A major battle going on in placemaking circles is that of sports teams and sports venues. How should they be financed? Should they be in open fields or should they take up blocks of downtown districts? What happens to the displaced homeowners and renters? What happens when they fall into disrepair? Who should pay for them and the amenities that they draw, such as hotels, restaurants and even permanent housing and other amusement activities?
In this post, in the continued spirit of March Madness, I’m going to outline my relationship ideas for sports facilities and cities .
There are a lot of stadiums built for more than one thing. Lucas Oil Stadium is a Super Bowl site, a NCAA Final Four site and according to its website, also hosts high-school proms. What makes that great is that under the multipurpose model, especially in the era of the retractable roof, you could have one pro stadium.
Yes, depending on how many sports, multi-use would require creative scheduling. Even if you need two or three sports venues, put them on the same ground. That way, you could cluster all your sports and build an entertainment district, and also provide a major transit link, for a lower land cost. There was a pattern of multi-use stadiums in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Good to see some of that still with the new retractable roof models.
Work with the surrounding areas to create and maintain a neighborhood
One of the saddest films I watched when I was in grad school was one on how the people near Brooklyn’s then-proposed Atlantic Yards (now known as Pacific Park) development, home of the Barclays Center, were losing their homes. The few supporters who were African-American and poor seemed lured in by the promise of jobs, jobs that may or may not pay enough to make a living on and to afford a new apartment in the expensive Brooklyn that was emerging around them.
The history of the area around the yard speaks of hundreds of years of debate, proposals and actions around what should go on the land. Because the majority of the land is a rail yard and a major one at that, various businessmen have wanted to develop it and the municipal leaders of New York have wanted to create a “true downtown district” where so many rail connections are. However, due to the Great Depression and other economic effects, the area became less valuable to the city and other developers and homeowners moved in. Yet, the city and other major power brokers never gave up on wanting the land. It’s a continued battle, but the arena is now open, and some of the new condos are under construction.
Yet, I believe that if you want to build an arena, you can do so in a way and in an area that doesn’t automatically mean condemned homes, acres of parking lot, and unreasonable fantasies (or in the case of Madison Square Garden, the loss of classical architecture and a necessary city function).
While not a perfect example, the Greensboro Coliseum still exists within the realm of the surrounding neighborhood. There are a handful of restaurants nearby and the neighborhood is still a working class neighborhood, but with a clean, safe supermarket, drug store and library nearby. I’m going to pause here, because my own coliseum helps us illustrate another point.
Turn a profit and use those profits to reinvest, not subsidies from your government
The Greensboro Coliseum makes money. Because it’s an entertainment complex and serves that multipurpose function I mentioned in the first section, it’s a city-owned enterprise that generates revenue for itself. Its director makes six figures, mainly because he turns a profit. Did I mention this is a city-owned enterprise?.
The revenues also allow it to constantly maintain an upgraded appearance and various revenue-generating activities to take place in the parking lot.
Other cities can do this as well, if they are smart about booking seats, exhibitions, performers and the like that will help their arenas and stadiums make a profit. While not every stadium project guarantees a fan base, if your team is already selling out your current arena, that’s a great place to start. Even better if there are multiple teams using the space. Then, if you are in the middle of your state or region, or have good public transit connections, you can attract other events to your property.
The key here is keeping it simple. Yes, luxury boxes are nice, but how many of those really pay for the millions, sometimes billions, that go into modern stadiums? Do people who operate these facilities not see the potential in making concessions money and paying off their bonds that way? Will banks not lend to these facilities as stand alone facilities, not ones that are dependent on taxpayer largess?
Essentially, if you are in a larger, centrally located, densely developed location, with proper provisions for traffic and transit, you can and should consider an arena or stadium project. If you think this will put your city on the map, please don’t, it won’t. People attend conventions based off a city’s reputation, and sports games based on winning records. If all you have are major performers, then stick with a large auditorium or an amphitheater.
Do use the facility as justification for public transit, affordable housing and other public services
Although the ultimate Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park proposal mandated affordable housing and other community services , there are questions about what affordability means. Globally, construction costs and land values have made rents and base home prices rise.
Meanwhile, if you are getting tons of revenue from your entertainment venue, consider a massive subsidy for housing on the property. Deck your parking and build homes with a mix of incomes there. Or if you can’t get housing, put offices and restaurants there, with lower rents to allow for more small business and start-up venues.
Or, if you insist on having the massive surface parking lot, rent it out as a park-and-ride lot when no events are there. Greensboro Coliseum’s spare parking lot is a park and ride for UNC Greensboro. Without that permit, I wouldn’t have had guaranteed campus parking for my first year of graduate school.
Also, with your lot as a park-and-ride and the potential for such, building it in a way that allows for the entertainment venue, the homes (and people who don’t mind living near what could be a nuisance) and the parking lot could be a driver for a major transit hub.
Know how to shut it down or make it something else
The Urban Land Institute just released a study of how Houston’s now-unused Astrodome can connect with public transportation, house a historical museum, become the city’s next park and a host of other adaptive reuse and even event uses. In years past, an empty stadium would be a liability. In today’s web-driven, crowdfunded entertainment industry, people are always looking for venue.
For example, the Station to Station project, a corporate-sponsored private train that took artists and musicians across the country in September 2013, used such places as a historic hotel’s outdoor courtyard, a large trackside parking lot, an old drive-in movie theater, and the grounds of an abandoned former train station as performance venues.
Price that older venue, as a value, then it will always be filled and turn as much of a profit as your old stadium. Do not use this as an excuse to build a new stadium when demand is not there.
If the stadium out lives it’s value, tear it down or sell it to someone else with no shame. If the stadium still has value, don’t give into people who think a new stadium will some how be better, when that stadium will have to make millions to pay for itself over time.
In short, it comes down to this: provide sports and entertainment venues. They are great opportunities for public-private partnership and to leverage private investment to serve public purposes, as long as the local government plans carefully and follows through on its plans. Create a fair taxing structure or encourage a billionaire to come in and pay for it. Keep it working and build it well the first time to save on future maintenance costs.
Make it fit in to the urban fabric, close to transit and with bars and restaurants a short walk away, and don’t give in to unreasonable parking demands. Push for affordable housing and major transit improvements, along with other infrastructure that will not only benefit the facility, but also the entire city .
You can still be an urbanist and support an arena. You just have to do it in the right way.