Diamonds in the Rough

Two cheers for the new baseball palaces.

Fourscore and seven years ago, the first steel and concrete baseball palace opened for business. Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, home to the Athletics and later the Phillies, was one of 13 urban ballparks built in the seven-year period now regarded as the golden age of ballpark architecture. All but three (Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Tiger Stadium) have since been razed.

Replacing parks built of wood, these ballyards set new standards for size, fire safety, intimacy, and convenience. As places to watch ballgames, they were vastly superior to the post-World War II parks, especially the facilities designed in the late ‘60s and ‘70s that doubled as football stadiums. But these concrete monsters, plopped into vast parking lots in Houston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, lack the character of the classic parks.

Chicago’s New Comiskey Park, which opened in 1991, attempted to address the character question with a superficial postmodern facade that in some ways resembled the exterior of the golden-era park it replaced. New Comiskey was marketed as an old-fashioned park with all the modern conveniences. But inside, it was still a symmetrical concrete monster, and it sat in the middle of a 7,000-car parking lot rather than in an urban neighborhood.

A year later, a new–yet more genuinely old–ballpark arrived to dispel the gloom. Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards revived the idea of a quirkily asymmetrical, relatively intimate, steel-structured, city-friendly ballpark. “Once this opens,” predicted Commissioner of Baseball Bart Giamatti, “everyone will want one like it.” And so it came to be: Camden Yards’ successors in Cleveland, Arlington (Texas), and Denver, and those designed for Milwaukee, Seattle, and San Francisco, take their cues from Baltimore’s conceptual breakthrough. Even totally nontraditional parks, like those in Phoenix, Miami, and Tampa Bay, emulate the asymmetry of the Camden Yards outfield. It’s almost as though a disembodied voice intoned, “If you build it, they will copy.”

While Camden Yards and its offspring are almost universally praised, some of them don’t deserve the hype. The most annoying hype is that all the new parks are intimate, and that every seat is better at the new place than the old. Intimacy has two aspects–actual size and the subjective perception of size and scale. A good architect can ace the second part of the test through convincing forms, good proportions, and attractive materials. The exposed steelwork, brick, stone, tile, and well-placed wall openings of the new parks beat the cold and sterile stadiums of a generation ago.

For the new parks’ charms, we should be thankful. But in actual size, the new ballyards are not intimate. All their amenities–elevators, wider concourses, abundant toilets (especially for women), bathrooms, escalators, plentiful food stands, and luxury suites–make them far larger than the parks they claim to emulate. These parks are larger than even the multipurpose hulks we all love to hate. Compare, for instance, the spanking new Ballpark at Arlington (49,100 seats), which rests on 13.6 acres, to Seattle’s Kingdome, a 58,000-seat multipurpose stadium that opened in 1976 and covers 9.3 acres. (Ebbets Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers, occupied a mere 5.7 acres and seated 32,000.)

Or compare heights: New Comiskey Park’s roof is 146 feet above field level; old Comiskey Park was about 75 feet high. This is not ballpark trivia, but an indicator of fan experience: Upper-deck seats in the new, taller stadiums are farther away from the action. At Arlington, the fan sitting in the middle-row, upper-deck seat closest to home plate is 224 feet from the batter, compared to 125 feet at Tiger Stadium, a park with 4,300 more seats.

Why are upper-deck seats in the new parks so far from the game? Two reasons: column placement and luxury seating.

In the old parks, the structural columns stood within the seating areas, placing the upper-deck seats closer to the game. The trade-off was that these columns obstructed the view of some fans. Today’s architects “remedy” the problem by placing the columns behind the seating areas, thus moving the upper decks back from the field. (It should be noted that the new parks’ claim that they have no impaired-view seats is an overstatement.)

Added tiers devoted to luxury seating at the new parks also push the upper deck away from the field. The retreat of that deck is a century-long process, but it can be stemmed. The Orioles pressed for several design changes that lowered Camden Yards’ top deck and produced a middle-row viewing distance of 199 feet, about eight rows closer than Arlington’s.

Design references to golden-age ballparks are only one parallel between that period and ours. We are also matching that era’s frenzied pace of construction: Twenty-six of Major League Baseball’s 32 franchises occupy a park that is less than 10 years old; has been, or will be, extensively remodeled; or hope to move into a new one soon.

One of the classic parks’ merits was that they were unsubsidized. Team owners bought land and paid for stadium construction–some even built trolley lines to transport fans to the games. In all but two cases during the last 65 years, taxpayers have covered most or all of the costs of stadium building.

