans will stay away in droves as the game's built-in economic disparities force the Twins to field perennially inept teams. As longtime White Sox fan Doug Bukowski observes in Field of Schemes: "You put kids up there where they can't see...they get bored. And you don't make them baseball fans. Which means when they become adults, they don't want to go....[I]n the long run baseball, by pursuing these types of new stadiums, is only eroding its fan base."
In the strange world of sports finance, home teams typically share ticket revenues with visiting clubs but keep all revenues for luxury-box rentals and so-called personal seat licenses--a payment ($3,000 for the lower deck at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco) in exchange for permanent rights to a particular seat. That's why luring corporate rentals and club-seating customers is so crucial. The Twins ownership is well aware that their fan base is too small to support franchises in four major sports; Pohlad and Co. only hope they can skim off as much money as possible before the market becomes saturated with the debut of a new hockey franchise and a new or remodeled facility for the Vikings. Mark Rosentraub likens the situation to that facing the hockey, baseball, and football clubs in Pittsburgh. "The regional economy is growing, but it is not large enough to sustain three teams," says Rosentraub. "So the Penguins teeter on bankruptcy and there is 'hope' that the Pirates and Steelers can make it in new facilities."
According to Field of Schemes authors Cagan and deMause, the Twins are simply following a time-tested pattern: First assert that your present stadium is inferior. Next talk about the need for more revenue to remain competitive and threaten to move to another city. Should those moves not produce the desired result, issue "glowing" reports on all the economic-growth and employment potential that a new downtown stadium will provide. Then keep a low profile and wait for public resistance to wane. If this strategy fails to produce a new stadium, simply repeat all the steps.
"In city after city, the people who want a new stadium built are usually the same people who are chummy with the media: politicians, business leaders, team owners," says Cagan. "Groups opposed to new stadiums are hard-pressed to get any favorable coverage by the media and are dramatically outspent and outfunded by corporate interests who want a new ballpark. Owners will be resistant to listening to any alternatives."
At any time he wishes, Twins owner Carl Pohlad can build a stadium that will solve his team's current revenue shortage, give loyal fans (a record three million of whom turned out in 1988) an intimate ballpark with classic features, and dramatically increase the value of his franchise. With naming rights that typically bring in $30 million to $50 million in other markets and a hometown municipality certain to help out with land and infrastructure costs (in the range of $25 million to $50 million), the old guy would probably have to shell out no more than $60 million--all of which would come back to him in added value, should he choose to sell. If Pohlad feels such an investment still isn't prudent, baseball's other 29 owners could throw in a few million apiece (chump change for them), and an urban ballpark in Minneapolis would be a done deal.
Admittedly, revenue from a traditional ballpark won't generate every last penny that a greedy owner might snare from a cash-cow retro park. But the potential shortfall hardly provides the justification for never considering such a ballpark in the first place.
Pohlad, however, has no intention of doing what's reasonable. He'll simply let Norm Coleman and his sidekick Erich Mische do their best to con the public, while sportswriters like Patrick Reusse and Sid Hartman carry water in the local media. Undoubtedly, should support for a traditional urban ballpark gain any significant momentum among members of the public, the Twins will quickly find some "topnotch" expert from a big architectural firm to discredit the idea as "well-intentioned but misguided," a label that has been attached to efforts by fan groups in Chicago, Detroit, and Boston that have attempted to offer alternatives to razing the classic ballparks in those cities.
With Pohlad's failure last year to unload the Twins to North Carolina, the threat of moving the club has become an unlikely option. The only feasible ballpark currently available to a major league team is RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.--a market Orioles owner Peter Angelos won't surrender without a vicious legal battle. Another municipality may build a new ballpark on spec, but there has been no movement on that front to date.
The Twins, it appears, are stuck with us. They can continue to push for a stadium the public has no intention of supporting, or they can do something no other club has done in 75 years--build a truly urban ballpark. In a well-designed, reasonably priced venue in Minneapolis, outdoor baseball would bloom, fans would turn out, and media coverage of baseball would return to where it belongs: the sports pages. There'd only be one problem: Norm Coleman wouldn't get to be mayor of a "world-class city."
