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Urban football stadiums in the US: The good

On Monday, several GGW contributors debated whether DC could or should accommodate a new stadium to bring the Redskins back to the District. We asked some of our colleagues in other cities if they would share thoughts on the experiences of their towns.

Photo by omarr on Flickr.

Yesterday, we heard about the problems faced in Indianapolis and St. Louis. Today we look at a few cases that show there's hope for more successful urban stadiums.

Aaron Renn is the Urbanophile, a nationally recognized expert on urban issues, who lives and works in Chicago.

Chicago's Soldier Field is a bit unique among US football stadiums. It exists in the urban center, but not as part of the urban fabric. Rather, it is located in the lakefront park, just south of Roosevelt Road where the Grant Park restriction on buildings is lifted. Because of this restriction, the area actually has several buildings, including the so-called Museum Campus of the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium.

Soldier Field has long been cut off from the city by Lake Shore Drive and the Illinois Central Railroad. In fact, the stadium at one point was in the median of the roadway, which split around it. The railroad now provides transit access to the stadium via the Metra Electric line, as do multiple nearby CTA rail and bus lines.

Soldier Field was actually opened in 1924 and while it was used for football games, the Bears actually did not start playing there until 1971. Prior to that they played at Wrigley Field. So whatever the merits or lack thereof of the stadium's location, it has little to do with pro football.

The stadium was extensively reconstructed to be a long term home for the Bears in 2003. As with most teams, they said they could not make enough money in the old stadium. After the typical local debate, it was decided to renovate Soldier Field. But perhaps the term obliterate is more appropriate. The new stadium retained the classical colonnades, but little else.

There is now a completely modern seating bowl that is quite nice. However, the exterior architecture is all modernist glass that presents a jarring contrast with the old stadium, leading some to brand it the "UFO that landed on Soldier Field." This was decried by preservationists but to no avail. Ultimately, the US government stripped Soldier Field of its status as a National Historic Landmark—the highest designation of historic site given by the feds—as a result of this project.

Photo by joseph a on Flickr.
Some might say that a stadium is inappropriate on the lakefront. The classical elegance of the old stadium fit right in gracefully, however. The same cannot be said of the new. However, the lakefront has ample open space, and there's no per se problem with using that land for a stadium. Also, the parking that normally blights stadiums in downtowns is limited to one parking garage used also by the museums, so doesn't go to waste as in so many other cities. Some urbanists might decry it, saying hulking stadiums belong in the suburbs, but Soldier Field has been an integral part of Chicago's lakefront for decades, and few would likely choose to remove it. The new modernist bowl will remain an architectural blight for years to come, however.

Randy A. Simes earned a Bachelor of Urban Planning degree from the University of Cincinnati in 2009. He is a master planner at CH2M HILL and writes about urban public policy and planning issues for the Cincinnati Business Courier and UrbanCincy.

Through its history, Cincinnati has seen a typical evolution of urban sports venues for American cities. The intersection of Findlay and Western, in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood housed the Cincinnati Reds from 1864 through 1970 in three iterations of ballparks—League Park, Palace of the Fans, and Crosley Fielduntil the team moved with the Cincinnati Bengals football team to Riverfront Stadium.

The Bengals also spent their first two years playing at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati's campus uptown. But when the two teams moved to Riverfront Stadium, they followed a national trend of cookie cutter stadiums in urban environments meant to serve as economic development generators. The problem was that the promise never came to fruition in the cities that went after the golden egg.

Most of those same cities have rebuilt their professional sports venues, many in the urban core. But the question still remains whether the return on investment is worth the valuable land for these lightly-used behemoths.

Photo from JT K on Flickr.
In Cincinnati, the Reds host more than 81 games every year drawing tens of thousands of fans to each event. Additional events are held at the ballpark, and its related attractions, throughout the year that also create a draw. Four blocks away, Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, hosts 10 games each year in addition to the smattering of high school events and concerts held there annually.

The result is a larger football stadium with far fewer events and a ballpark with more events but smaller crowds. The winner in this case is the ballpark, and the new generation of urban ballparks appears to be as successful as the original wave of urban ballparks in the late 19th century.

