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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Haste makes waste: (Sacramento) urban arenas edition

Sacramento is preparing a new arena proposal to prevent the Sacramento Kings basketball team from leaving the city and region. They've come up with a plan ("City report identifies issues that need to be resolved before an arena can be built" from the Sacramento Bee) based on redeveloping part of the railyard, which has been the subject of redevelopment plans for at least a decade ("Sacramento railyard project on positive new track"). One of the issues is parking, and doing a "sale" of the public parking assets in the area, in part to use the advance payment to help fund the construction of the arena ("Sacramento arena finance plan may hinge on privatizing parking spots" from the Bee).

I hate to admit that I do believe that properly sited urban arenas (and certain kinds of stadiums), serving basketball, hockey and other professional and amateur sports events, along with concerts and other events, can be a key element in an overall plan to refocus development within the core of the center city in the context of development within a metropolitan region.

The key, and this usually never happens, is that there needs to be an overall plan, including details with regard to events held in the facility, and the primary funder of the building--which usually is the city--ideally doesn't get hosed, but usually does, because the desire to keep a sports team in place gets emotional and "rational" planning goes out the window.

Plus, an over-focus on particular aspects of doing a deal means that the municipality usually writes too narrow of a contract and one that favors the developer, and opportunities for creativity and innovation are lost. ("Sacramento issues financing plan to save NBA team" from the Bee.)

Ideally, you get a mixed use district that is active for most of the year, and the arena is a key but not the only asset within the district. Location is key because an arena disconnected from a city's central business district, disconnected from the transit system, and focused on automobile-based transportation doesn't provide multiplicative benefits to a community. Mostly people just come in to events and leave, with minimal impact outside of a 1.5 block radius of the building.

Housing can be key.

In smaller markets, the area plan for the baseball stadium for the minor league baseball team the Memphis Redbirds, is a perfect example of this. See "Old-style ballparks, fronting on urban streets, spur in-city living" from New Urban News (2003). It yielded housing units, the rehabilitation of historic buildings as office space and arts uses, and other redevelopment in an 8 block area.

While this is about baseball, this 2005 blog entry, "Tale of Two (or more) Cities" is still relevant about the urban design principles for stadiums and arenas and quotes from a report, City Baseball Magic--Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense about Cities and Baseball Parks, by architecture professor and stadium architect Philip Bess:


■ Think always of ballpark design in the context of urban design;
■ Think always in terms of neighborhood rather than zone or district;
■ Let site more than program drive the ballpark design---not exclusively, but more…;
■ Treat the ballpark as a civic building;
■ Make cars adapt to the culture and physical form of the neighborhood instead of the neighborhood adapting to the cars;
■ Maximize the use of pre-existing on- and off-street parking, and distribute rather than concentrate any new required parking;
■ Create development opportunities for a variety of activities in the vicinity of the ballpark, including housing and shopping;
■ Locate non-ballpark specific program functions in buildings located adjacent to rather than within the ballpark itself.

In closing Bess 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."

Relatedly, John King of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 2003 about the positive impact of the now named AT&T Park, "Opening Day Distraction - Why the ballpark was a great idea, four years later." From the article:

Blank Slates Are Boring

Logistically speaking, Pac Bell is a nightmare: 12 acres of the shakiest landfill imaginable, shoved between century-old warehouses and a vast blue bay.

And that's a big part of the charm. The quirks add up to a real place that can't be replicated anywhere else.

So when it comes to development, don't plow down everything that exists. Even worse, don't abandon existing communities to start anew out beyond the vigilant eyes of planning commissions and environmental activists. Work with what you have - and make it even better. ...

The More Travel Options the Better

You can drive to the game, sure. But why bother? It's more fun to ride along the Embarcadero on a streetcar full of baseball fans. Or pull up to shore in a ferry from the East Bay. Or walk down Second Street past one of the most interesting collections of buildings in the city. Not only more fun, in fact, but more convenient - after the game, while Muni and BART-bound hordes celebrate at Momo's, you hapless commuters trudge away from the fun to your parking spot somewhere down around Brisbane.

This doesn't mean cars are bad. It just means the other ways of getting around should be at least as easy. Common sense, no?
Giants fans leave Muni headed for Pac Bell Park. Chronicle photo by Mike Kepka

While Bess' list should have mentioned transit more specifically, there is no question that in places like Washington and New York City, the value of transit connections to arenas and stadiums is very high.

But because stadium and arena development programs tend to be very political and accelerated, a broader framework for development doesn't happen often enough, losing out on many of the potential positives.

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