31 March 2008

$611 million gets you mixed reviews

The Nats didn't sell out last night's home opener extravaganza against Huddy and the Braves (announced attendance: 39,389), but fans who attended raved about the new facility. Not that RFK was any kind of garden spot, but the as-yet-not-corporately-named ballpark is at the very least the kind of baseball venue DC fans haven't had since Griffith Stadium was demolished over 40 years ago.

Washington Post architecture critic
Philip Kennicott gave the Nats' new digs a C+ grade, repeatedly pointing out how HOK and the Nats missed out on making the ballpark a signature element in the District's Southeast. Ever since conceptual drawings and flyovers were released to the public, the whole package has looked rather underwhelming. We knew going in that value engineering would be stamped all over the place. Now that it's built, it's interesting to see how that value engineering has manifested itself.

Does this look like a ballpark façade? Or the exterior of the Westfield Valley Fair expansion?

A typical ballpark will have some 1200 linear feet of frontage along its grandstand. Depending on the height of the building there could be some 60-90,000 square feet of façade. That's a lot of area upon which an architect can make a statement. Some have chosen to make continuous use of the same materials (red brick being predominant), giving a ballpark a classic, monolithic feel. Others may go a more contemporary route by breaking up the space, letting the eye focus on specific elements. There's some glass here, some different colors of concrete (not limestone) throughout. I'm tentatively scheduling a trip in September to check the stadium out, along with revisits of many of the East Coast parks. I'll reserve judgement in full until then.

Kennicott puts it more succinctly:
It's hard not to focus on the economic aspects of this architecture, because so many of the unfortunate architectural decisions are essentially economic decisions. The ballpark -- like most shopping malls, airports, sports facilities and, alas, many new museums -- belongs to what we might call the architecture of distraction. We don't tend to think of these buildings in architectural terms, as having form or line, balance or symmetry, shape or presence. Rather, it's all about program, circulation and keeping boredom at bay. The public judges these structures in terms of their amenities, their bathrooms, their cleanliness and their overall convenience.

It's exactly this sort of camouflage that I worry about with Cisco Field. Renderings have noticeably excluded views of the grandstand façade, instead pushing the seating bowl and the public space between the outfield and the shopping center. It's one thing to integrate the ballpark into the neighborhood. It's another to make it disappear completely into the neighborhood. Ownership has an opportunity to make a striking visual statement without worrying about appeasing next-door neighbors (most downtown ballparks), or dealing with a specific historical context (new Yankee Stadium). Whether it's "retro" or "contemporary," Cisco Field should stand out from the rest of the neighborhood. It's the anchor. It's meant to draw attention to itself, to attract visitors. Unlike the Nats' ballpark, Cisco Field is going to be low-slung. There's a good chance no one will know it's there except for the light standards or perhaps the scoreboard. How about making a bigger statement? It will be a work of Lew Wolff's legacy, after all.

A few things bothered me when I looked at the Washington Post's ballpark slideshow:

  • Behind the back row of the upper deck is simple, unfinished chain link fence. Ugh.
  • The roof (at least from the bottom) looks like plain corrugated steel decking. Double ugh.
  • Green outfield walls are played out.

Despite the heavy criticism, the Nats' ballpark is a massive improvement. It's a few steps from the Metro (which had 7,000 less gameday users than expected). Parking and access last night weren't the nightmare many had envisioned, even with El Presidente in the house. It's a brisk walk from the Mall and the Smithsonian. It will serve District-area fans well for at least the next 30 years.

25 March 2008

In case you're wondering about attendance...

I am not counting the two games in Japan as part of this season's total. The A's are definitely getting paid by MLB and the Japanese promoter who put on the two-game "home" series, but that's not enough. The attendance isn't being generated at the Coliseum by Bay Area A's fans, so it can't count.

BTW, the Tokyo Dome was packed. And thank you, Emil Brown, for lending your veteran presence. Update 3/26 - That last sentence no longer carries a sarcastic tone.

21 March 2008

Commence cross-promotion.... NOW!!!!

