After a decade of bitter wrangling, Miami finally can boast of a vibrant new ballpark to reflect its salsa-beat spirit.
Foul balls will ricochet off fish tanks behind home plate. The downtown skyline will twinkle through glass walls. Laser beams will treat nearby commuters to colorful light shows.
Architecturally, the stadium embodies cutting-edge qualities that the Tampa Bay Rays and some civic leaders envision someday for this part of the state — open sight lines, intimate ambience and a retractable roof that defies rain and heat.
Politically and economically, though, Miami cut a rocky path that Tampa Bay taxpayers may be loath to follow.
The financing package —arranged before the economy tanked — resulted in the public paying three-quarters of the $640 million bill.
Leaked financial documents revealed that the Miami Marlins had socked away tens of millions of dollars despite protestations of poverty and threats move to San Antonio or Portland.
Voter backlash contributed to an overwhelming recall of the Miami-Dade mayor. And now the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether investors who bought construction bonds were deceived.
"There is a question whether municipalities that are at the end of their fiscal rope will be willing to finance these facilities anymore,'' even a decade down the road, said Philip Bess, an architecture professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in urban ballparks.
Critics already question the stadium's low-budget location in Little Havana and whether traffic jams will frustrate fans.
But so far, so good.
Season ticket sales are brisk, team officials say, including luxury suites at $150,000 and $250,000 a year. "Diamond Club'' seats behind home plate, costing up to $395 a game, have sold out.
The Marlins are madly buying up expensive new players for the inaugural season.
Beyond the outfield fence, a two-story metal-neon contraption stands ready — in all its gaudy glory — to celebrate home runs by the good guys.
Eight-foot marlins will leap above pulsating palm trees. Water will splash and seagulls will flap about.
First pitch is scheduled for April 1.
• • •
Major League Baseball broke Tampa Bay hearts in 1991 by awarding Florida's first expansion franchise to Blockbuster kingpin Wayne Huizenga and his Florida Marlins.
They would play in a suburban stadium owned by the Miami Dolphins built mainly for football. It sweltered in the heat and gave no shelter from rain.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles had just set off a stadium construction binge with Camden Yards, an urban ballpark tailored solely for baseball. It generated tons of revenue and every owner outside of Fenway, Wrigley and Dodger Stadium hankered for something similar.
The Miami push began — as it would in St. Petersburg a decade later — with a proposed ballpark on the downtown waterfront. Then-Marlins owner John Henry unveiled designs and asked for a surcharge on cruise ship tickets to pay the $385-million bill.
After that plan fizzled, the Marlins jockeyed for nine years with city and county politicians as attendance languished. More than a half-dozen sites came into play. Art dealer Jeffrey Loria bought the team and made overtures to other cities.
A deal was finally cut four years ago for a new stadium to replace the rusty, vacant Orange Bowl. It had once hosted Super Bowls, boxing matches, Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Madonna. But by 2008, it had lost its regular tenants and was draining city coffers.
The location — a low-density residential neighborhood more than a mile from downtown — was less than ideal for baseball's 81 games a year.
But it was available.
• • •
Miami architecture has often adopted distinctive styles, from the Mediterranean Revival of Coral Gables, to the Art Deco of South Beach to the colorful verve of Arquitectonica skyscrapers.
So, too, does the Marlins stadium break free from brick facade traditionalism pioneered by Camden Yards.
"It's more modern or contemporary. There's more glass and steel,'' said Miami architect Rolando Llanes. "Its curvilinear forms are more reminiscent of an arena than a baseball stadium.''
It's also huge, with a swooping roof line that doubles its height and could pass for the world's largest bicycle helmet.
Inside, "fans are going to feel they are getting a way, way smaller place,'' than the current venue, Llanes said.
Seating of 37,000 is the second fewest in baseball. An open, 360-degree concourse lets fans follow the action while buying beer, medianoches or empanadas.
In left field, a glass wall provides views of downtown Miami's skyline to the east. That's a key feature that orients fans, said Notre Dame's Bess, dean of the graduate school of architecture.
"The big complaint of circular stadiums from the '60s and '70s was they seemed virtually interchangeable. From the field, you couldn't see anything outside.''
The roof, which slides off the stadium on giant rails that extend out from the building, will remain open on non-game days, saving on air conditioning and nurturing a natural grass field. On game days, it will close a few hours in advance, depending on heat, humidity and rain.
Best guess on open air games? About 16 out of 81, said Marlins' executive Claude Delorme.
Bess, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, said neighborhood stadiums can work well, such as Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park. But those are in high-density areas, where population breeds commerce and stimulates fan interaction with the surroundings, he said.
