Planning For More Than Sports

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Welcome to my inaugural post here on Planetizen. It’s mid-May and baseball season is in full swing. Last weekend I was able to watch my beloved San Francisco Giants take on the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. While watching the game, I couldn’t help but think about how Los Angeles tried really hard to get a NFL stadium built in Downtown L.A. After more than a few hurdles, it's apparent that Los Angeles will not get a new football stadium, or NFL team, downtown anytime soon. But for me, as both an urban planner and sports fan enjoying a Dodger Dog in 75-degree weather, it’s an end result that makes sense. As stadiums around the country age and teams seek new locations, the success of the stadium as a tool for neighborhood revival is as much dependent on the culture of the sport as it is dependent on the usual land use considerations. The Dodgers’ ownership might have already spent millions on renovating their existing stadium, but if it makes sense for Los Angeles, or any city, to have a successful stadium downtown, it should be baseball.

Stadiums and Neighborhood Revival

Under normal circumstances, as a planner I would tell you that sports stadiums are poor tools to bring in revenue for a city, because the public funds usually necessary to construct the massive projects often mean any economic benefit is negligible at best. But San Francisco’s AT&T Park is a bit of an anomaly, and as a Giants fan, it’s one I’m perfectly happy with.

AT&T Park (originally named PacBell Park) helped revitalized a once forgotten area of San Francisco along King Street. Developers would call it a catalytic project, because the investment to build the stadium showed other developers that the area was going to see improvement and convinced them to come in and build their own projects. These projects included many of the mixed-use towers you see today. Unlike other stadiums, such as Cleveland’s sports stadiums, which are funded by a regressive "sin tax," or the notoriously fumbled Miami Marlins' stadium, the biggest difference between AT&T Park is that it was built completely with private funds (minus some tax abatements, but I digress).

After the San Francisco Giants were sold in 1992, the new owners agreed to pay for a new stadium so long as the city was willing to pay for the necessary infrastructure improvements, including new Muni light-rail lines. The new urban ballpark opened in 2000. Today, San Franciscans, the local economy, and visitors now reap the benefits of this decision. The benefits are visible every time you visit the park on a new Muni Metro line, eat and drink at one of the new restaurants and bars, stay in a new hotel, or live in a new apartment building. The new stadium proved to be a success in creating a vibrant, sports-anchored neighborhood.

With the resurgence of urban cores as places to not only work but live, cities everywhere are trying to bring sports back downtown. The vast majority of these stadiums, however, are baseball stadiums. Coors Field in Denver, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and Petco Park in San Diego are great examples of stadiums that have helped redefine their respective neighborhoods. (I’m not measuring the success of their ball clubs. Sorry San Diego.) And that success makes sense. Baseball, at its core, is an urban friendly sport.

Baseball and the Era of Cities

Baseball can trace its modern-game origins to the mid-1840s. At that point in time, cities were dominant and our transportation modes consisted of walking or rail. Baseball stadiums needed to be located within walking distance or a short public transit ride away for fans to attend. Unlike today, you didn’t have to drive very far to see your home team play. Hell, the name “Dodgers” is actually a shortening of the team’s original name, “Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers.” In terms of how the urban setting of baseball affected people’s behavior, fans conducted all related business in the stadium.

Parking lots are not integral parts of pre-, mid-, or post-game-activities within the baseball zeitgeist—instead they fulfill more pragmatic needs in the designs of many stadium sites today. For example, do you eat before the baseball game? Probably not. One of the most revered activities of the baseball game day experience is enjoying a stadium hot dog. Sure, there are some baseball stadiums where fans actually tailgate before the game (Milwaukee), and even some that are bucking the downtown trend, such as Atlanta Brave’s proposed stadium in suburban Cobb County. But examples are few. Even the Braves stadium is designed with mixed-use elements surrounding the stadium (though more like a baseball-themed Main Street at Disneyland).

Because baseball matured at a time when parking was not a huge requirement, removing the parking lot will not fundamentally alter the fan’s expectation of the baseball game-day experience. The fact that Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, is still able to host its team in its 102-year-old stadium, with a complete lack of parking, is as much a testament to the urban nature of baseball as it is to the quality of the built structure. Baseball’s culture allows for the preservation of valuable downtown land for an urban design surrounding the stadium that is dense, compact, and pedestrian friendly, without threatening the game-day experience.

The experiences before, during, and after a game are different for football—as is the space required to facilitate the traditions of the game.

Football and the Era of Suburbs

Unlike baseball, professional football’s modern-game origins are traced only as far back as the early 1920s, with widespread popularity not coming until the 1950s, as network television began to air games nationwide. Maturing during this period meant that professional football was, and is, a sport for a new kind of America: an America of cars, highways, and backyard BBQs. With a new popular sport and new primary means of transportation, we could now build bigger sports stadiums farther outside the urban core with the parking lots for our new favorite toy. With the exception of the Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears (which was built in 1924 and is now a historic structure), the five oldest NFL stadiums were constructed after 1956, and the surrounding urban design elements, by contrast to baseball, are less dense and more sprawling, catering more to automobile than pedestrian traffic.