Now that the A's are in Japan and the reborn San Jose Earthquakes are wrapping up their own nice preseason run, it's apparently time to start marketing both Wolff/Fisher (et al) franchises together. A new 8-game A's-Quakes plan is available, in which fans would take in 5 predetermined A's games and 3 predetermined Quakes games on the 2008 calendar. Interestingly, all 3 Quakes home games are to be played at McAfee Coliseum - the 3 Coliseum dates on the current schedule. The plan looks like this for the A's:
  • 4/19 - A's vs. Kansas City (Travis Buck Bobblehead)
  • 5/3 - A's vs. Texas (1968 A's Hat)
  • 6/6 - A's vs. LA Angels (Kurt Suzuki Bobblehead)
  • 6/21 - A's vs. Florida (Beerfest)
  • 7/11 - A's vs. LA Angels (Fireworks)

The Quakes part looks like this:

  • 4/12 - Earthquakes vs. Chicago Fire (Opening Night)
  • 6/14 - Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy
  • 8/3 - Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy (in Oakland)
There is an element of introducing the Quakes to the greater Bay Area, something that's a bit difficult to do at Spartan Stadium. They're certainly targeting the Latin community who may be interested in both sports, if not both franchises. A simpler explanation is simply numbers. The Quakes' main home for the next two years is the expanded and renovated Buck Shaw Stadium, on the SCU campus. Buck Shaw only holds 11,500, which may be fine for many of the lower profile games, but not for either opening night or the two games against the Quakes' natural and hated rival, the LA Galaxy. Not to mention ex-Quake Landon Donovan and aging superstar David Beckham, whose commitments to the English national team may limit his appearances.

The schedule is pretty well spaced out, probably to entice families. Prices are $160 for a single 8-pack at Plaza Level, $215 at Field Level Endzone/Outfield. At the Coliseum, the field is set up to run north-south with the touch line (sideline) running parallel with the baseball third base line. This is being done to eliminate the need to do the costly and field-damaging football configuration.

Nets' project faces delay

From at least a business and economic standpoint, the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn is one to watch as a forerunner of the A's ballpark village. While its scope and associated controversy have been far greater, Atlantic Yards still bears watching due to its basic similarities. Thanks to the economic downturn - er, recession, the first ancillary phase of the project faces delay.

Like the ballpark village, Atlantic Yards is a large mixed-use development with a sports venue as its centerpiece. Proceeds from the development are to be used to pay for a sizable portion (but not all) of the arena, called Barclays Center. Over 10,000 housing units would be built. The 22-acre site includes the 8.4-acre Vanderbilt Yards, an old depot for the Long Island Rail Road.

Barclays Center is to become the first major sports facility built in Brooklyn since the Dodgers left Ebbets Field. The tie-in is that the developer, Forest City, is run by Bruce Ratner, who a few years ago bought the NBA's New Jersey Nets. Upon completion of Barclays Center, the Nets are to move to Barclays Center and be renamed the Brooklyn Nets.

Controversies surrounding the project have been well chronicled, from the $300 million in tax-exempt bonds used and subsidies given to the always popular use of eminent domain within the long-developed borough. No place in the U.S. is like New York City in terms of how massive projects like this manage to get rammed through the public process via big machine politics. Similar issues were brought up for both of the new baseball stadia being built now.

Surprisingly, the arena is expected to push forward with construction starting early next year and opening in time for the start of the league's 2010-11 season. I suppose the thinking here is that construction costs will only go up so they might as well get started now even if the debt service piece is still uncertain. The project was originally announced in 2003, with an expected 2006 opening (overly optimistic due to process matters). Despite public pronouncements about the groundbreaking and opening dates, it's likely the opening date could slip further.

Atlantic Yards could serve as something of a harbinger for the A's ballpark village. Private financing and the flexible timeline the A's have floated can help insulate them from the recession. One or two years is plenty of time for a proper economic rebound, and that's already baked in to the plan. Should our economic difficulties continue for a protracted period, Wolff/Fisher may have to consider major changes in the project's composition. On the other hand, if it continues over the length of a presidential term we'll have a lot more to worry about than a baseball stadium.

18 March 2008

Fremont Symphony near bankruptcy, how about it A's?

