Ah, spring, when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of glove. And bat, and ball. And a place to get together with thirty or forty thousand of your closest friends and root, root, root for the home team. But where should that place be? And how does that choice, and its ripple effects on other land use and transportation system elements, affect the sustainability of a community or a region?
The Good Old Days Are Now
The best cities seem to be those that have a mix of public and private sector investments, and while there’s plenty of room for debate about the wisdom of subsidizing private sector entertainment, there’s definitely a historic synergy between an urban ballpark and its environs. The oldest two surviving examples, venerable Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, were transit accessibile from the get-go, but that was practically a necessity in those days to connect them to the rest of their cities. On Wrigley Field’s (then Weeghman Park) opening day, Chicago Tribune columnist Ring Lardner, noting the park’s location just south of the end of the line at Wilson, wrote wryly that “many of our citizens will today visit the North Side for the first time”. And Fenway Park, while closer to town, was built on drained swampland (the fabled fens; seems the practice of naming something new for what’s no longer there anymore is also a long standing practice).
Ebbets Field, although smack in the geographic center of Brooklyn, was also at the periphery of the borough’s developed area when it was built and included the site of a garbage dump called Pigtown. And the fact that the local club was known as the (Trolley) Dodgers demonstrates that today’s concern for safe, multimodal, complete streets is really also nothing new. (Amazing how transportation infiltrates sports names: Trailblazers, Spurs, Mariners, Pistons, Flyers, Jets, Supersonics, and arguably the Pacers and Colts as well just among the big four major leagues.)
The Dodgers’ move from Ebbets Field to Los Angeles in 1958 was a symbol of the transportation revolution engendered by the jet age, shattering the outer limits that had been marked by that famous southwestern outpost called Saint Louis. The new Dodger Stadium also marked the beginning of the movement of stadiums from downtown (or at least arguably urban) neighborhoods to sprawling complexes where the parking and noise associated with special events wouldn’t be thought of as so annoying to the neighbors.
But times change. Los Angeles is now known less as the kingdom of sprawl and more for its high population density (even when considering population-weighted density as opposed to average metro area density). And Dodger Stadium is now part of baseball’s old guard; the third oldest Major League Baseball (MLB) park after Fenway and Wrigley.
Not all the cookie-cutter stadiums of the ‘60s and ‘70s were out in the ‘burbs, but even those with an in-town address like Fulton County, Veterans, and Riverfront, really only boasted a skyline view – and that was only from the parking lot or the topmost row. Then the pendulum swung back to retro stadiums with a placemaking element beginning with Camden Yards in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Many of the new stadiums are built adjacent to their predecessors, but are nonetheless viewed as a redevelopment anchor. But Coors Field, AT&T Field, Target Field, Petco Park, and Nationals Park are all examples where baseball was introduced within an urban fabric in or near the city center. And hopefully the linkage between baseball and transportation planning has been strengthened by the relocation of the United States Department of Transportation to their New Jersey Avenue headquarters a couple blocks to the east of the Nats’ ballpark.
Do You Have to Park at the Park?
Our oldest ballparks are still located along their legacy transit lines. For the newer parks, it’s a pretty mixed bag. Not surprisingly, if you want to attract fans to use transit, it helps to be centrally located in a major metro area. In 2007, Dan Boyle and Tom Larsen examined transit access and use at the 30 MLB parks. At that time, the championship went to the brand new Nationals (36 percent), with strong showing from other teams in centrally-located homes, including the Yankees and Mets (both at 27 percent), the Cubs, Red Sox, A’s and Giants (all at or above 20 percent), and the Cards, Jays, Padres and Twins (above 14 percent). About a third (12 out of 30) of the teams have less than 1 percent transit mode share.
But being near downtown and near transit may not be enough. In Atlanta, the decision of the Braves to abandon their second stadium near downtown since moving from Milwaukee fifty years ago has generated a wide range of reactions; with even commentators sympathetic to the business decisions faced by team ownership lamenting the abandonment of a central location and the apparent public/private consensus that a stadium lifespan may now be considered only 20 years long. In this case, a big question for Atlanta is whether or not the departure of the Braves will create a revitalization opportunity in the Summerhill neighborhood that the stadium site (and its demand for parking) never catalyzed.
One of the Braves’ stated reasons for the move is to get closer to their suburban fan base, indicated by a dot map of season ticket holders. This map has served as an interesting Rorschach test; one can arguably suggest that the new stadium site would reduce total vehicle miles of travel, which is a key goal of balancing land use and transportation. But it raises the interesting question of whether an improved geographic match between a product and its customer base is better for society when fiscal and social considerations are included.
Rebalancing the Books
Switching from backstops to backboards, major league sports are also moving the ball forward regarding the evolution of transportation and land use planning in California. The amendment to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) implemented by SB 743 allows jurisdictions to rethink the definition of transportation impact in transit-oriented or infill development. SB 743 was passed with the intent of streamlining the development of a new downtown arena for the Sacramento Kings. In this case, an analysis of the Kings’ fan base indicating that the new downtown site would result in a 20 percent reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) was a key element in helping win public support.
Professional sports is big. It’s big business, big politics, and a big part of regional pride. The big issues associated with developing a sports venue aren’t really new, although the details keep evolving. In fifty years, we’ll have a new perspective on baseball in Atlanta and basketball in Sacramento. What do you think we’ll be thinking then?
–Dan Hardy, Cities That Work Blog