OPINION: Modern approaches to stadium design, construction and refurbishment


Words by Jesse Zunke, associate, Rider Levett Bucknall

Whether built from the ground up as has been proposed for the Oakland Athletics (A’s), or refurbishing an existing stadium, like the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, The community outside the stadium walls is as important a consideration as the stadium itself, writes Zunke.

The proposed new stadium for the Oakland A’s is an example of what stadium construction should look like in the future; a coordinated, privately funded US$12 billion, mixed-use project with a sports stadium at its core. Key to the success of this project was the reclassification of the port facility, Howard Terminal, as mixed-use such that the stadium project could be built on it, removing a major obstacle to the project which has long been on the table. 

Construction costs for the project, which includes a 35,000-seat arena, 3,000 housing units, office space and a hotel, will be borne by developers who would in turn reap the profits.  The only cost to the taxpayer would be infrastructure improvements around the development, money worth spending given the long-term benefits to the public. 

Like the A’s stadium, a new or improved arena should be an exercise in urban planning, with goals for both the municipality, and the facility owners. Some goals may include improving access with local roads and bridges, adequate parking, and being well served by public transportation and airports. Other considerations need to include hotel rooms and hospital beds nearby, in addition to more entertainment choices for visiting fans to drive spending in the area. Green spaces should also be a consideration for any plan. 

Stadia of the past

Building new stadium-centric communities marks quite a departure from how stadium projects have historically been constructed.  In what has long been the standard with sports venues, public funds build the massive structures, but all subsequent profits go to private stakeholders. There is little trickle down and no collateral projects to improve the surrounding landscape. Team owners and investors pocket all revenues from ticket sales, broadcast revenues, concessions, and merchandise.

At 35,000 seats, the proposed A’s stadium is also part of a growing trend toward smaller venues that is beginning to take hold. That number is roughly half of the 72,000-seat capacity of the Las Vegas stadium where the Raiders, formerly of Oakland, now play.  Both the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and AT&T Stadium in Dallas can be reconfigured to accommodate 100,000 spectators.

Few people are likely to want an 80,000-seat sports stadium as a neighbor, so public opposition can be strong. Smaller venues are friendlier to urban neighbors, easier to build, flexible and multi-use, rotating sporting events with concerts, farmers markets and holiday events. They are great neighborhood tenants because they can be made to reflect the local culture with the events schedule or with lucrative sponsorships by local businesses. They also lend themselves to space sharing, either by seasonal alternation of teams and leagues or by figuring out a way for teams to use them concurrently. External consultants are useful too as they can be brought in to create a schedule that seamlessly accommodates all users. 

Community-centric construction

These small stadiums also cost far less to develop. Often, multiple teams can forge partnerships to share in the cost of a stadium, for example, a community college, a local high school, or youth sports leagues who could come together to host tournaments and other events to subsidize the venue cost. Thoughtfully executed with the help of the right, multi-disciplinary consultants to oversee everything, these projects enliven wide swaths of urban neighborhoods with a rotation of events that bring restaurants and other kinds of entertainment to the surrounding blocks, year-round. 

Major League Soccer (MLS) is leading the charge with smaller stadiums, as with the 22,500-seat, multi-use privately funded CITYPARK in St. Louis and the planned 25,000-seat privately funded Miami Freedom Park.  At CITYPARK, where the MLS will officially begin play next year, officials had urban planning as a prime motivator when they chose to locate the club in an area of the city in need of an uplift. The stadium’s surroundings are being transformed into a year-round, mixed-use entertainment hub for concerts and community events. Many stadiums have enough available land around them to add healthy green space or, like the plan for the new Oakland A’s stadium, affordable housing for which there is acute need in cities across the country. 

As they rethink stadiums, National Football League (NFL) and MLB teams might do well to look at the smaller stadiums, like the one in Oakland. The new community-focused, smaller stadiums are proving to enliven urban areas by investing in transit, for example, which is fueling economic growth. It’s no accident that the top six markets for venture capital investment are also the top six regions for transit user growth, according to the Urban Institute. These stadiums also have pedestrian-friendly downtowns that are walkable and busy year-round, and an active street life is better than a hot, vast desert of blacktop and cars crowned by a glass and steel stadium that only sees activity on game day. 

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