Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Business as Usual

The story of the new Washington Nationals baseball team will likely be fodder for a dissertation or two. In the meantime, there are going to be real consequences for the city and livability depending on what is built and how. One of the issues is eminent domain and the loss of various buildings and businesses that are based in the area. These include the nonprofit arts development organizations, the Washington Sculpture Center and the Washington Glass School, which currently reside at "third base." (The latter is likely to end up in the Gateway Arts District in Mount Rainer, and the former might end up in Anne Arundel County or close altogether. )

The speed of the architect selection process, a seeming unconcern for urban design and connecting to the broader community, make me concerned that the baseball stadium construction process is merely going to be round two in steamrolling over Washington for baseball.

The Sunday February 6th Post has this article, "DC Seeks Signature Ballbark" , which says "But don't expect a throwback stadium such as Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which started a ballpark building boom in 1992, with its red-brick facade, ornate ironwork and historic warehouse. 'We do not want to see just another baseball stadium,' said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. 'We want signature architecture. We're not looking to just mimic other cities.' "

All too often, "signature architecture" means "modernism" and too often, modernism is about architecture as art rather than as connection and making places that we can be proud of and even love. But it gets worse.

Today's Post has two articles about the stadium. The first, "8 Bid to Design Nationals' Stadium: Architects to Oversee Timetable and Budget for Construction" has this line within the article... "Major League Baseball, which owns the Nationals, wants a facility designed to draw large crowds and to offer attractions that encourage them to spend money inside the ballpark."

This is a major "economic development" issue with MCI Center. The arena's owners schedule events at times so soon after work that people go directly to the arena, and eat and spend the bulk of their money inside. The multiplier effect of economic benefits for area businesses end up not being that significant and anyway, is having chain restaurants like Hooters, Coyote Ugly, and Ruby Tuesday that big a win for the city?

Philip Bess, an architecture professor at Notre Dame, is the author of City Baseball Magic--Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense about Cities and Baseball Parks. His work makes the point that today's baseball stadiums, are outrageously expensive and provide neither intimacy nor a sense of community comparable to the classic neighborhood ballparks (like old Memorial Stadium). Retro or not, today's stadiums are conceived as suburban buildings. They are a drain on taxpayers, they yield seating arrangements that are worse for the average fan in the upper deck, have high ticket prices, and they tend to destroy the physical and spatial fabric of cities. But most of these liabilities can be ameliorated by once again understanding the baseball park as an urban building subject to the physical constraints of urban networks of streets and blocks.

Clearly, urban city-oriented design isn't in the program for DC, if this line from an article about eminent domain and the Supreme Court--"Herb Miller, a major retail developer in the city who has submitted a plan to use private financing to pay for the stadium and build big-box stores on land around the stadium..."-- represents the prevailing attitude about baseball as the driver of "economic development" and "revitalization of the Anacostia Waterfront.

In a private email, Professor Bess offers us these guidelines:


  1. Think always of ballpark design in the context of urban design;
  2. Think always in terms of neighborhood rather than zone or district;
  3. Let site more than program drive the ballpark design---not exclusively, but more…;
  4. Treat the ballpark as a civic building;
  5. Make cars adapt to the culture and physical form of the neighborhood instead of the neighborhood adapting to the cars;
  6. Maximize the use of pre-existing on- and off-street parking, and distribute rather than concentrate any new required parking;
  7. Create development opportunities for a variety of activities in the vicinity of the ballpark, including housing and shopping;
  8. Locate non-ballpark specific program functions in buildings located adjacent to rather than within the ballpark itself.
In closing he tells us that "it is possible to make new ballparks that are neighborhood friendly and generate equivalent revenues as current industry standard stadia, for about 2/3 the cost...."

If this process has taught us one thing, it's that the old adage is true: "haste makes waste."

Hopefully, there is still time to get this process on track in a way that will provide great architecture and great connection in a way that is truly urban.

Check out Professor Bess' baseball projects or read these articles: The Old Ballparks Were Better; and Coors Field: State of the Art.

This article is about the Congress for the New Urbanism's award to the minor league mixed use baseball stadium project in Memphis, from New Urban News.

And this article, "Opening Day Distraction Why the ballpark was a great idea, four years later" is by John King, one of the best urban design writers in the United States. The point isn't merely that hindsight will prove all is right in the end, but that making sound and proper choices, particularly with regard to urban design and transportation, is imperative.

As he says Don't Fear Progress -- Just get it right... that a new ballpark done well was a great idea.

Provided that it is done well.

When you don't, you get something like Citizens Bank Park, which as one of the other best urban design writers, Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer, has this to say:

Citizens Bank Park has real grass, impeccable sight lines, a quirky asymmetrical field, and double-wide concourses where families can joyously slurp their Turkey Hill cones in four-abreast harmony. It also has all the pizzazz of a suburban office park.


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