"There are three dozen restaurants within a five-minute walk to the entrance to Wrigley. And the Cubs do not restrict bringing food into the game.''
Bess wonders how the Marlins stadium — surrounded by low-density housing — will draw fans when the closest thing to commerce on NW Seventh Street is Wendy's and Walgreens.
Four parking garages that flank the stadium's north and south sides are designed to create a "stadium district'' of restaurants and shops, with 53,000 square feet of ground floor retail space. But the Miami Herald reported last month that no tenant has signed a lease.
Llanes, a city consultant on parking garage design, notes that the neighborhood was recently rezoned for high-density use. Tall buildings should follow when the economy improves, he said, and that will stimulate commerce.
"This will take a long time,'' he said. "Then I think the scale of the stadium will be more consistent with what is around it.''
Both Tampa Bay and Miami suffer as baseball markets because population centers are diffuse, said Mark Rosentraub, a University of Michigan professor who writes about stadiums. In Miami, transportation hurdles compound the problem.
For example, the city guarantees that the parking garages will empty in at least 45 minutes. "That's twice the average you try to shoot for,'' Rosentraub said.
"The Marlins have done a good job with things they can address,'' he said. "The dome removes the weather variable. Everything is designed to maximize the fan experience.
"But there is no mass transit, no direct exit off I-95, one of the most congested freeways in the U.S. And people are going to have to deal with workday commuting issues. In every way, this facility location has transportation challenges.''
• • •
Jose Gonzales, a 35-year-old construction worker, took a few minutes from hosing down his front porch recently to contemplate the Marlins' parking garages, designed for 5,700 cars.
"You are not going to park on the top floors,'' he said. "When it comes to getting out, you are going to be stuck there one or two hours.''
Gonzales is grinning.
The stadium is beautiful, he said, and he won't have to drive 45 minutes to the old ballpark.
More importantly, his corner lot on 17th Avenue can hold 35 cars, and when football packed the Orange Bowl, he charged up to $30 apiece.
Yard parking is a time-honored tradition here and can bring welcome income to a working-class community.
But that doesn't assuage Felix Blayas, 45, who lives a block east of the ballpark. Traffic will be horrible, he said. Even now at rush hour, cars stand still for 20 minutes on Seventh Street when drawbridges over the Miami River are up.
More importantly, he distrusts politicians who say tourist taxes will pay the freight.
"The people are going to pay for this,'' Blayas insists.
Like 176,000 other Miami-Dade residents, he voted in March to recall Mayor Carlos Alvarez by a 76 percent margin.
First elected in 2004, Alvarez offended voters on several tone-deaf fronts. He raised taxes during the recession, gave his staff healthy raises and bought a BMW with his car allowance.
For Blayas and others, lingering resentment over the stadium also played a role.
"Nobody likes the stadium,'' he said. "Nobody in Miami. Nobody in the neighborhood.''
That's an exaggeration, but certainly the financing package has not sat well.
For starters, the Marlins put up less than 25 percent of the cost but get to keep all the revenues, including naming rights, which have yet to be sold. City officials recently discovered they may face $2 million in annual property taxes they didn't expect.
Last year, the website Deadspin.com added fuel to civic discontent when it leaked financial documents from several teams including the Rays and Marlins.
Both had collected millions from baseball's revenue sharing. But while analysts agreed that the Rays had plowed most of their allotment into player development, the Marlins had maintained the league's lowest payroll and netted $43 million from 2008-09 operations.
Miami officials naively never examined the Marlins' books, said Michigan's Rosentraub.
"How one goes into a deal with a partner and doesn't ask to see the data is irresponsible,'' he said. "I would hope public officials in the Tampa Bay region would not make the same mistake, just as I would say that for L.A.
"If they don't let you look at the books, walk away from the table.''
Now the SEC is investigating, subpoenaing city and county records related to the financing package, plus campaign contribution records.
"I'm happy that there's going to be some transparency thrown on it,'' said car dealer Norm Braman, who delayed construction almost a year with a lawsuit and later spent $1 million to lead the Alvarez recall vote. "This thing never made any sense — why they gave away what they did.''
George Burgess, county manager under Alvarez, defends the financing package. The public purse paid 70 percent of construction for baseball stadiums in Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, he noted.
And a ballpark is a public amenity "that all major metropolitan areas have,'' no different than a performing arts hall or science center, Burgess said. "These things are long-term investments in the quality of life.''
Braman, the deep-pockets stadium opponent, benefited from a public stadium years ago when he owned the Philadelphia Eagles. But now he is a major Miami-Dade philanthropist who knows how to mirror community sentiment.
"Maybe you buy them some land, or some minor subsidy,'' Braman said. But "if these guys want a new playpen, let them pay for it themselves.''
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.