The problem with urban football stadiums can be both a structural issue and a programmatic issue. In the case of Paul Brown Stadium it is more about the program. The large, tailgating-bound crowds demand available parking for their pre- and post-game festivities.

In Cincinnati, developers are currently constructing The Banks, a mixed-use urban entertainment node wedged between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium and will eventually house thousands of new residents. Before each phase of development begins, it must first have two-floors of underground parking built before it even begins to satisfy the parking demands for the new residents and workers to be housed above.

Photo by the.urbanophile on Flickr.
Once complete, The Banks may set the stage for a truly unique urban sports and entertainment area, one that would have no surface parking and force tens of thousands of sports fans, visiting the area, out onto the streets for live music, food, drink, and festivities. This may end up being Paul Brown Stadium's saving grace.
The beautiful thing about professional sports venues is that they can turn what is otherwise worthless land into something economically productive and thus improve land values in nearby areas. But most often franchise owners often want their venues to be located in prime real estate so that they can maximize their visibility. In Cincinnati that meant handing over prime waterfront property to two large concrete masses that only stay active a fraction of the year.

When other cities examine plans for an urban sports venue of their own, they should keep more in mind than the wishes of the franchise ownership and the promise of skyline shots on national television once or twice a year. Less is more. You want the venue to blend in so that it does not detract from its surroundings when it is inevitably non-active. You want the venue to be versatile so that it can serve other functions beyond that of playing baseball or football. And most importantly, get rid of the parking so that venue's support facilities do not kill what you want the venue to create—economic development.

Martin H. Duke is the Editor-in-Chief of Seattle Transit Blog. An Electrical Engineer who grew up in the DC area, Martin has lived in Seattle since 1997.

Seattle, a city of 600,000, is somewhat unique in having not one but two big-time football stadiums within its city limits. One is seldom used, but not in an urban neighborhood; the other is on the edge of downtown but is combined into a bustling event district.

Husky Stadium, home of the University of Washington Huskies, is used for only seven major events a year. However, it is bordered by a lake, the University campus, medical center, and the rest of the athletic complex. Opening in 1920, nothing around it could be remotely described as an urban neighborhood.

However, Husky Stadium also sits on a transportation chokepoint. At one end of only two bridges that provide connectivity with the prosperous eastern suburbs, in the peak dozens of buses pass by each hour on their way to campus, and one of Seattle's few light rail stations will open in its parking lot in 2016. There is a strong case that the land should be used more intensively and the Huskies should share a home with the Seahawks. Regardless, many people treasure an emotional and historical connection with Husky stadium, and the Athletic department has zero interest in such a move. They are privately raising $300 million to renovate the stadium after being rebuffed by a broke state legislature.

Photo by Erwyn van der Meer on Flickr.
Qwest Field was only opened in 2002, but lies on the site of the old Kingdome, built in 1977 upon Seattle's entry into the NFL. The densest part of the downtown core is only blocks away; in between lies the historic Pioneer Square district, dense but low-rise. Beyond Qwest is the Mariners' Safeco Field and industrial-zoned land. Qwest also lies amidst the greatest transportation hub in the Pacific Northwest: light rail, Amtrak, commuter rail, ferries, hundreds of local bus routes, and three freeways all converge there.

Because the Mariners also provide 81 home dates, and the MLS Sounders have had freakishly high attendance at Qwest (36,000 a game!), it's difficult to separate the impact of the NFL from everything else going on. Pioneer Square is a particularly active nightlife district, which meshes pretty well with the sports bar scene. There is a pretty large chunk of social services there, which tends to attract transients and drive off the more squeamish among us.

Photo by camknows on Flickr.
One promising trend is the disappearance of surface parking. When one stadium turned into two, several surface lots were replaced with two stadium garages. The last remaining major surface lot is slated to become 950 condos and apartments, doubling the number of residents in Pioneer Square to join the jobs, shops, and recreational options already there.

