No one-size-fits-all approach for building a downtown baseball stadium

A new study examines the divergent outcomes after the construction of new baseball stadiums in downtown Denver and Phoenix:

That Coors and Chase Fields had diverging fates is no accident but rather the result of poor planning, write Arizona State researchers Stephen Buckman and Elizabeth A. Mack in a recent issue of the Journal of Urbanism. Phoenix’s attempt to copy Denver’s success shows that sports stadiums are not a one-size-fits-all solution to downtown redevelopment efforts. On the contrary, Buckman and Mack argue, these projects must strongly consider the natural form of the city to avoid failure:

A key consideration that is often overlooked in the planning phase of these projects is the historical urban growth patterns and resulting urban form of the cities in which stadium development projects are proposed.

Buckman and Mack conducted a point-by-point review of both stadiums in their effort to determine what factors contributed most to their success, or lack thereof. They quickly found that population differences weren’t the source of the difference. Phoenix and Denver had similar demographic profiles at the time the fields were being proposed, with no marked variations in age of the potential fan base or ability to pay for tickets.

Where they began to see a clear difference was in urban form. Metropolitan Phoenix is a widespread area without a distinctive downtown core. Its satellite cities of Glendale, Tempe, and Scottsdale all have significant attractions and downtowns of their own that create what the researchers call a “centrifugal effect” on potential visitors to downtown Phoenix. By some estimates, Phoenix has the least developed downtown core in the country.

Denver, on the other hand, has a historic core that dates back to the city’s founding in 1858. In addition, the city itself is far less expansive: encompassing only about 150 squares miles, to more than 9,000 for metropolitan Phoenix. The result of this urban form, for Denver residents, is a considerably more convenient proximity to the stadium.

More broadly, it sounds like having key structures in and near the baseball stadium is very important, perhaps even more so than the particulars of the stadium itself. In other words, building a stadium with little already existing around it might have little impact on the surrounding area. Downtowns work because they are clusters of activity; there are not just office buildings but also nearby residences, restaurants, and cultural institutions that help insure a broad range of visitors to the downtown. Baseball games then become another activity that people want to go to because the games are part of the scene of the whole area.

I visited Coors Field for the first time this past August during the 2012 American Sociological Association meetings. Since I was staying near the Convention Center, we had to walk about 15 minutes to the stadium. The walk was pleasant in itself; Denver has a nice scene between these two destination points. Unlike some other major cities where the downtown is dominated by large buildings, this area has primarily low-rise buildings. People are outside walking around or eating. The stadium itself seemed to be at the edge of the downtown area closer to I-25 but it was clear plenty of other fans were also walking through the surrounding LoDo neighborhood and enjoying the night.

Another question I would ask as a baseball fan: could attendance be boosted in a more dispersed region if the team was winning? Or do parks like Wrigley Field win at attendance with little effect of record because fans want to have the experience?

By the way, here is a picture from my seat. While Coors Field might be more successful than Chase Field, the team was not good last year and there were plenty of empty seats as well as cheap seats online.

CoorsFieldAug2012

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