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SBJ/20090105/This Week's News
A fine line
Published January 5, 2009
Call him the fixer.
George Heinlein has a reputation for pulling together sports design projects when things threaten to fall apart. Heinlein, a principal at 360 Architecture in Kansas City, picked up the pieces in Chicago and Toronto when building owners and other architects could not agree on the design and the budget.
But his most recent project has tested those skills in the country’s biggest sport and on its biggest stage: the design of the new Meadowlands NFL stadium, where the New York Jets and New York Giants knocked heads after joining together on a project the Giants were already developing with their own architects.
Heinlein, brought in by then-Jets President Jay Cross after designing the team’s ill-fated West Side stadium, stood in the middle of that uneasy alliance. The Jets and Giants sparred over details big and small for the $1.7 billion stadium, from the exterior wall colors to the location of the suites, but Heinlein maneuvered through the land mines and came up with a building design that satisfied both clubs.
“There were a few uncomfortable situations, no doubt; it was not just two teams and maybe two opinions,” Heinlein said.
“We had four clients. [Jets owner] Woody Johnson and his tastes and preferences, and Jay, who had his own strong opinions about the way the thing should be done. Then you had [Giants co-owners] John Mara and Steve Tisch, and they were not in complete agreement on everything.”
Following through on function
Heinlein’s deft touch managing competing interests dates to his early days as an architect at HOK Sport, when he served as a project designer for United Center in Chicago, the Bulls’ and Blackhawks’ arena.
Similar to Jets/Giants, the Windy City’s NBA and NHL teams had formed a joint venture to privately finance and operate a new facility, moving across the street from old Chicago Stadium, where the expansion Bulls were a tenant in a building controlled by the Blackhawks’ Wirtz family.
The joint venture hired Rossetti after seeing what that firm had done for the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills, using 180 suites to pay for construction, but Rossetti’s plan for doing the same thing in Chicago was over budget, said Terry Savarise, United Center’s senior vice president of operations.
“We changed architects and did a redesign that was more efficient yet still allowed us to have all the revenue spaces we needed,” Savarise said.
It was Heinlein’s first opportunity to fully develop a sports facility, inside and out, and his ability to grasp the importance of designing a functional arena stuck with Savarise.
“A lot of guys will design something because it looks pretty, but George had a really good range of thinking for how it will run,” Savarise said.
Heinlein provided the joint venture with 10 to 15 arena plans for United Center, with varying numbers of suites and cost ramifications, an exercise that helped the young designer see what it takes to balance revenue against budget.
Working closely with the ownership group also made Heinlein realize how much he enjoyed the problem-solving process, to the point that he continues to play the role of project designer for 360, the firm he co-owns.
It’s rare for a designer who owns the company to invest 90 percent of his time working directly with clients instead of stepping aside to let his employees handle the job, said business partner Brad Schrock.
“I think he feels like when we go in and interview for a job … if he’s the guy who’s standing up in front of someone and telling them what we can do, that client’s going to expect him to work on the project,” Schrock said. “While he’s really good at marketing, that’s not what makes him tick.”
Going out on their own
Wanting to cut down on travel and spend more time with their families, Heinlein and Schrock, his longtime friend and fraternity brother at the University of Kansas, struck out from HOK in 1995 as Heinlein Schrock. (They became Heinlein Schrock Stearns after Tracy Stearns joined the firm in 2000, and formed 360 in 2005 after merging with CDFM2.)
They were working out of Schrock’s basement, thinking that if they were hired for any sports jobs, it would most likely be planning a high school stadium.
“Honestly, we thought we’d be doing bathroom remodels and decks for a while,” Schrock said.
But just a few weeks after hanging their shingle, relationships with teams from their days at HOK started bearing fruit.
The Seattle Mariners tapped Schrock to help design Safeco Field, and Cross, president of the Miami Heat at the time, came calling on Heinlein after the two had worked together to quietly redesign Air Canada Centre into a facility equally fan-friendly for hockey and basketball.
Cross served in the same role for the Raptors in Toronto before heading to South Florida, developing both arenas that opened in 1999. The call to HOK that brought Heinlein to Canada would open up new frontiers in sports for both professionals.