It would be difficult to say that Pioneer Square is thriving, but equally difficult to say that having adjacent regional attractions is hurting it. I think the key lesson is that taking away the moat of parking allows the stadium to be properly integrated into the neighborhood.

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 


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The only place I think anything like the above examples might work is Poplar Point in Southeast. Still, I can't see the District investing so much for so little.

by Randall M. on Dec 22, 2010 3:13 pm • linkreport

Typo in the header for Seattle :)

Also, I'm kind of curious to hear the lack of coverage on Baltimore, good or bad (which I'd say it has both), considering it's such a close neighbor that I'd wager a good chunk of DC residents are at least somewhat familiar with.

by Bossi on Dec 22, 2010 3:16 pm • linkreport

A bit surprised you didn't put Cleveland Stadium on the list. Much like Chicago, parked out on the waterfront, but with attempts (light rail, Great Lakes Science Center, R&R Musuem) to being tourists there.

I don't think any pure football stadium will regenerate an area, but you can fit them in easily enough and at least make them god neighboors.

by charlie on Dec 22, 2010 3:18 pm • linkreport

In reading these, I'm not quite sure I understand how Lucas Oil Field (Indy) is worse than Soldier Field in Chicago or Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Maybe someone could clarify?

by Steven Yates on Dec 22, 2010 3:53 pm • linkreport

Bossi - Thanks, corrected. Also, the choice of cities was primarily a function of writers with whom I or other GGW contributors had contact. I'd be happy to hear somebody with experience in Baltimore weigh in on the pros and cons of M&T Bank Stadium.

Steven - In my interpretation, Chicago and Cincy have their stadiums on the fringe of the city, and don't disturb the urban fabric and street grid terrible, since the Lake and the River, respectively, do that anyway. Indianapolis, on the other hand, creates an artificial barrier several blocks long and wide separating two neighborhoods. This is exacerbated by larger setbacks, and huge amounts of parking even in small areas that might have been better served by retail or at least plazas.

by Erik Weber on Dec 22, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

@Steven Yates

I guess one good thing you could say is since in Chicago/Cincinnati the stadiums are built next to the water so they don't completely destroy the street grid and cut off sections of downtown from development.

This article on "the good" is pretty sad - the first two pieces don't have a lot of good to say about their stadiums.

by MLD on Dec 22, 2010 4:15 pm • linkreport

@MLD, Erik

SO I guess it's more of a question of location than anything specific to the (say) stadium's design.

I don't think the location of Lucas Oil stadium is that bad. I suppose you could of snuggled it up to the corner of I-70 and the White River, but then it's disconnected from downtown and no one would want to walk there. Right now it's just separates downtown from light industrial uses, so it's not really disrupting the pedestrian grid (though it would if they end up building something mixed use in that area).

by Steven Yates on Dec 22, 2010 4:23 pm • linkreport

Qwest is really cutoff from the rest of downtown and it's not really well integrated into the Pioneer Square area which, itself, is a far outpost of downtown that hasn't entirely shaken its skid row past in many people's minds.

The Browns' stadium in Cleveland replaced a multi-sport facility built in the late 20s. It's really based on old urbanism and located near longstanding highway links and two large municipal parking lots. There are some relatively contemporary transit links that help make up for its isolation from the rest of downtown, although pedestrian access to downtown isn't bad )it's just a long walk from the historic core) and it's not far from a interesting but long-struggling areas of gentrified warehouses that have some restaurants and nightlife. The location near Lake Erie is a problem though as it catches the wind in a big way on cold days. I believe Soldier Field has the same problem, plus Soldier Field is just plain ugly.

