Photo by omarr on Flickr.

On Monday, several GGW contributors debated whether DC could or should accommodate a new stadium to bring the Redskins back to the District. We asked some of our colleagues in other cities if they would share thoughts on the experiences of their towns.

Yesterday, we heard about the problems faced in Indianapolis and St. Louis. Today we look at a few cases that show there’s hope for more successful urban stadiums.

Chicago
Aaron Renn is the Urbanophile, a nationally recognized expert on urban issues, who lives and works in Chicago.

Chicago’s Soldier Field is a bit unique among US football stadiums. It exists in the urban center, but not as part of the urban fabric. Rather, it is located in the lakefront park, just south of Roosevelt Road where the Grant Park restriction on buildings is lifted. Because of this restriction, the area actually has several buildings, including the so-called Museum Campus of the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium.

Soldier Field has long been cut off from the city by Lake Shore Drive and the Illinois Central Railroad. In fact, the stadium at one point was in the median of the roadway, which split around it.  The railroad now provides transit access to the stadium via the Metra Electric line, as do multiple nearby CTA rail and bus lines.

Soldier Field was actually opened in 1924 and while it was used for football games, the Bears actually did not start playing there until 1971. Prior to that they played at Wrigley Field. So whatever the merits or lack thereof of the stadium’s location, it has little to do with pro football.

The stadium was extensively reconstructed to be a long term home for the Bears in 2003. As with most teams, they said they could not make enough money in the old stadium. After the typical local debate, it was decided to renovate Soldier Field. But perhaps the term obliterate is more appropriate. The new stadium retained the classical colonnades, but little else.

There is now a completely modern seating bowl that is quite nice. However, the exterior architecture is all modernist glass that presents a jarring contrast with the old stadium, leading some to brand it the “UFO that landed on Soldier Field.” This was decried by preservationists but to no avail. Ultimately, the US government stripped Soldier Field of its status as a National Historic Landmark — the highest designation of historic site given by the feds — as a result of this project.


Photo by joseph a on Flickr.

Some might say that a stadium is inappropriate on the lakefront. The classical elegance of the old stadium fit right in gracefully, however. The same cannot be said of the new. However, the lakefront has ample open space, and there’s no per se problem with using that land for a stadium. Also, the parking that normally blights stadiums in downtowns is limited to one parking garage used also by the museums, so doesn’t go to waste as in so many other cities. Some urbanists might decry it, saying hulking stadiums belong in the suburbs, but Soldier Field has been an integral part of Chicago’s lakefront for decades, and few would likely choose to remove it. The new modernist bowl will remain an architectural blight for years to come, however.

Cincinnati
Randy A. Simes earned a Bachelor of Urban Planning degree from the University of Cincinnati in 2009.  He is a master planner at CH2M HILL and writes about urban public policy and planning issues for the Cincinnati Business Courier and UrbanCincy.

Through its history, Cincinnati has seen a typical evolution of urban sports venues for American cities.  The intersection of Findlay and Western, in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood housed the Cincinnati Reds from 1864 through 1970 in three iterations of ballparks — League Park, Palace of the Fans, and Crosley Field — until the team moved with the Cincinnati Bengals football team to Riverfront Stadium.

The Bengals also spent their first two years playing at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati’s campus uptown.  But when the two teams moved to Riverfront Stadium, they followed a national trend of cookie cutter stadiums in urban environments meant to serve as economic development generators.  The problem was that the promise never came to fruition in the cities that went after the golden egg.

Most of those same cities have rebuilt their professional sports venues, many in the urban core. But the question still remains whether the return on investment is worth the valuable land for these lightly-used behemoths.


Photo from JT K on Flickr.

In Cincinnati, the Reds host more than 81 games every year drawing tens of thousands of fans to each event.  Additional events are held at the ballpark, and its related attractions, throughout the year that also create a draw.  Four blocks away, Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, hosts 10 games each year in addition to the smattering of high school events and concerts held there annually.

The result is a larger football stadium with far fewer events and a ballpark with more events but smaller crowds.  The winner in this case is the ballpark, and the new generation of urban ballparks appears to be as successful as the original wave of urban ballparks in the late 19th century.

