1. Opinion

Column: For new ballpark, look to imitate others' successes

Published Mar. 29, 2013

Rays fans across Tampa Bay are excited about Opening Day on Tuesday, but most are less excited over the prospect of more debate about the need for a new baseball stadium. Is there really any hope for a new home for the Tampa Bay Rays?

There could be, if everyone would focus on successful stadium projects that have been built elsewhere.

Mind you, there have been just as many failures as successes when it comes to baseball stadiums. And the difference between success and failure has had little to do with the buildings themselves.

The modern era for baseball stadium design and location began with Oriole Park at Camden Yards on a former railroad yard in Baltimore in 1992. Since then, many Major League Baseball teams have built classic retro homes in urban locations, reversing 30 years of migration to suburbs and generic big-box stadiums.

But simply building a classy retro stadium in an urban setting does not guarantee success. Many modern stadiums have been constructed with a "build it and they will come" philosophy, our own Tropicana Field included. But that doesn't guarantee success for major-league parks.

Since the construction of Camden Yards, 21 new major league ballparks have been built. Among the great ones: Progressive Field in Cleveland and Coors Field in Denver. Among the losers: the New Comiskey Park in Chicago and perhaps Turner Field in Atlanta.

What separates winners from losers? Consider three important factors that characterize successful ballparks:

• They were built as part of an overall development plan.

• They include a mass transit factor.

• They include neighborhood integration.

Camden Yards did not reinvigorate inner Baltimore on its own — it was a player on a "team" that included the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor, which now houses the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the festival retail development, Harborplace.

Progressive Field was only part of the redevelopment plan in Cleveland and is itself part of the Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex, which includes Quicken Loans Arena, home of the NBA Cavaliers. Other players include a renewed theater district, the Flats entertainment district and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Coors Field in Denver's LoDo District (lower downtown) was part of a larger revitalization picture that included a new convention center, art galleries, a library and Pepsi Center, home of the NBA Nuggets.

Camden Yards, Progressive Field and Coors Field are all connected to their greater communities by rail transit. The site of Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals, was chosen because of the location of three nearby transit stops. It has been reported that 70 percent of fans going to a ball game at Nationals Park arrive by mass transit.

On the other hand, Atlanta's Turner Field has learned the hard way that mass transit is critical to the success of a baseball park. Turner Field is located about a mile from the Atlanta downtown and is a 25-minute walk from MARTA, Atlanta's mass transit system. MARTA needs to be connected with Turner Field.

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A defining aspect of the successful retro stadium is the integration of the ballpark with the neighborhood, usually a neighborhood of high-density housing with a large daytime population. Just look at Chicago's Wrigley Field in Central Lakeview, an area everyone knows simply as Wrigleyville.

To foster the connection between a ballpark and its community, designers integrate parking into the community so spectators can conveniently interact with local shops, restaurants and clubs, thereby boosting the local economy.

The two most talked about locations in Tampa Bay have been Carillon in central Pinellas County and the Channelside area of downtown Tampa. Based on the formula of successful baseball parks, it is hard to see how a baseball park in Carillon will benefit the Rays or the community. A baseball park at Channelside would benefit from a high daytime population as well as the nearby location of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Channelside Bay Plaza, Ybor City, the Florida Aquarium and the neighborhood that has sprouted in the area.

If a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium is to be successful, it needs to follow the lead of the nation's most successful baseball developments.

Michael McElveen is president of Urban Economics Inc., a Tampa firm specializing in real estate economics, appraisals and real property consulting services. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.