I'm surprised that the Georgia Dome wasn't included. It's a multi-sport facility and well located in relation to transit, although it is most convenient to a line that is avoided by whites and middle class blacks, alike. It's part of a multi-use facility that defines an edge of downtown and is walkable to Centennial Park and hotels as well as the few restaurants downtown. Atlanta's CBD is totally unlovable and full of bad urban renewal, confusing street patterns, second rate old buildings as well as truly awful modernism, and this facility is adjacent to the horribly designed convention center, but at least it's convenient and doesn't break what's left of the urban fabric. Also, unlike, the baseball stadium (a total white elephant rthat never should have been built), it isn't at a major choke point for traffic or too far from Marta to overcome the usual, often exaggerated paranoia that most people have about crime in Atlanta.

by Rich on Dec 22, 2010 4:36 pm • linkreport

I agree that the Georgia Dome (while not a

I would also say that Pittsburgh's newer stadiums are a welcome addition -- while they do offer lots of parking, some of that is used on off-days by visitors to the Carnegie Science Center, and the stadiums can be reached by several modes of transportation, including water taxis and ferries from the South Side/Station Square, or walking from downtown or the Strip District, via the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

by Jacques on Dec 22, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

+1 to Pittsburgh, and when it comes to transit accessibility: I'd have to throw Philly into the pot, as well. SEPTA has earned much high praise for the capability to serve events in the stadium area, especially during the "perfect storm" days where multiple events line up on the same days.

...Although Philly has isolated their stadiums among a sea of parking surrounded by freeways, so as far as neighborhood development & connectivity goes: there's naught much good to say about that.

I do rather like Baltimore's stadium area: right on MARC and light rail, at the center of a mass of bus lines, pretty easy to get to by car, and even an easy walk both to Inner Harbor as well as the variety of pubs near the stadiums (particularly Camden Yards; somewhat less so M&T). The variety of stadiums certainly helps keep an event of some sort happening pretty regularly. Both have vastly less parking than many other stadiums and if it weren't for I-395: I could see them blending in well within the neighborhood fabric.

by Bossi on Dec 22, 2010 5:34 pm • linkreport

"Indianapolis, on the other hand, creates an artificial barrier several blocks long and wide separating two neighborhoods."

Sounds a lot like the Washington Convention Center, no? I remember many criticized its location on Mount Vernon Square and suggested its bulk would have been better situated north of Union Station, perhaps over the tracks. I actually like the design of Indy Lucas stadium, although find the height a bit much. But city mega-projects like large stadiums and vast, elaphantine convention centers generally don't fit in well in truly urban contexts. They have the least negative impact at the downtown edges, near highways, on air rights space above rail yards or in park(way) settings like in Chicago or at RFK. Unfortunately, in those locations they have minimal catalyst effect on good development activity. It's a conundrum.

by Bob on Dec 22, 2010 5:46 pm • linkreport

As far as street connectivity, I actually like our Convention Center as it doesn't disrupt the block pattern (unless you want to count 8th St). Rather, my chief complaint with the Convention Center is that it's just a massive concrete wall & while it provides some retail frontage; it's far from comprehensive... just too much blank space that doesn't engage the surrounding neighborhoods. I feel like the architects put in more effort at the 2nd level and higher & forgot the ground floor. It's one thing to fit in within a neighborhood; another thing to become a part of the neighborhood.

by Bossi on Dec 22, 2010 5:53 pm • linkreport

I've really enjoyed this series, I think it's a great contribution to the discussion, and I think it's also clear that there's really been nothing said that suggests a giant football stadium would benefit DC at all.

One thing I'm particularly struck by throughout is that the whole discussion of a stadium is filled by "I would be fine with a stadium if they did..." and other best-case scenarios. And we all know the reality of DC is that 90 percent of more of those would never come to pass, and we'd be saddled with a huge, disastrous money sink. And we'd all be saying "this would have been fine if they'd done...x, y, z thing." But they won't. They'd be much more interested in convincing us just enough so we'll go along with it, and once they get the damn thing built it'll be way too late.

That's basically what happened with the Nationals stadium. The thing ended up coming in more than twice over budget, when all was said and done. There's hardly any economic development to speak of in the area, hardly anyone goes to the games, and the money would have been far better spent on a million other things. All told, I don't understand (as another commenter so aptly put it), why taxpayers should be forced to subsidize an entertainment option for a very small number of people.

by Joe on Dec 22, 2010 9:29 pm • linkreport

I'd love to see the Redskins return to DC. But I think that door closed when Jack Kent Cooke settled on the Raljon location. The current stadium is still fairly 'new'. And with the addition of the Morgan and Largo Metro stations to service it, re-locating the team back to DC would be too costly and throw away the investment already made in Fed Ex Field and the surrounding area.

