Las Vegas willing to pay record public subsidy to have NFL

How much power does the NFL have? Enough to have major cities commit incredible sums of public monies:

Las Vegas appears poised to claim the mantle of World’s Most Expensive Stadium from East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the Jets and Giants play in the $1.6 billion MetLife Stadium. (Los Angeles Stadium, Stan Kroenke’s project that will host the Rams and Chargers, is estimated at $2.6 billion—but that cost includes parts of the surrounding entertainment district.*)

Clark County taxpayers will contribute $750 million to the new arena, a record for a sports facility—about $354 per resident, taken from an increased tax on hotel rooms. That tax currently pays for schools and transportation, in addition to tourism-related expenditures.

Stanford economist Roger Noll said it was the “worst deal for a city” he had ever seen…

The state’s figures to justify that new tax are… ambitious. Its forecasts suggest 450,000 new visitors every year drawn by the 65,000-seat stadium, spending an average of 3.2 nights per visit. About a third of tickets are supposed to be purchased by tourists, although no other city manages 10 percent. Why half a million people would fly across the country to watch a team that no one wants to pay $20 to see in Oakland is not clear.

Even with the studies that show stadiums don’t contribute anything to cities, it seems that someone is always willing to pay. In this case, it wasn’t just Las Vegas: Oakland tried to put together a last-minute deal that they claimed would require even less of the team:

Schaaf told ESPN Friday she believes Oakland’s new stadium plan is viable.

“At the end of the day, this is the decision of the Raiders and the NFL,” Schaaf said. “What I am confident about is, if the Raiders want to stay in Oakland, we have a viable plan to build them a stadium with no upfront money from them, in financial terms that I believe are more favorable to them than the terms in Las Vegas — what we know of them.”

I’m still waiting for a city mayor or other big-name official to publicly bid a major sports franchise good riddance when they ask for a lot of local money. Perhaps that would be bad form – local officials are usually in the business of trying to attract everyone they can – but it could also send a strong signal about how private interests cannot overrule the long-term public interest.

A new MLS team will “lift a community and drive a civic renaissance”?

I’m a little skeptical of the claim that adding a Major League Soccer team will have a tremendous impact on a city:

Here’s what Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said in their joint announcement that they had partnered up to bring an MLS franchise to Detroit:

“Detroit is rising and we know firsthand the power of sports to lift a community and drive a civic renaissance. We are very excited about the prospect of bringing Major League Soccer to Detroit and building an ownership group that represents a cross-section of investors.”

You could swap out “Detroit” in that paragraph for any number of cities and it wouldn’t seem out of place. Sacramento, St. Louis, and the other cities vying to get in on the next wave of MLS expansion have all used the language of revival and civic pride when announcing their MLS intentions. This tracks with MLS’ twin desires to get teams and downtown stadiums into midtier cities throughout the nation and attract a younger, hipper crowd to full those seats.

The article is more interested in whether having so many teams is good for MLS but I would want evidence for the other part of the claim: how do we know that sports “lift a community and drive a civic renaissance”? Do cities without major sports franchises have less civic pride because of it or miss out because have this kind of economic engine?

Remember: academics have consistently found that it is sports team owners who benefit the most from stadium deals as residents will spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere if there are not sports teams to support. Additionally, bigger thriving cities tend to lead to sports teams, not the other way around. Yet, this sort of language is common among sports owners as they try to demonstrate a broader value beyond entertainment. And recent plans for new stadiums – such as the proposed NFL stadium in Los Angeles – are partly about the sports venue and also about a package of commercial and residential space that will in use throughout the year.

Finally, if a soccer team is considered the means by which to turnaround Detroit, it is likely going to take a lot more than that…

Santa Clara: from small city to Super Bowl host

How did Santa Clara come to be the home to Super Bowl 50? It involved particular decisions made from the 1970s on by local leaders about zoning and land use:

Newly elected mayor Gary Gillmor and city manager Don Von Raesfeld were determined to keep Santa Clara comprised of specific sections — with residential property assigned a large but non-elastic section.

This meant buying undeveloped land in the north and east parts of the city for business and industrial purposes and building a robust tax base. McClain doesn’t recall much about the vacant land other than a dairy where families bought their milk if it wasn’t delivered.

