02 May 2007

Ballpark Village comparison

Ask and ye shall receive. Bleacher Dave suggested that I compare different ballpark village developments around the country. Luckily I waited until NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his aggressive development plan for the Willets Point neighborhood east of Shea Stadium/CitiField, adding one more point of reference in the process.

For this comparison, I've strictly observed developments around major league ballparks. While there are several examples of village-type projects near minor league facilities, they're typically much smaller in scope and potential economic impact so for now, I've left those out. New Yankee Stadium is also not included because the ancillary development mostly consists of garages and parkland placed near or atop those garages.

The four markets being covered are:

  • San Diego's Ballpark District, at the edge of the trendy, gentrified Gaslamp Quarter
  • St. Louis's Ballpark Village, on the site of the previous incarnation of Busch Stadium
  • Willets Point in Queens, home to mostly junkyards and auto repair shops that are visible from the Shea Stadium parking lot
  • Fremont, the only undeveloped site of the four and the only one not in an urban environment

Not to be forgotten is that the first three projects have access to good public transit infrastructure. Fremont may have at best indirect access to BART or commuter trains.

San Diego's Ballpark District actually covers some 26 blocks north and east of PETCO, but it has been scaled back significantly since its inception. $300 million in public financing for the ballpark was exchanged for a promise by Padres owner John Moores to develop much of the surrounding area. The delayed opening of the ballpark occurred before the start of the real estate downturn in the San Diego market. The area's housing prices have flattened or dropped over the last year or so as new construction and conversions have come online, creating a glut of sorts. This phenomenon doesn't affect the ballpark's financing, but San Diego has had plenty of other fiscal problems, namely its debt load and accounting scandals. The city's damaged credit rating (from its $1.4 billion pension crisis) held until March, when the ballpark bonds were refinanced to reflect an interest rate drop from 7.66% (!) to 5.23%.

The Ballpark Village next to new Busch Stadium may look large at $650 million, but it's far smaller than the other projects. Development is being driven by the Cardinals and partner firm The Cordish Company, but last year Cordish requested a subsidy to keep the project moving forward. In February, the city approved a $115 million cash infusion into Ballpark Village. Cordish is a name to watch for as it specializes in large urban redevelopment efforts and pulls in major subsidies in the process. The original agreement between the development partners and the city called for the first block of development to open in 2007. That date has slipped to 2009. In the meantime, the price tag has grown from $300 million to $650 million.

The Willets Point (a.k.a. "Iron Triangle") section of Queens is known for its run down auto shops and junkyards. Previous city leaders have targeted it for massive projects, most notably the 2012 Summer Olympics bid. After MSG/Cablevision effectively killed all hope for Jets/Olympic Stadium on Manhattan's West Side, attention turned to Willets Point for a stadium and press center. The new site of CitiField is sandwiched between the existing Shea Stadium and the Iron Triangle, further propelling Bloomberg to redevelop the area. Existing business owners have pledged to fight eminent domain proceedings to the very end, but we know how that often turns out...

That leaves us with the Cisco Field project. Aesthetically and politically, it has little in common with the other three plans except for that it's a ballpark with ancillary development. In adherence with the path of least resistance concept, it would appear that it has relatively few obstacles for its completion.
  • No upfront public money (bonds) is being requested for either the ballpark or ancillary development (as far as we know).
  • There are no eminent domain or other major land acquisition problems that could delay development (factoring in the Scott Gas situation).
  • Repayment of any privately raised bonds is likely dependent on ancillary development beginning quickly, forcing the developer to mitigate or eliminate any delays associated with the project.
Knowing that these elements should help put the project on the relative fast track, one would hope that Wolff and his people would focus even more attention on transportation solutions, as that's the obvious weak point in the proposal. Even then, there's only so much that can be done.