22 October 2006

Deconstructing the Coliseum, Part II: Stadium Height

In the first installment of this series, I wrote about how the round multipurpose bowl shape was ill-suited for baseball. This time, the discussion topic is height. In this case, I can proudly say that the Coliseum has far more positives than negatives. There's much that works well in the Coliseum when it comes to vertical circulation. The few negative aspects stem from the fact that the venue was built decades before the implementation of ADA rules. Unfortunately, much of what works for the Coliseum can't be used in new ballparks because of specific feature requirements.

You may have noticed that the drawings I posted on Thursday did not show the eastside stands, or "Mt. Davis" as it's typically called. Since the addition was built almost solely for football, it's nearly pointless to use it as part of the discussion. However, Mt. Davis provides a good reference point as it showcases huge differences between how ballparks and football stadia are designed.

Mt. Davis has a lot more in common with Gillette Stadium or Heinz Field than any ballpark, past or present. There are three levels of luxury suites, all having seats safely encased in climate controlled spaces. The plaza or mezzanine level is an exclusive club seating area. Cantilevered decks or overhangs are largely non-existent. The first row of the upper deck on Mt. Davis is roughly the same height as the top row of the upper deck in the original bowl. I've always wondered why the Raiders never placed sherpas at the base of each upper deck tunnel.

One thing rarely discussed about the Coliseum is how easy it is to travel between the three decks in the original seating bowl. Plaza level seats can be reached using either the lower or upper concourses. The upper concourse also serves the View level. Anyone sitting in the upper deck could get to the lower deck in 5 minutes by simply descending a few sets of stairs. Undoubtedly, this encouraged the informal seat trade-up policy so frequently used by upper deck dwellers (and conversely reviled by ownership). This practice was so frowned upon that at least one modern stadium, New Comiskey Park (US Cellular Field), was designed to segregate fans by seating level. Recently, teams and architects have started to see the value in allowing fans to circulate more throughout a concourse - the better to expose fans to concessions. Vertical circulation is still somewhat difficult due to exclusive club and suite levels, though in the concept I'm working on their may be a solution to that dilemma - that's for another time.

The next several graphics show both the Coliseum (in color) and the concept (outlines) in profile. Two perspectives are used: behind the plate, and behind third base.

As shown in the previous set of drawings, the two models are comparable behind the plate. While the concept's seats are closer to the field horizontally, the closure of the View level makes the Coliseum's seats closer overall. Now see what happens at the hot corner:

Once again, the horizontal distance plays a huge factor. The total distance to the top row of the concept's upper deck is 213 feet, while the top row of the Coliseum's plaza level is 221 feet from third base. Worse, the overhang from the luxury suites is so bad that fans at the top of the plaza level have virtually no view of the sky. The following table compares various distances.

The overhang problem isn't limited to Plaza level seats. The back four rows of the Field level are pretty bad too, especially if you're down the foul lines a bit, say Section 106 or 128. You have to contend with the overhang and the auxiliary scoreboard, which drops another 2 feet from the bottom of the Plaza level. If you're seated in those sections it's not that bad, but stand up and suddenly everything changes. These days, a couple of changes have been made to stadium design to help. Fan complaints about these overhangs force a few extra vertical feet into the plan, but ADA design guidelines mandate more vertical space. This is because wheelchair-bound fans are supposed to be able to have a clear line of sight over standing fans two rows ahead of them. The way to do this is to elevate the wheelchair rows an extra 18-30 inches above the row in front of them. If you've ever sat in the Coliseum's bleachers, you'll see those aluminum platforms in most of the wheelchair rows. This was done exactly for the reason cited above. It can be said that the original bowl's wheelchair seating placement would not work in a modern day stadium design.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it all conspires to add the equivalent of one or two stories onto the height of the stadium. Inevitably, the fans who pay the biggest price are the ones in the nosebleed sections.

Speaking of nosebleeds, whoever decided that the first row should be wide enough for circulation deserves a tongue lashing. It's one thing to to have a rail as an obstruction, but traffic should not be another. That's probably another reason why the View level was closed. I remember seeing staff that were directed to sell the seats above row 4 first because they had fewer obstructions. I can't think of another stadium in the country in which the first row is also used for circulation, and I've been to dozens of them.

Suiteholders pay a price too, though it's not as steep. In the Coliseum's case, suites in the original bowl are inferior to most other Bay Area venues' suites. They don't have separate restrooms. They're cramped. They don't have their own entries, concourses, or elevators. Problem is, if you design a separate concourse into the plan, that easy vertical circulation is eliminated. Then again, maybe that's what they want...

The Coliseum may have plenty of warts, but it's fantastic when it comes to height conservation and vertical circulation. The seats aren't too steep. It's easy to move between levels. Sadly, it doesn't work well in today's MLB. Don't expect this to carry over into the new ballpark.