The San Francisco Giants are planning a similar arrangement for their bayfront stadium, assembling about $240 million in private funds and persuading the city to pay for some of the infrastructure. The Giants say that other team owners are rooting against their scheme, because it calls into question the profligate public subsidies. Some of the subsidies exceed capital and maintenance costs: If the White Sox fail to draw 1.5 million annual fans at New Comiskey Park in the 11th through 20th years of their lease, the state of Illinois is contractually obliged to cover the shortfall at the gate by buying upto 300,000 tickets.

You’d expect that the public would get something, perhaps affordable seats, in return for subsidizing stadiums. Instead, the cheap seats in the new parks are scarcer. The Seattle Mariners’ proposed park, for instance, will contain about one-fourth as many general-admission seats as the present location. This erosion of low-cost seats is a long-running trend.

So too is the dramatic increase in luxury seating, which is the primary real reason for the ballpark-building boom. The real gold mines are the posh luxury suites that lease for between $30,000 and $200,000 a year (payable in advance). A comparable moneymaker is the club deck, just above the first-tier seating. These pricey sections are occupied usually on a season-ticket basis, and offer the best sightlines, roomier seats, and wait staff who peddle gourmet fare.

The gilding doesn’t end there: New parks also include members-only stadium clubs and on-premises bars and restaurants.

Naturally, owners don’t advertise their new parks as a means of making life better for elite ticketholders. They say that only a new stadium will allow them to make enough money to stay in town or to field a competitive team and to allow fans to savor that old-time baseball flavor in greater comfort and convenience. Local taxpayers tend to lay off this pitch–they have voted these measures down in Illinois, Washington state, California, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Politically savvy owners usually bypass the voters and tap state governments directly for the money.

Larger and more lavish stadiums translate into greater land and construction costs. Operable roofs, such as those in Toronto’s SkyDome, Phoenix’s BankOne Ballpark, and those proposed for Seattle and Milwaukee, are budget-busters. Since most teams put up little (if any) of their own money, they have scant incentive to economize on the parks. In Seattle, Mariner management has demanded an operable roof even though the city has the driest weather in MLB outside California. The real problem with the Seattle climate is cold weather in spring and fall, but the unsealed roof won’t make the park warmer or totally free of wind.

Lately, the cost of stadiums has ranged from about $300 million to $500 million. The multipurpose stadium that the Yankees want built on Manhattan’s lower west side tentatively carries a $1 billion price tag. Add the financing and maintenance costs, and even a midpriced project goes through the retractable roof. At one point, the cost of the Brewers’ proposed stadium grew from $250 million to $845 million, and that’s not counting the value of the land.

The good news is that not every owner is demanding a castle for his team. All Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy wants is a “35,000-to-37,000-seat park with natural grass and no roof, bells, or whistles.” Though his attitude is commendable, the proposed park will still cost about $200 million, and perhaps an equal amount in interest.

Why should the public chip in? Taxpayer subsidies don’t produce cheaper tickets–they produce more expensive tickets. The average admission price (not counting club seats and suites) rises about 35 percent when a team moves into new digs. And independent economists (i.e., those not hired by stadium proponents) discount the claim that new stadiums spur regional economic growth.

But one compelling argument for subsidies is that new stadiums can pull their cities together when properly designed and sited. This requires a downtown or neighborhood location where lots of fans can take the bus or the train to the game; where they can walk to the stadium from work, hotels, restaurants, or bars; and where getting to the game is a communal event that is part of a broader urban experience. This is the case with older parks such as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, and the new ones in Toronto, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Denver.

“If you put them in the wrong place, it’s a colossal waste of money,” says the planning director of the city of Cleveland. “But if you put them in the right place, the benefits are phenomenal,”

Recent attendance patterns show that urban parks generate much better patronage than suburban ones or those in neither/nor locations. There are also strong indicators that suggest new urban parks have “legs,” retaining more of their patrons after the novelty wears off. But some teams deliberately seek isolated locations, where they can better monopolize parking revenues and game-related food, drink, and souvenir business. This is why the White Sox moated their park with 100 acres of parking, why the Milwaukee Brewers refuse to build downtown, and why the Mariners insisted on the most remote of Seattle’s three ballpark-siting options.

Modern conveniences aside, the new baseball shrines are a mixed bag. Most are visually impressive, boast interestingly shaped playing fields, and start off as box-office hits. But too many of them are large and expensive, tend to live on the dole, and are hampered by seat layouts that create a caste system among fans. At their best, they strengthen their cities; at their worst, they exploit them.

The decision-making process behind the financing and building of new ballparks has become predictable, as have the designs. But the good news is that our stadium boom is far from over. If owners and public agencies can be persuaded to take a longer view of stadium economics and community concerns, we may yet see parks that better unite traditional character with modern convenience.