The city already had three major highways and expressways that funneled into the undeveloped area, where high-tech companies such as Intel, Applied Materials, McAfee and National Semiconductor gradually started and became a large part of what is now Silicon Valley.

Gillmor, 79, cited three factors that helped Santa Clara maintain its preferred blueprint: a strong middle class, a huge industrial base for tax purposes and its own municipal power plant that reduces residents’ electric bills to about half of what is charged in neighboring cities…

A convention center and another large chain hotel were built in 1986, but the city’s fondness for the 49ers surfaced during the height of the team’s dominance.

The 49ers were given a sweetheart deal to move their training facility from Redwood City — 18 miles north of Santa Clara. Then-mayor Eddie Souza enticed then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. with a deal that gave the team 12 acres at $1,000 an acre with a 4 percent annual increase for 55 years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Today, Santa Clara is a wealthy place as a city with over 122,000 residents: the median household income is $93,840, 53.9% of adults over 25 years old have a bachelor’s degree or more education, and Intel, Texas Instruments, and other semiconductor firms have thousands of jobs in the city. But, this sort of growth doesn’t just happen. Decisions made by civic and business leaders – operating as a growth machine trying to boost profits – often help execute a particular vision of growth. As suggested above, it sounds like land in the city was intentionally set aside for business use and the city was able to attract a number of companies. Not everything can be controlled by civic leaders but they can set themselves up to take advantage of particular opportunities.

On the other hand, having a football stadium is not necessarily a win for a city. This is particularly the case if local tax dollars are used for the stadium. The stadium might be a status symbol – note that the San Francisco 49ers now do not play close to San Francisco – but they often bring other issues.

Soldier Field, home to religious events, Chicago Fire remembrances, and first cell phone call

Soldier Field has a long history beyond hosting the Chicago Bears:

The first football game hosted in the stadium was, indeed, a football game. Notre Dame faced off against Northwestern in November of 1924 (ND won 12 to 6) but before that, on October 9, a “Chicago Day” event was held to mark the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The event featured a formal dedication and official opening with a mock battle, a horse-riding exhibition from the U.S. 14th Cavalry, and a re-enactment of the fire complete with a cow kicking over Mrs. O’Leary’s lantern. Ten firemen who had actually fought the great fire used the city’s first pump engine against the mock blaze in which a replica O’Leary barn was burned down. Some variation of this event was held there until 1970…

But perhaps the largest event ever held at the field was the Marian Year tribute of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. It’s estimated that 180,000 attendees were inside the stadium itself while another 80,000 listened outside on loudspeakers…

In another landmark moment for Chicago synergy, on October 13, 1983, David D. Meilahn made the first-ever commercial cell phone call from the field on a Motorola DynaTAC, a major turning point in communications history. The Chicago-based handset and radio equipment manufacturer was proud to show off its new technology on home turf.

While this has clearly been a sports stadium for nearly a century, it is interesting to note the wide-ranging events that have been held on site. In many ways, this has operated as a public space where the city could come together to celebrate its past, ethnic and religious groups could hold ceremonies, and new sights could be seen. Do we have such spaces today? Most stadiums are tools of corporate power where team owners, often benefiting from public funds in the construction of the stadium, make money. Perhaps it could be argued that they serve the community in that sports can often be a large part of local culture. Yet, it is hard to imagine having large-scale stadiums today that host a wide variety of events and that tens of thousands of local residents would regularly show up to see what was happening.

Asking $9.8 million for one small home near Wrigley Field

The property near Wrigley Field is getting quite valuable – at least according to the asking price:

In the world of real estate, location means everything. But does a property around the corner from Wrigley Field command $9.8 million? The sellers of 3710 N Kenmore Ave. realize that there is much more to the property than the two-story frame house that sits on it. The property has some potential to earn a few bucks and the listing agent is suggesting that investors consider erecting rooftop advertising (specifically a digital billboard) on the site. The Ricketts family have famously scooped up several of the surrounding rooftop properties, but this property is billing itself as one of the few that is not under the control of the Cubs organization. Broker Amy Duong of Jameson Sotheby’s Intl Realty tells us that the seller has been paying attention to sales in the neighborhood, notably the McDonald’s parking lot that the Ricketts family paid $20 million for. Duong also tells us that there’s no mistake in the price in the listing and the seller is fine with sitting on the house until a reasonable offer comes forth.