The candidates in the upcoming mayoral election are going to talk a great deal about "quality of life" issues. The definition of "quality of life" is a loose one and can cover a variety of topics, from public safety and education to shopping and recreation to traffic and infrastructure. Political leanings tend to color discussions a bit. Institutions that we often take for granted all contribute in their own way to what we call "quality of life."

It is with that understanding that I must point out that the Fremont Symphony Orchestra is on the verge of bankruptcy. The symphony, which is been around for 44 years, is in arrears to the tune of $40,000, one-tenth of its annual budget. More on this from the
Argus' Matthew Artz:

The symphony is hoping to raise $50,000 inthe coming months — $15,000 from the city and $35,000 from the fundraiser — to pay off its debts and prepare for what would be its 45th season this fall, Treadway said.

Fundraisers account for about 20 percent of the symphony's budget, but in recent years, the events haven't met their targets, he said. Other than rising musician fees, symphony costs and revenues have remained relatively stable.

The symphony went into debt during the 2006-07 season when it added shows, but didn't raise enough money to pay for them, symphony Executive Director Dyane Hendricks said.

Now, we're all aware that Lew Wolff has been making the rounds in the Tri-Cities for the last year, helping raise funds for various groups. Last year the team, in conjunction with the Good Tidings Foundation, donated the newly renovated and named Eckersley Field at Washington High School in Fremont.

I'm also aware of the fact that there are supporters of Cisco Field within the symphony ranks. I've spoken to one proponent who has talked with a gleam in his eye about the symphony doing outdoor performances at the public park just beyond centerfield. You know, the one with the two-sided scoreboard?

So, how about it Lew? Why not work with Good Tidings again and lend FSO a helping hand? Take some of that nice money the commish is throwing the team's way for the upcoming Japan trip and turn it around to benefit another community institution. It would go a long way towards maintaining Fremont's quality of life.

I wouldn't mind shuffling over to Cisco Field on a future 4th of July, taking in a ballgame and a concert by FSO. Nope, it wouldn't be bad at all.

13 March 2008

Ex-mayor Morrison to run for Fremont mayor

Former Fremont mayor Gus Morrison (D), who is the most outspoken critic of the Cisco Field project, threw his hat in the ring for the upcoming mayoral race. Morrison will be running against incumbent Bob Wasserman (D), and councilman Steve Cho (R), both of whom are in favor of the plan.

It's a shrewd move by Morrison, whose previous critiques about the project were generally drowned out by the A's massive and highly effective PR campaign within the city limits. Now the mayoral election promises to bring the issue to the forefront, with a good measure of debate regarding the project's merits.

Morrison served five terms as mayor and was termed out, leaving the path open for Wasserman, his successor (whom he supported). Morrison also supported councilman Bob Wieckowski in his political rise, which is ironic considering Wieckowski's initial support of Cisco Field. Morrison is well known for his anti-development stance in the Fremont hills.

Timing is the key here. The EIR process started last December and there's no specific timeline for producing a draft. It may come in the summer, it may occur in the fall. Without the EIR, the debate becomes mostly high-level and philosophical without much data. That may or may not be where some think the debate should stay. It certainly makes it more difficult for Fremont citizens to make their own determination.

Just in case you're keeping score:
  • Mayor Bob Wasserman supports the plan initially and does not believe a referendum is necessary.
  • Vice Mayor Bill Harrison supports the plan initially and does not believe a referendum is necessary.
  • Councilman Bob Wieckowski supports the plan initially and does not believe a referendum is necessary.
  • Councilwoman Anu Natarajan supports the plan initially and does not believe a referendum is necessary.
  • Councilman Steve Cho supports the plan initially but believes a referendum is a good idea. (He also thinks the project would be voter-approved.)
  • Former Mayor Gus Morrison does not support the plan.
Suddenly what was going to be a fairly dull summer will heat up a bit.

Note: The word "initially" is used as a placeholder until the EIR draft is released and the final EIR is voted upon.

11 March 2008

Work on the site

I drove by the Cisco Field site today and noticed a bunch of trucks sitting in the middle of a field, pretty close to where home plate would be located. One of the trucks was a drilling rig of some sort, and several guys in hard hats were congregating around it. My guess is they're doing some kind of soil and/or water samples on the site for the EIR work. Progress is made in small steps...

