How to create a successful urban stadium
DC United intends to build a new 24,000 seat stadium in Prince George's County. This is a golden opportunity for our region to gain another vibrant, regional, walkable, urban, Metro-adjacent, transit-oriented development. Except on game days, stadiums have been centers of un-activity for the past sixty years. However, they don't need to be like that and haven't always been that way. In fact, with proper design and context, they can be major activity centers. Equally important, they can serve as anchors of vibrant neighborhoods that generate tax revenue in perpetuity.
According to the Post article, "The team is examining several possible sites near Metro stops for what [D.C. United owner Victor] MacFarlane called an 'urban stadium.'" What's differentiates an "urban stadium" from a "suburban stadium"? It's the context of the stadium site. FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, sits amid acres and acres of surface parking. It has a direct link to the Beltway. It is designed with only the car driving fan in mind. While it is one mile from the Morgan Boulevard Metro, there is no obvious, pedestrian-oriented thoroughfare between the stadium and the Metro. Fans who take the Metro have to walk along the narrow sidewalk of a too-wide suburban arterial. Finally, there is nothing on the way to the stadium to interest pedestrians.
On the other hand, the Verizon Center is located downtown, literally on top of the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro. It is the anchor of a major regional restaurant and nightlife district. While there were revitalization plans for the area before the arena was constructed, the arena's construction accelerated and intensified those plans. The Verizon Center is everything that FedEx Field is not. It is a true urban stadium/arena. It possesses many fundamental characteristics of a successful urban stadium:
- No surface parking. Surface parking creates a large barrier between the activity center and the surrounding city. It kills any chance of event-goers going across the street to check out the nice restaurant or bar they saw on the way in. RFK Stadium, DC United's current home, and Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens, suffer from this problem.
- Integration with the street grid. The Verizon Center only takes up two city blocks. It does not provide any barriers to pedestrians as they walk along F or H Streets between 6th and 7th Streets NW. While not perfect
— the Verizon Center breaks up G Street — it leaves the rest of the two hundred-year-old, human-scale L'Enfant street grid intact.
- Proximate transit access. It doesn't get much better than the Verizon Center's location, literally on top of a major downtown transfer station on the Metro. Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, does a solid job in this respect with a Light Rail station adjacent to its gates. On the other hand, FedEx Field seems designed to maximize parking lot fees. It would appear that Redskins management would prefer that fans didn't know that it was a mere mile from the closest Metro station.
- Pedestrian-friendly connection to transit. Is it safe to walk to the stadium/arena? Do event-goers have a nice wide sidewalk that is flanked with interesting businesses and slow-moving car traffic? Or, do they have to watch their step as they walk single-file on a too-narrow sidewalk that flanks a curvy four to six lane high speed suburban arterial?
- Frequency of events. A business in a neighborhood that flanks a stadium can't survive on 8 events a year. The Verizon Center hosts more than 220 events per year. That generates a lot of extra foot traffic heading to and from the Metro, past all the bars and restaurants. Many of those people stop for a nice dinner or drink after the event. That's also a lot of tax revenue for the District from both the taxes on the event tickets and from all the restaurant receipts.
On the other hand, there are few such businesses near Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, even though it was built on a brownfield development adjacent to downtown Baltimore. The stadium only hosts for eight to twelve events a year (twelve when the NCAA holds playoffs in the stadium), and acres of surface parking separate it from the neighborhood. The bars that are adjacent to the stadiums in Baltimore are across the street from Camden Yards because there are 81 home games in a Major League Baseball team's season.
- Vibrant surrounding urban area. If a stadium properly executes points 1-5, the constant foot traffic and hunger or thirst of eventgoers will present an array of business opportunities for restauranteurs. The area will become a restaurant and nightlife district in addition to a stadium district. Other durable goods retailers will take advantage of the business opportunities that the constant foot traffic and convenient transit access present. The foot traffic will also provide excellent "eyes on the street" and improve the safety of the surrounding area.
There is a large (and rightful) backlash against the financing for the shiny new baseball stadium next to the Navy Yard. That is the result of the DC government capitulating to Major League Baseball rather than sitting down and working out a deal that is beneficial to all. After a decade of sitting down at the table with the District government and trying to find a deal that would benefit both parties, DC United has elected to pick a different site with a different local government after talks with the District collapsed. I believe Prince George's County will find success negotiating with McFarlane and making plans to construct a true urban stadium.
The soccer stadium comes pre-packaged with a few qualities that make it a good fit for implementing the six points above. Between D.C. United games, Washington Freedom Women's Professional Soccer, concerts (the stadium will have a stage), ACC soccer tournaments, and other college sports, the stadium should host at least 60 events a year. At RFK, over half of the 20,000 DC United fans who attend the average game currently arrive by Metro. The trend would continue at a new stadium that is convenient to the Metro.
From the reports, the sites under consideration are greenfield sites adjacent to Metro stations. The county could surround the development with a new street grid that incorporates the stadium. The proposed 24,000-seat stadium would fit in a footprint similar to an arena like the Verizon Center. Finally, and most importantly, no previous renderings of the stadium have had surface parking lots. In order for a stadium to add to an urban place, it must not have surface parking lots. Maybe you could get away with a small garage like in Silver Spring or adjacent to 1st Mariner Arena in downtown Baltimore.
Looking back into history, some of the best pre-WWII stadiums in the United States also displayed excellent urbanism. They added a sense of place to their surroundings and were considered jewels in their cities. As the pre-war stadiums gave way to the modernist stadiums like RFK, Veterans' Stadium in Philadelphia, and Giants Stadium in suburban New Jersey, they became monster structures that were designed by the car, of the car, and for the car, like most buildings of their era. We forgot as a nation how to build stadiums that are good for their surroundings, relegating them to things that belong behind a moat of asphalt, right off the highway, as greenfield development outside the Favored Quarter or as destructive "urban renewal" projects on top of what used to be a downtown.
New stadiums and arenas have shown that the mid-20th century modernist planners were wrong about the nature and use of stadiums. If done right, DC United's new stadium could be a regional jewel like the Verizon Center and surrounding neighborhood. It will also serve as another example to the rest of the country of how to build a stadium correctly.
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