Perhaps the asking price was influenced by the success of the team this past season. More wins and young talent mean that property values may go up even more. In contrast, look at the land near U.S. Cellular Field on Chicago’s South Side. While that land is not easily converted to party/retail/restaurant space like the properties near Wrigley, imagine if the team was good for a number of years. Wouldn’t businesses and residents want to be part of the scene?

I’m guessing the property won’t sell soon for anywhere near this initial price but why not ask for the moon while the team is winning and the owners are spending money on property and renovations?

Building beautiful American sports stadiums

One writer asks whether Americans can build beautiful sports stadiums:

So why don’t any of them look like the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux? For a country with such a deep and abiding love for professional sports and lighting money on fire, the U.S. really isn’t in the business of building iconic sports arenas. Museums: Fine. Libraries: We’re golden. Those things are built to make the case for themselves and their cities. It’s different with stadiums…France’s latest soccer stadium, which opened to great fanfare in September, is the work of Herzog & de Meuron. It was designed with an eye toward Bordeaux’s landscape, according to the firm’s website, with heavy emphasis on elegance and “geometrical clarity.” At a glance, it looks like a juiced-up John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Herzog & de Meuron are what you would call elite architects. The firm is best known for projects such as the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and 56 Leonard Street in New York. Not that they’re not known for sports architecture: The firm designed the unforgettable Bird’s Nest Stadium, a collaboration with Ai Weiwei that served as the centerpiece for the Beijing 2008 Summer Games. Herzog & de Meuron has also produced jewel-box arenas for Munich (Allianz Arena) and Basel (St. Jakob Park).

But Europe is home to lots of ballparks and arenas by smaller firms that, for better or worse, push the boundaries of what stadium architecture can be. In the U.S., most sports venues are designed by one of a handful of giant specialty firms, namely Populous, HKS, HOK, AECOM, NBBJ, and a few others. While these are fine firms—great firms, even—stadium designs for American clients trend toward the conservative.

The argument seems a bit convoluted: local leaders, taxpayers, and teams are going to build more of these stupid things anyway so why not make them better looking? This could go a few different directions instead:

  1. Iconic buildings – those with unique architecture and often designed by starchitects – can become draws on their own. Both status and tourist dollars are at stake here. Of course, there are issues with promoting such iconic structures as they can often have little connection to existing styles in the community.
  2. Any sort of major public building, from museums to libraries to parking garages to stadiums, should be pleasing to look at and contribute to the community. For example, New Urbanists argue civic structures should occupy prominent locations and be landmarks for the community. In other words, you could have a beautiful structure but if it is located next to a highway junction to best serve those trying to get to the park or in order to take advantage of cheap land, what’s the point?
  3. What counts as a beautiful or well-designed building is difficult to define. Who gets to decide if stadiums are ugly? The fans who regularly go there? A survey of local residents? Team owners? Could utilitarian structures be considered beautiful in their own way? The example discussed from Bordeaux appears to be the sort of modernist structure that never really caught on in the United States. (For example, it never really gathered much steam for houses.)

Still, I imagine there are some American stadiums that the general public would consider more beautiful than others. Whether Americans want daring stadiums, ones that don’t look like the typical American stadium, may be a tough sell…

Lesson of Glendale, Arizona: don’t put so much public money into sports stadiums

The Super Bowl will be played in Glendale, Arizona but the suburb’s push to become a sports center has not exactly paid off:

As the Coyotes and Cardinals sought new facilities in the early 2000s and efforts failed to build them in other parts of the Phoenix area, Glendale stepped in. The city helped pay for the Coyotes’ arena with $167 million in bonds in 2003, and as the hockey team’s finances began to fade during the recession, Glendale went all-in to keep the team in Arizona. The city dished out $50 million earlier this decade to keep the team and continues to make annual payments toward the arena, but the money it is getting in return has not met expectations.

The football stadium was built in 2006, but Glendale was not on the hook for the costs of the $450 million retractable-roof facility. It was funded primarily with new taxes on car rentals and hotels in the Phoenix area, but that financing hit a snag last year when a judge ruled that the car rental tax was unconstitutional, leaving a major funding source for the Super Bowl venue in jeopardy. The issue is still being argued in the courts.