07 March 2008

A tale of two arenas

In Seattle, a rich tradition of pro basketball is close to an end. The SuperSonics, who have been in Seattle for over 40 years, have threatened to leave the last few years unless a new arena or an upgraded KeyArena surfaces with better lease terms.

The previous Seattle Center Coliseum held only 14,448, which today would be considered a paltry figure but wasn't so small when it was originally built (today's arenas typically seat 17-19,000). Stories about the leaky roof abounded. The venue lacked any "modern" amenities or upscale luxuries. Yet it was unique, intimate, and serviceable for its time.

When the new KeyArena was unveiled as a redone Seattle Center Coliseum, it was much heralded. Instead of building from scratch, the floor was dug 35 feet deeper and a new seating configuration arose, making it far more basketball-specific than it was previously. A level containing 57 luxury suites was sandwiched between the new upper and lower levels. Club seats were added. Fans had visions of a burgeoning dynasty as they watched Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp lead their Sonics to the NBA finals in 1996. Most importantly, the deal was believed to be fiscally responsible as the debt on the renovation was expected to be serviced by team revenue sources and naming rights, not taxes.

Unfortunately, even with the renovation KeyArena was behind other newer venues. The New Arena in Oakland, formerly the Oakland Coliseum Arena, one-upped KeyArena. The New Arena was renovated with a similar philosophy: keep the shell, dig down a few stories, make it more basketball-specific. Out of its renovation the capacity shot up from 15,025 to 20,000+. Two new levels of suites were added, as were thousands of club seats and additional concourses.

Inside the arena, the new Warriors didn't quite deliver in their new digs. Mired in their post Nelson/Webber malaise, the team didn't become competitive until nearly a decade later. Unlike KeyArena, there was no immediate naming rights sponsor to help defray some of the $121 million renovation cost. By the turn of the millenium, it appeared as though the W's were stuck. Stuck with a bad team, with a bad lease, in an empty arena. High rental rates had many acts look south to San Jose Arena.

All of this makes it even more amazing that in 2008, the Warriors are remarkably successful. The team is arguably the most exciting in the league. The arena, now dubbed Oracle Arena or "The Oracle," is now considered one of the loudest and most boisterous in the league. While there haven't been any threats to move the team in the last decade, it's clear that the future couldn't be anymore solid for the franchise than it is now.

In Seattle, apathy and disaffection are at an all-time high. The Sonics, lottery-bound again, are a proverbial dead franchise walking as the front office focuses entirely on youth and rebuilding. The new owner from Oklahoma City thinly disguised his desires to move the team to his hometown, where a new facility and fanbase awaited. Efforts by NBA commish David Stern to bully, er, broker a deal failed. Stern proclaimed that a new franchise would not come to Seattle in the wake of the Sonics' departure. Worst of all, the responsible renovation deal became a good deed that did not go unpunished, as both the Mariners and Seahawks ended up with palatial new stadia funded largely by massive amounts of public funds.

This week, an ultra-rich Seattle group headed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Costco CEO Jim Sinegal pitched a proposal to buy the one-step-out-the-door Sonics and pay for further expansion for KeyArena. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City voters approved $121 million in renovations for the five-year old Ford Center. Owners are expected to vote on the move in late April. Come 2011, the Seattle SuperSonics may be no more.

05 March 2008

How non-binding is non-binding anyway?

The Santa Clara City Council approved adding a plebiscite on the 49ers' stadium proposal to the November ballot. However, the vote is non-binding, as in the City Council doesn't have to base its decision on the results of the vote. Even with that,
"I will follow the vote of the people, and that is binding," said Mayor Patricia Mahan.
Such statements are cold comfort for stadium opponents. Even so, the City and the team have to agree to a deal before the proposal ends up on the ballot. I doubt that they won't come to some kind of agreement, so expect the period from July to November to be an all-out PR blitz on the citizens of Santa Clara.

Because of the non-binding nature of the vote, I'm moving my opinion of the 49ers stadium project, which was previously a 50-50 shot, to 60% likely.