Other than Fed Ex Field, I really see no reason for a Morgan Blvd. Metro Station. At least Largo has Largo Town Center and is an end of line station. Morgan however has brought some nice residential developement to an otherwise troubled area. I'd much rather reside around Morgan station than Addison Road.


by Kaleel on Dec 22, 2010 10:21 pm • linkreport

Well said here. This is a topic that definitely warrants discussion as too many sports stadiums still rely too much on anti-urban surface parking.

However, I found the statements about the design of Soldier Field ('architectural blight') to be off base. The building as it exists today is actually a rather elegant blend of contrasting traditional and contemporary design.

I really enjoy this blog, but the insistence on pushing traditional design and bad-mouthing all contemporary works is most unfortunate. Historic buildings are important and should be preserved, but when it comes to adding something new to the built environment it should always represent the era that in which it was designed. Society in the 21st century is extremely diverse and exciting, and it’s architecture should reflect that. Typical buildings from past eras, with their masonry construction, small punched windows, and lack of efficient utilities aren’t always well suited for occupants’ needs in our 21st century society. Contemporary design isn’t going away, just like we won’t be going back to listening to 8-tracks, using typewriters, or driving Model-T’s. Therefore, it would be advantageous for the traditionalists among us to acknowledge that contemporary design exists for very good reasons and it would be best for us to focus on working together to champion the urban agenda that we all agree on.

by Jim Malone on Dec 22, 2010 10:35 pm • linkreport

Urban ballparks need to be split into two groups - baseball hosting and pure football. The baseball parks tend to be smaller and busier. Plus, if the parking is scaled back (e.g. San Francisco's AT+T Park) and the site is well served by public transit (S.F.'s is served by light rail, commuter rail, buses, and ferries) then it works well.

One of the problems with pure football parks is that they tend to be designed to host a Super Bowl. That means a seating capacity roughly double that of a baseball park. That size factor makes the place too big for most alternate uses other than rock concerts and revival meetings. Contrast that to AT+T Park's hosting of college football and opera telecasts.

P.S. San Francisco has two other large stadiums - Kezar (eastern end of Golden Gate Park) and Candlestick (SE corner of the city). Both are remote from the downtown area and only Kezar (high school sports mainly) is well served by public transit. Candlestick (football, was also baseball) is served by shuttle buses on game days in addition to its acres of parking (which sometimes flood).

by Ted K. on Jan 2, 2011 2:30 pm • linkreport

in Cincinnati the riverfront is junk land, the Ohio River floods, Seattle is on a peninsula and Solder field as well always been apart of Grant Park plus there is transit right there however anyone ells with this idea is stupid for a big bowl thats not even used at max capacity 8 times a year then you have a huge donut of parking for what you can dump snow during a emergency? Unless there are going to be other buildings around the stadium (i.e. Fenway) then its useless to place these in city centers

by Jibreel Riley on Jan 10, 2011 11:09 pm • linkreport

Jibreel I encourage you to actually do research about the Cincy riverfront and the massive infrastructure project that has happened to mediate the flooding issue. Then you might realize that it is no longer the junk land it was.

-A Cincinnatian now in Columbia Heights

by Nathan Strieter on Jan 18, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

You could add Pittsburgh's Heinz Field to this list, they took full advantage of the location with the open end looking out onto the three rivers and the city skyline, and you can easily get to the stadium from downtown by water taxi if you don't want to drive. Not to mention the fact that you know you are in Pittsburgh when you enter, given the view and the fact that the steel supports are painted black and gold. In fact, Pittsburgh has really done a very good job with all three of its stadiums/arenas, they all are either open toward the city (PNC Park & Heinz) or have a all-glass wall on the side facing the city (Consol Energy Center).

by Cairochris on Oct 16, 2011 11:51 pm • linkreport

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