SBJ/April 26 - May 2, 2004/SBJ In Depth
Petco Park hits a dinger with design
Published April 26, 2004
Team officials first balked at the site proposed for the new ballpark, but later saw the potential to help revive a blighted area of the city.
The first time San Diego Padres owner John Moores and his former CEO, Larry Lucchino, drove the streets of America’s Finest City in search of a site for a new ballpark, they gushed about the potential of several spots.
Lucchino favored a parcel in Mission Valley, not far from Qualcomm Stadium, the Padres’ longtime home. Moores wanted a signature building on the waterfront to the west.
It was at the end of that memorable ride that the city’s chief redevelopment officer, Peter Hall, took them to the corner of downtown that he favored, the blighted East Village, where a new ballpark might awaken a half square mile that had been hibernating for decades.
Moores saw abandoned buildings. Broken glass and rotten fruit littered streets that were home to the homeless.
“This is the needle exchange district,” the Padres’ owner said, stunned by Hall’s assertion that the neighborhood could be brought back to life.
“You want us to be the jewel in the junkyard,” Lucchino told Hall.
Seven years, $474 million and 17 lawsuits later, it is apparent that Lucchino was half right. The Padres unveiled Petco Park to rave reviews earlier this month. Architecture critics, baseball writers and the paying public all deemed it a jewel.
But the junkyard? That’s gone, or on its way to being gone anyway, rapidly giving way to $1.2 billion in development. Midway through March, 29 projects had been completed or were under construction in the 26-block ballpark district.
As part of a ballpark agreement that brought $301 million in public funding, Moores agreed to provide at least $311 million in residential, hotel and retail development in the East Village. Already, he has provided $550 million, all within a few blocks of the park.
Moores’ only regret: That the city didn’t bring in more developers and extend the project by 10 to 20 blocks.
“We undershot,” Moores said. “This whole side of town is just red hot.”
Thanks to the ballpark — and a downtown boom in a locale that was short on downtown domiciles — land that the city bought for $12 to $50 a square foot in recent years is going for upwards of $200 a foot. Developers have committed to 3,700 units of new housing in the ballpark district since 2002.
At a time when many municipalities are questioning whether sporting venues spur meaningful growth, San Diego is raging.
“If the marketplace measures its success by the value of the land, how can somebody say this ballpark is anything short of a home run?” Hall asked, pointing to cranes and construction crews from his 11th-floor office in San Diego’s downtown core. “It hasn’t just been a home run. It’s been a grand slam.”
Dare to be different
The ballpark fits within its East Village neighborhood without overwhelming it, a significant feat for a building that will accommodate 46,000.
A key feature of Petco Park is an outdoor concourse that encircles the seating bowl.
It is different at its core. The traditional guts of a stadium — wide, enclosed concourses — are pulled away at Petco Park, traded out for a pair of free-standing buildings that frame an outdoor concourse that encircles the seating bowl, creating gardens that open to the sky.
The sandstone tile used on much of the exterior was imported from India, home to the only quarry that offered the hue that matched the nearby Torrey Pines cliffs that inspired the building’s design architect, Antoine Predock. The lines of the two “garden buildings” that meet at a plaza behind home plate are
Contractors imported sandstone tile from India to match the hue of the nearby Torrey Pines cliffs, which inspired the design architect.
The main entrance from the plaza is up a vast, ceremonial staircase that narrows at its top, contained on one side by a wall over which water cascades into a shallow pool.
Petco Park looks and feels unlike any other building in sports.
That’s what Moores and Lucchino were going for when they put together an unlikely marriage, teaming Predock, an acclaimed Southwestern architect who never had designed a sports facility, with HOK ballpark architect Joe Spear, whose firm has done most of the MLB parks that have gone up in the last decade.
Reminding him that his lack of sports experience was one reason he’d been selected, Lucchino asked Predock to design a building that fit San Diego’s outdoor lifestyle and played off its natural beauty.
“Don’t hang your hat on a nostalgic set of references,” Lucchino told Predock, whose other public buildings include Austin City Hall and the Tacoma Art Museum. “Create something special for San Diego. Work your art in a way that you think is appropriate and authentic and we’ll see what happens.”
Predock considered the dimensions of a traditional ballpark — round, vast and tall. He came up with a parallel from nature and started sketching. Predock unveiled that initial drawing during his first meeting with Spear at HOK’s Kansas City headquarters.