Glendale is far from alone. Cities and states nationwide have long struggled with how much public money to spend on stadium projects. The effort to build a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings became embroiled in controversy over a financial commitment by the state that opponents said was excessive. The St. Louis Rams are at the center of a debate over whether to spend public money on a new stadium. Topeka, Kansas, is immersed in a fight over a motorsports track that has drawn comparisons to hockey in Glendale…

In the case of the Super Bowl, he believes the city is paying dearly. He said Glendale will actually lose a “couple million dollars” by hosting the event. It’s spending huge amounts of money on overtime and police and public safety costs associated with hosting the Super Bowl but getting very little in return.

Super Bowl visitors are mostly staying in Phoenix and Scottsdale and only showing up in Glendale on game day, meaning the city won’t see much of a boost in tax revenue. And the city was hoping the state would reimburse Glendale for its police overtime costs, but lawmakers have scoffed at the idea.

Teams and cities typically sell stadiums as engines for economic development. Think of all the fans who will be there! You can build around the new facilities! This will put your city on the map! But, such stadiums come with big costs including tax money that is often used as well as a whole host of other infrastructure concerns (from police to building hotel rooms). And the winners in such schemes are often the team owners who don’t have to pay completely out of pocket for facilities that can immensely boost the value of their team. (A thought: just imagine a team owner selling the team for a big profit – and many current sports franchises would turn such a profit today – and having to reimburse the community for costs incurred.)

But, if Glendale hadn’t built these stadiums, some other community might have fallen over themselves to make it happen…

Transforming sports stadiums into retail stores, a church, apartments, a water park

Here is a brief look at seven repurposed sports stadiums around the world:

A 60 percent replica of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, this 20,000-seat arena that once housed the University of Memphis basketball program and the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies was put to pasture in 2004 with the opening of the FedExForum. At 32 stories tall, the third largest pyramid in the world is now reinventing itself. As a Bass Pro Shop. Set to open as early as December 2014 or spring 2015, the pyramid will contain a ginormous retail store, restaurant, aquarium, waterfall and potentially a hotel and museum…

In 1971 having the San Diego Rockets move to Houston launched a push to build a new arena. By 1975 the brand-new concrete-laden The Summit arena was the answer. But shy of 30 years later, when the Toyota Center opened in 2003, the Rockets no longer had fond thoughts of The Summit. Fortunately for the venue, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church did. The church spent $95 million to renovate the basketball arena into a 16,000-seat worship center. After leasing the space, the church purchased the former home of the Rockets in 2010, giving Osteen an arena-sized home for decades to come…

London can make flats out of soccer stadiums. And Indianapolis can make apartments out of baseball stadiums. The 1931-opened Bush Stadium was a popular minor league park for decades, but went abandoned in 1996. The Art Deco stadium once served a purpose housing old cars from a federal Cash for Clunkers program, but now has quite a bit more intrigue as The Stadium Lofts, more than 130 apartments in the stadium that preserved key features, such as the ticket booth and owner’s suite. The three-story brick and steel structure has plenty of odd-shaped apartments and views onto the field…

You can find some of the world’s best architecture in Barcelona, so it would prove a shame to rip out a late 1800s bullfighting arena. Fortunately, Las Arenas found new life after ceasing to host bullfighting in the 1970s. With the interior unused, Barcelona officials still saw the value in the Catalonia-style cylindrical building with Moorish arches and preserved the façade of the building while creating a new shopping attraction. With a mix of retail stores, offices and restaurants under a new dome that spilled to an outdoor terrace, the beauty of Las Arenas lives on. Just not as a stadium.

These are some clever uses. Two of the seven examples were planned as Olympic venues designed to be used for the Olympic sports and then transitioned into something else. It strikes me that a number of these are located in more densely settled areas as opposed to suburban stadiums surrounded by parking lots.

Yet, I suspect the seven cases here are rather unusual. Most American stadiums don’t get an exciting second life, perhaps because they would cost too much to convert or no one can envision a profitable use or the land could be put to better uses. When building a new stadium for the major sports, I wonder if architects spend much time thinking about future uses.