WHO'S ON FIRST?
ST. PAUL MAYOR Norm Coleman wants to build "an open air riverfront ballpark, nestled within a vital new urban village" somewhere in his city's downtown. According to an August 2 letter of intent signed by the Twins and the city of St. Paul, the design "will be an open air renaissance-style ballpark of a quality comparable to recently constructed parks," consisting of 38,000 to 40,000 seats and approximately 65 luxury suites and 4,000 club seats. Beyond that, there seems to be no detailed plan.
But at public forums held during the past two months around St. Paul, city officials and representatives of pro-development organizations have touted five potential sites for the stadium that were selected by the architectural firm Ellerbe Becket--the company that submitted a ballpark design back in 1997 when Twins owner Carl Pohlad started agitating for a new home for his team.
Is Coleman's ballpark plan an Ellerbe project? Depends who you ask.
When I called Lisa Haller, Ellerbe's communication manager in Minneapolis, she told me the firm's 42,000-seat design is the working model for Coleman's current proposal, minus the original plan's retractable roof. But she was unsure where changes would be made in the seating arrangement to reduce the capacity to Coleman's stated size, and referred me to Twins communications director Dave St. Peter for specifics.
St. Peter wouldn't provide any details--or much of anything else concerning what a St. Paul stadium might look like. "There is no active design at this time," he declared. "No architect has been hired for this project." When I asked about the Ellerbe model, he stated that it was "off the table." When I inquired as to how the Twins could establish a ceiling price of $277 million for the construction portion of the $325 million project (as indicated in the letter of intent) without working from a specific architectural design, St. Peter replied that the figure was based on estimates provided by the local construction firm M.A. Mortenson and other parties. "The ballpark will be of a renaissance-style nature," he ventured. "We want a design that will give us the best opportunity to have a stadium that will remain state-of-the-art for as many years as possible," he added, offering assurances that the Twins have a "strong desire to include fans" in the stadium-design process and "will do everything to keep the cost down."
I found it odd that St. Peter would disavow any relationship between Ellerbe and the Twins when his team has signed a letter of intent with the city of St. Paul and the firm's architects are working with Mayor Coleman and his allies on design proposals. And how could Ellerbe's local media contact not know her company was out of the picture as far as the baseball team was concerned?
When I called Haller back, she referred me to communications director Stuart Smith, who works in Ellerbe's Kansas City, Missouri, offices, home to the firm's professional sports design group. Smith informed me that Ellerbe has done no paid work for the Twins since early 1998. In fact, he added, the company's only current work in conjunction with Minnesota sports facilities was a redesign of the Metrodome prepared for the Metropolitan Sports Commission.
Was it possible, I asked Smith, that Ellerbe might indeed be working on a design for the Twins but for reasons of confidentiality he wasn't permitted to divulge any information? "Because we establish separate teams to work on different stadium proposals, it's possible that I might not have all of the specifics at a particular time," he replied.
As communications director he wouldn't know of a design team working on a $325 million professional sports project?
Smith said he'd do some more digging.
He subsequently called back to impart that Ellerbe was under contract with two pro-development St. Paul organizations that are working with Coleman: the Capital City Partnership and the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation.
Given that those groups are working directly with the city in the design process, aren't the Twins just splitting hairs claiming that Ellerbe isn't working for them? "Would Ellerbe love to design the Twins' new ballpark in Minnesota? Absolutely," Smith replied. "Are we under contract to do so? Not at this time." (Tom Goldstein)
Tom Goldstein is publisher of the baseball journal Elysian Fields Quarterly, a founding member of FAIRball (Baseball Fans of America in Revolt), and a resident of St. Paul. His publishing company, Knothole Press, has just reissued Philip Bess's City Baseball Magic: Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense About Cities and Baseball Parks, a book that details the advantages of traditional urban ballparks over today's retro parks.