It was an extinct volcano. With seats.
In Predock’s initial drawings, the adjacent buildings that would house concessions, clubs and office were inspired by large chunks of rock that had spewed from the crater and cooled. He unveiled the sketches to the signature opening scene from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“You look back on it and kind of chuckle, but you could see Antoine’s process of trial and error,” Spear said. “He starts with a completely blank universe. He often speaks in metaphors. But, eventually, he gets to something you can build.”
Forces of nature typically inspire Predock’s work. But in designing his first sports facility, he saw the opportunity to invite in a new muse. The contour of the game, its drama and pace, and the passion of its players and fans all found places in the design that he and Spear developed.
“I don’t think architecture is a neutral container for sport,” Predock said. “It’s a player. It’s a component of the experience.”
That the two entities were able to collaborate surprised many. Lucchino, now the CEO of the Boston Red Sox, says it worked because, at its heart, the union was between Predock and Spear — two architects who expressed great respect for each other — rather than the two firms. Moores stressed the role played by Gerald Hines, a Houston-based developer who had worked with both firms and believed they could find a common rhythm.
Predock expressed admiration for HOK’s understanding of sight lines and angles that would bring the ballpark’s interior to life, giving fans lots to look at. Spear said he initially worried about collaborating with a designer from outside sports, but was put at ease when Predock suggested that gaps within the seating bowl might make the ballpark more open and interesting.
“The hair on the back of my neck stood up,” Spear said, “because I had been thinking about the same thing.”
The two would not always agree on design aspects. But they would find compromises, each giving ground on the other’s area of expertise.
“There was nothing easy about putting these guys together,” said Eric Judson, the Padres’ vice president of development, who shepherded the project from its beginnings to completion. “What Joe Spear and Antoine did was amazing. You’ve got two organizations that culturally came from different places. They design different products. HOK is the master at building buildings where more than 40,000 people congregate for an event. Most of Antoine’s buildings are places of reflection. Those are two very different things.
“HOK took the spirit and guts of Antoine’s design and made it work.”
Connecting with history
Petco Park is pretty. It is inspired. But its quirks can make it difficult to navigate.
By pulling the concessions away from the main seating bowl and creating courtyards that span multiple levels, Predock and Spear also created an operational dilemma. Fans will want to move around — which is wonderful, so long as they can move to and from their seats without running into long lines and tight pinches that slow circulation.
“We’ll have our challenges in learning how to make it work,” said Richard Andersen, executive vice president and managing director of ballpark operations for the Padres. “But there are no fatal flaws. It’s just a lot of operational experience that we have to develop.”
In order to deal with the complexities of the ballpark’s layout, the Padres will employ a game-day staff of about 250, not counting concessions workers and security. That’s about 50 more than the norm for a park of Petco’s size.
“There’s a cost impact,” Andersen said. “But the experience of the ballpark is so great that you make it up when people keep coming back. It’s worth enduring a learning curve.”
All ballparks built in the last five years have outdoor sections of concourse that are pleasant spots to congregate. But Petco has more than the others.
Its garden concourses and the terraces that surround them offer views of the San Diego Bay, the downtown skyline, Balboa Park and the mountains to the east. The Padres hope those areas will draw fans onto the premises earlier and keep them entertained even if action on the field turns sour.
Petco’s two signature features, the Western Metal Supply Co. and the Beachers, make for an intriguing span beyond the outfield fence.
The Western Metal Supply building stands where it was constructed in 1909 and connects the park to the city’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. The four-story brick structure includes a 7,800-square-foot gift shop that incorporates the building’s original safe as a merchandise display. By passing through the gift shop, fans can make their way onto a standing room area with a see-through fence that borders the left-field corner.
The second and third floors of the building serve as party suites that can be divided or combined, with balconies that jut out over the field. The fourth floor houses the Padres Hall of Fame Bar and Grill, a restaurant open to all fans on game days. The Padres will use the rooftop to seat groups.
The area beyond the right-field fence is home to another innovation unique to Petco: the Beachers. As the name implies, Beachers are bleacher seats, but with a beach theme, in that they ascend from a pit of sand that has proven popular with children who dash back and forth in it during games.