Taxpayers pay 70% of NFL stadium costs, owners pocket 95% of the revenue

Gregg Easterbrook summarizes the research on who pays for and benefits from the construction of new NFL stadiums:

Judith Grant Long, an urban planning professor at Harvard, has shown that about 70 percent of the cost of building and operating NFL stadia has been paid by taxpayers — many not even sports fans. About 95 percent of the revenue the stadia generate is kept by team owners. It’s a deeply disturbing arrangement. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, has shown that NFL investments never generate the promised job totals or local economic activity. If there’s public money to spend in Buffalo, investments in infrastructure — schools, transportation, a replacement for the dilapidated Peace Bridge, improving Delaware Park — would have more of an economic multiplier effect than an NFL field.

This said, if there is one city where public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified, it’s Buffalo. Should Atlanta or Miami lose its NFL team, that would be a shame, but these cities would still have strong economies. Should Buffalo lose the Bills, this could be perceived as the “last one turns out the lights” moment, reducing the odds of a Buffalo urban recovery.

Public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified only if the facility is located downtown. The Buffalo News reports that 15 sites are under consideration for a new stadium. Two are in Toronto. Several are suburban, including an abandoned shopping mall property an hour’s drive from the city. One is near Niagara Falls, where the tourist activity is on the Canadian side, not the American side. One is on the Buffalo Outer Harbor, which is cut off from downtown by a freeway and doesn’t contribute to the pulse of urban life. Only downtown locations should be considered if public funds are spent.

Nobody would have believed 20 years ago that Pittsburgh and Cleveland could bounce back and have trendy downtowns. And nobody believes that about Buffalo now. But already underway on the north side of the city is a complex of a teaching hospital and medical research center that will be among the world’s largest and best equipped. Thousands of professionals will move to the city to staff the center. Add the NFL to downtown, and Buffalo might acquire the cachet it needs to rebound.

In other words, the research from recent years is consistent: building a publicly-funded stadium is not really a good deal for taxpayers. Major league teams will appreciate it and the owners certainly benefit but the money does not flow back to taxpayers. Yet, since the political calculus is such that no major leader wants to be the one that let the favorite team get away plus there are still sites that existing teams can threaten to move to (in the NFL, Los Angeles is perhaps more important as a potential city rather than an actual home for a team), taxpayers are likely to continue to help foot the bills for new stadiums.

How do you preserve the first sports dome that voters rejected?

The fate of the Astrodome in Houston is unclear though the National Trust for Historic Preservation still holds out hope:

Prior to Election Day, it was widely speculated that demolition would begin almost immediately if Harris County did not pass Proposition 2, a bond measure to turn the Dome into the world’s largest special events space.

Fast forward to today, and we have a failed ballot initiative, but only the building’s non-historic features have come down. The intense “should it stay or should it go” chatter has quieted, and the Dome was noticeably absent from the agenda of the county’s last meeting…

Because the Astrodome is Harris County property, all eyes are on the judge and the county commissioners — the five elected officials who, sooner rather than later, will have to make the call. Since Election Day, this group has taken great care to consider the three most likely options: private development, a public-private partnership, or demolition.

In that time, they have not only expressed disappointment over low voter turnout, but that they still want to hear from people who want to save the Dome. Still.

I have to wonder if this kind of preservation effort is similar to efforts regarding Brutalist structures or modernist single-family homes. Is the Astrodome aesthetically pleasing? Is it worth trying to make something out of a building that was primarily for sports? The Astrodome might be significant because it was the first but that isn’t necessarily a good reason for having it around even longer. One has to appeal to a bigger cause – like the idea that midcentury architecture is worth preserving:

The Astrodome’s exterior is wrapped in a steady, repeating rhythm of slender columns, the space between them filled with concrete screens in a delicate diamond-shaped pattern. Seen from the parking lot outside, the dome resembles more than a few lightly ornamented postwar buildings around the country, including William Pereira’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened the same year…

Even if its attitude toward the environment now strikes us as deeply naive, the Astrodome deserves to be protected simply as a singular monument to the American confidence and Texas swagger of the 1960s. The stadium doesn’t so much symbolize as perfectly enclose a moment in time.

I would think the biggest reason for saving the Astrodome would be that it is a big piece of Houston history, a city that has come a long way in recent decades. It could serve a function similar to the Water Tower building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago: a reminder of an earlier era amidst bigger buildings.

We’ll see if the Astrodome is preserved and then what is done with the building.