The problem with urban football stadiums can be both a structural issue and a programmatic issue.  In the case of Paul Brown Stadium it is more about the program.  The large, tailgating-bound crowds demand available parking for their pre- and post-game festivities. 

In Cincinnati, developers are currently constructing The Banks, a mixed-use urban entertainment node wedged between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium and will eventually house thousands of new residents.  Before each phase of development begins, it must first have two-floors of underground parking built before it even begins to satisfy the parking demands for the new residents and workers to be housed above.


Photo by the.urbanophile on Flickr.

Once complete, The Banks may set the stage for a truly unique urban sports and entertainment area, one that would have no surface parking and force tens of thousands of sports fans, visiting the area, out onto the streets for live music, food, drink, and festivities.  This may end up being Paul Brown Stadium’s saving grace.
The beautiful thing about professional sports venues is that they can turn what is otherwise worthless land into something economically productive and thus improve land values in nearby areas.  But most often franchise owners often want their venues to be located in prime real estate so that they can maximize their visibility.  In Cincinnati that meant handing over prime waterfront property to two large concrete masses that only stay active a fraction of the year.

When other cities examine plans for an urban sports venue of their own, they should keep more in mind than the wishes of the franchise ownership and the promise of skyline shots on national television once or twice a year.  Less is more.  You want the venue to blend in so that it does not detract from its surroundings when it is inevitably non-active.  You want the venue to be versatile so that it can serve other functions beyond that of playing baseball or football.  And most importantly, get rid of the parking so that venue’s support facilities do not kill what you want the venue to create — economic development.

Seattle
Martin H. Duke is the Editor-in-Chief of Seattle Transit Blog. An Electrical Engineer who grew up in the DC area, Martin has lived in Seattle since 1997.

Seattle, a city of 600,000, is somewhat unique in having not one but two big-time football stadiums within its city limits. One is seldom used, but not in an urban neighborhood; the other is on the edge of downtown but is combined into a bustling event district.

Husky Stadium, home of the University of Washington Huskies, is used for only seven major events a year. However, it is bordered by a lake, the University campus, medical center, and the rest of the athletic complex. Opening in 1920, nothing around it could be remotely described as an urban neighborhood.

However, Husky Stadium also sits on a transportation chokepoint. At one end of only two bridges that provide connectivity with the prosperous eastern suburbs, in the peak dozens of buses pass by each hour on their way to campus, and one of Seattle’s few light rail stations will open in its parking lot in 2016. There is a strong case that the land should be used more intensively and the Huskies should share a home with the Seahawks. Regardless, many people treasure an emotional and historical connection with Husky stadium, and the Athletic department has zero interest in such a move. They are privately raising $300 million to renovate the stadium after being rebuffed by a broke state legislature.


Photo by Erwyn van der Meer on Flickr.

Qwest Field was only opened in 2002, but lies on the site of the old Kingdome, built in 1977 upon Seattle’s entry into the NFL. The densest part of the downtown core is only blocks away; in between lies the historic Pioneer Square district, dense but low-rise. Beyond Qwest is the Mariners’ Safeco Field and industrial-zoned land. Qwest also lies amidst the greatest transportation hub in the Pacific Northwest: light rail, Amtrak, commuter rail, ferries, hundreds of local bus routes, and three freeways all converge there.

Because the Mariners also provide 81 home dates, and the MLS Sounders have had freakishly high attendance at Qwest (36,000 a game!), it’s difficult to separate the impact of the NFL from everything else going on. Pioneer Square is a particularly active nightlife district, which meshes pretty well with the sports bar scene. There is a pretty large chunk of social services there, which tends to attract transients and drive off the more squeamish among us.


Photo by camknows on Flickr.

One promising trend is the disappearance of surface parking. When one stadium turned into two, several surface lots were replaced with two stadium garages. The last remaining major surface lot is slated to become 950 condos and apartments, doubling the number of residents in Pioneer Square to join the jobs, shops, and recreational options already there.

It would be difficult to say that Pioneer Square is thriving, but equally difficult to say that having adjacent regional attractions is hurting it. I think the key lesson is that taking away the moat of parking allows the stadium to be properly integrated into the neighborhood.