Lambeau Field - Green Bay Packers – 1957

Candlestick Park - San Francisco 49ers – 1960

Oakland Coliseum - Oakland Raiders (and Oakland A’s) – 1966

Qualcomm Stadium – San Diego Chargers – 1967

This sprawling, car-centric site design helped create one of football’s favorite activities: the pre-game tailgate. Now, depending on how you define tailgating, the act of eating, commiserating, and cheering on your side has been around for a while. But suburban stadiums with plentiful parking offered new, nearby venues for portable grills and beer pong tables (those came later, I think), and the football tailgate was born.

There is no real baseball equivalent to the football tailgate because there never needed to be one. As previously described, baseball established itself when we chose to, and often had to walk to everything. Urban sprawl has contributed to our car-centric habits, but has also contributed to our football culture as well. And just as difficult and challenging as it is to move toward a less car-dependent urban design-scape, it’s almost as difficult to shift the culture that developed around football.

Urban Football?

There are some football stadiums currently located in urban settings, such as the Cleveland Browns stadium. However, this is only an urban stadium by proximity – a stadium simply located in a downtown but designed with suburban amenities, like vast parking lots. Even one of the newest football stadiums in the league, CenturyLink Field in Seattle (a city making headlines for excellent urban design choices) incorporated a large surface parking lot into its design. This is in addition to a large parking structure and transit connections. Even the San Francisco 49ers have left San Francisco for Santa Clara, a suburban community to the south of San Francisco, to build a new stadium with plenty of surface parking. Some may argue this is poor planning. But when we look beyond simply trying to connect a large event venue and consider the specific culture of the events held there, the stadium locations and amenities make more sense than downtown proposals, like the one for Downtown L.A.

Farmers Field (as it was called), proposed an urban football stadium in Downtown L.A. surrounded by densely packed hotels, restaurants, and apartment buildings. The stadium would be fully incorporated into the existing L.A. Live! entertainment complex and Convention Center site. The site design included new parking garages, upgraded transit, and new open space areas. Overall, these are great design elements. But sports fans, arguably, do not interact with space the same way a resident or tourist might. To a sports fan, "open space" means something different than it does to the planning lexicon, and we shouldn’t pretend that these two groups are talking about the same thing.

To a sports fan, a parking lot is open space. The parking lot serves as a place to park the car and a place to engage in active play (catch, beer pong, corn hole, etc.) as well as sit and relax. Traditional open spaces, such as plazas, serve more aesthetic purposes for the sports fan than as actual passive or active open spaces. Consider Soldier Field – the oldest of the NFL stadiums – where there are plenty of plazas and grassy areas, but tailgating is only allowed in the parking area.

AEG, developers of Farmers Field, proposed a "family friendly" tailgating experience that was more like a large farmers market than a traditional football tailgate—think of food trucks and commercial BBQ pits brought in on game day. Sure, the food would no doubt be excellent, but this new "urban tailgate" would be so different from its predecessor that it would arguably be an entirely new fan experience and event, rather than an adaptation. When was the last time you played beer pong at a farmers' market? (If you have, please tell me where this magical place is.)

A proposal by Streetsblog Los Angeles would have made tailgating a transit oriented event—if Farmers Field had been approved and built. Fans would park and tailgate at Memorial Coliseum, home of the USC college football team about two miles south, and then take the Metro light-rail to the stadium (three stops to the north). In theory, it sounds plausible. But in practicality, it misses the mark. By moving the tailgate you also completely remove a primary benefit of an urban tailgate, which is to have people gather congregate and inject economic activity into the neighborhood. Further, by moving the tailgate outside of the urban core, you are also conceding my argument, which is that a dense urban setting is incompatible with the tailgate activity.

Downtown as Baseball Territory

Ultimately, Los Angles’ struggle to bring back a NFL team is coming to an anti-climactic end, and the city is exploring other uses for the stadium site. But as many of our nation’s stadiums grow old and teams look for new locations, successful site design will depend on the cultural characteristics of the uses of the site as much as it will depend on planning for land use and logistics. Not all sports, and not all stadiums, are created equal in terms of where they and their fans can thrive. Football is a more suburban sport culture, where cars and parking lots are not simply required for transportation but are an integral part of the game-day experience. You cannot easily ask a football team to move to a downtown stadium where you plan to replace parking lots with mixed-use development nor can you keep the parking lots for the tailgate experience while claiming you are creating a new urban neighborhood.

Maybe there is a happy medium. Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, for example, includes a large surface parking lot, but it still offers plentiful transit for those not looking to join the ranks of rowdy tailgaters. But for the time being, downtown stadiums will remain the domain of baseball. And that’s ok. Eventually, we will live in a world where it won't require a parking lot to party like its freshman year in college.

Reuben is a Land Use Planner at Gresham Savage Nolan & Tilden in Los Angeles, where he works on development projects in Southern California. He received his BA from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from UCLA.

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