“The challenge we were struggling with in Toronto was to provide a great basketball arena that could later accommodate hockey,” Cross said. “The Maple Leafs hadn’t come over yet, and each team was threatening to build its own arena.”
Air Canada Centre’s lead architect, Brisbin Brook Beynon, had “done just what Jay didn’t want,” designing a basketball arena whose seating geometry was better suited for hockey, Heinlein said.
Heinlein developed a system known as variable rise seating that basically uses portable platforms to effectively “pull in” the corners and ends of the building, resulting in a more intimate venue for both sports. The system has been replicated at Toyota Center and Sprint Center, among other arenas.
“Most dual sport arenas were not conducive to both sports,” Cross said. “George pioneered a system that changed the [slope] from the sidelines to the end zones with steeper seats for basketball that could retract properly for hockey. It was very clever. Both teams really love the building.”
In Miami, Heinlein met the Heat’s challenge for developing new premium-seat options in a market where the Dolphins and the new NHL arena in Broward County had sucked up most corporate dollars, leaving the NBA club in a difficult position for developing AmericanAirlines Arena in the late 1990s.
The solution was to greatly reduce the number of suites and create a new midlevel product called loge boxes, clusters of club seats seating four to eight people, and priced at a point where smaller businesses didn’t have to pay six figures annually to entertain clients. Loges are now a staple of most big league buildings.
“George will … really work hard to think outside the box and not just take the easy path and rely on what you’ve done a million times in the past,” Schrock said. “Several things have come our way because we’ve looked at things atypically.”
Looking out for the project
Nationwide Arena in Columbus is one example. Nationwide Realty Investors financed that project and picked Heinlein Schrock to design the NHL facility after visiting the Miami arena and the Nashville Predators’ new arena, which Heinlein worked on while at HOK.
Nationwide Realty’s Brian Ellis called HOK officials for a recommendation on Heinlein, and Ellis distinctly remembers that their approval came with a warning: The designer was fiercely protective of his work, uncompromising and unwilling to budge from his beliefs.
“As a client, you take pause,” said Ellis, the firm’s chief operating officer. “Ultimately, that independence turned out to be one of his strongest attributes. Where we saw it play out in the design is when other members of the development team were not excelling at their job, they had to deal with George. He was always looking out for the best interests of the project.”
Nationwide Arena opened in 2000 and became an anchor for revitalizing a dismal downtown in Columbus. Heinlein Schrock Stearns, and later 360, went on to plan a movie theater, small concert venue and several other buildings that define the Arena District in Columbus, including a new Class AAA ballpark, one of the few concrete examples of how a sports venue can spur further development.
“Their fingerprints are all over the Arena District,” Ellis said.
At the Meadowlands, before the Jets came on board, the Giants had developed a stadium with a brick exterior and suites stacked on one side, similar to Ford Field in Detroit and Soldier Field in Chicago.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen because we knew the Giants were already well down that road,” Heinlein said. “But we also knew that Jay and the Jets weren’t big fans of the seating bowl and how the premium stuff was handled in that scheme.”
Both teams made compromises. The Giants relented on changing the exterior from brick red to a neutral color to provide contrast to the building’s five founding partners. The stacked suites morphed into skyboxes spread along both sidelines.
The Jets, meanwhile, gave up their fight to build suites and club seats in both end zones after Mara, who declined to speak for this story, insisted all premium inventory be along the sidelines. The four cornerstone suites, large corporate group spaces topped by big video boards, are the exception.
Heinlein’s self-effacing attitude, putting his ego aside in a room full of superegos, was essential for advancing a development down a bumpy road. “It was not about George, it was about the project,” Cross said.
‘He gets things done’
That’s unusual in a business where some architects think they have to go toe-to-toe with their clients to make an impression, Schrock said. It can lead to a difficult work environment.
“When you’re trying to be a good listener and do what your clients want to do, you tend to get pushed around a little bit,” Schrock said. “That’s one of the beauties of George. In his own way, he gets things done and people still like to work with him.”
That’s been the case in Chicago, where Heinlein continues to design renovations to 15-year-old United Center in Chicago, returning to the arena where he first made his mark.
“It’s neat to sit down with George 18 years later,” Savarise said, “and see a lot of those traits that made him unique and special are still ingrained in him.”