It’s not exactly what the Padres had in mind when they asked HOK to design it, and the shallow slope of the seats, coupled with some obstructed views, may erode its popularity over the long haul. But, even with its shortcomings, the area serves as an important conduit for the feature that may prove to be the most important innovation of Petco Park.
Picnic with the Padres
When Moores and Lucchino began pitching local politicians and San Diego voters on a new home for the Padres, they hit upon a sales hook that resonated with many.
“The Padres like to say that it’s ‘more than a ballpark,’” said Hall, the president of the city’s Center City Development Corp. “The ‘more’ part is what we’re interested in.”
To find the more, you have to get beyond the seating bowl, to the top of the Beachers, where a grass hill beckons. From here — the Padres have dubbed it Picnic Hill — you can spread a blanket and watch the game. Or the stars. Your choice.
The “Park at the Park” is a 2.7-acre public park that the Padres will share with the neighborhood that grows up around Petco. On game days, the park closes to the public five hours before first pitch. A $5 Park Pass gives fans access to Park at the Park, as well as standing room areas throughout the seating bowl. With the Park Pass in mind, the Padres asked HOK to incorporate standing room into its designs.
Park at the Park includes a small, well-manicured field where game-day staff members toss Wiffle balls to children, as well as a Tot Lot play area equipped with a jungle gym.
Fans also benefit from a video board that faces away from the field. That will both ease the problem of obstructed views during the game and allow the Padres to use the park for viewing parties during road games.
On days when the Padres aren’t there — which works out to be about 80 percent of the year — Park at the Park will operate as other public parks in San Diego, open from dawn to dusk.
Just as the Western Metal building ties the west side of the ballpark to the Gaslamp Quarter, Park at the Park opens the north side of the facility to the emerging East Village neighborhood. Developers have planned about 3,700 units of housing — most of it high-end condos — for the three blocks north of the ballpark.
Rather than relying on game-day traffic to attract businesses to the neighborhood, downtown planners are attaching their hopes to residential growth. Downtown San Diego is home to 20,000 residents and 75,000 employees. City redevelopment executives have set a goal of 85,000 residents and 150,000 employees.
“If you build retail based on the fact that you’ll have people coming to events 100 days a year, then 250 days a year those retailers will die,” Hall said. “You have to take the ballpark out of the equation and build based on a residential population or an employment population or a visitor population. That’s the formula that works.
“Ultimately, a city works because of feet on the street, 24-7. Housing.”
Beaned by lawsuits
All ballpark projects are wrought with angst and anger. The Padres’ project had both, only played out along an unpredictable path that twisted and turned like the Pacific Coast Highway.
San Diego voters approved funding for a new ballpark by referendum on Nov. 3, 1998, only two weeks after the Padres made a stirring run to the World Series. Moores, who said he asked for the referendum because he “thought the right thing to do on a significant public issue was to let the people vote,” thought the difficult part was over.
“As it turns out,” he says now, “it was just beginning.”
Opponents of public funding for the park took the vote as a challenge, rather than a mandate. They would bog down the project with 17 lawsuits and a series of appeals. Construction stopped for 15 months when the city ran out of interim funding. It resumed early in 2002, but the delays cost about $20 million, forcing the Padres and their architects to make changes to stay within what still would stand as the biggest budget ever for an outdoor ballpark.
“I woke up almost every morning thinking, ‘My gosh, why is this happening?’” Moores said. “This is America. People vote. The system is supposed to work. It turned out fine and I’m terribly pleased. But it was very expensive and very painful.”
Moores figures he has lost about $100 million operating the Padres for the last 10 years. He stands to make some of that back this season if all goes as planned. Season-ticket sales have eclipsed 19,500, a 52 percent improvement over the franchise record of 12,854 set in 1985. Net sponsorship sales have tripled. Revenue likely will increase by $55 million to $60 million over last season.
Standing atop his grassy berm on the afternoon before the Petco opener, Moores surveyed both the ballpark and the development growing up around it and deemed them to be worth the wait and the pain.
“We could’ve built this a lot cheaper, pulled maybe $200 million out of it, but it wouldn’t look anything like this,” Moores said. “And that was the point. The point was to build a great civic building. It sounds kind of self-serving. But, gol-durn it, that was always what we were talking about.”
For a list of subcontractors and consultants at Petco Park, click here