A TALE OF THREE BALLPARKS


Fans of the New York Mets exiting home games between the years 1964 and 2008 at Shea Stadium led a familiar march. Depending on the outcome of the game, fans would dejectedly shuffle or elatedly bounce down one of eight, 10-story-high circulation ramps. Open to the air on both sides, the exit ramps provided a panoramic view of Queens and Manhattan on one side, and the Piranesian stadium interior on the other. ‘Ramp’ often implies a certain amount of speed or efficiency but exiting a Met game at Shea Stadium was anything but. The pace at which one ambled down these concrete structures was so achingly slow that an unexpected architectural type was created: the forum. Because the Met-fan masses were virtually at a standstill for so long and in such close proximity, there was a natural tendency to exchange frustration or elation with your fellow fan trundling alongside or on the ramp thirty feet below. This impromptu forum was an unexpected and wonderful outcome of the flawed design of the entry/exit ramp at Shea Stadium.

[Image: Fans existing Shea Stadium, via Gary Dunaier]
Shea Stadium opened April 17, 1964 in Flushing, Queens, and was the first home of both the New York Mets and the New York Jets football team.  Designed by New York-based engineering firm Praeger-Kavanagh-Waterbury, the concrete and steel building was built on an open plot of land adjacent to the grounds of the 1964 World’s Fair, between the intersection of the Grand Central Parkway and Whitestone Expressways to the north and the raised 7 Subway line to the south for a shockingly low $28.5 million ($214 million in 2012).  The City of New York paid for the construction and operating cost of Shea and it felt like the public piece of infrastructure it was:  immense, open and not quite right for baseball.

[Image: Aerial view of Shea Stadium circa 1970s, via Mets Guy in Michigan]
Shea was part of the big, multi-purpose stadium trend whose main feature was being large and generic.  Somewhere between round and oval, the shape of these stadiums maximized flexibility of space and allowed for large seating capacity and ample parking outside.  In order to conform to the different shape of the two teams’ playing fields, the field-level seats at Shea were on a motorized track that could rotate to match either the diamond of the baseball field for the Mets or the rectangle of the football field for the Jets.  Like the Amphi-Car design of the early-1960s that was neither a good boat nor a good car, Shea was a pretty bad place to watch both baseball and football games alike.  In particular, a field-level seat anywhere past the third or first base bag was especially frustrating as the seats were positioned such that you had to cock your head at an angle to see the action in the infield.  The only respite was to look straight ahead at the outfielder.  This design error was particularly maddening since the designers of the stadium went to great lengths to design seats that were movable and customizable to stadium configuration.  Comfort and fan friendliness were not the hallmark of Shea Stadium however, and the often awkward viewing angle highlighted the sensation that you were within a hulking piece of infrastructure.

Shea Stadium made money by the sale of three commodities:  tickets, parking spaces and hot dogs.  This model worked if the stadium was regularly full, but any Met fan can see a flaw in the model as often during the Mets’ first fifty years there have been some depressing runs.  In their 45 years at Shea (1964-2008), the Mets had 22 losing records. Average attendance was under fifty percent 25 times, including a paltry 9,621 per game in 1979.  Stuck with an unprofitable, aging facility, the Mets needed a change.

[Image: Diagram showing Shea Stadium and Citi Field proximity, via Baseball Fever.com]
In 2006 construction began on a new stadium adjacent to Shea.  The new design aimed to correct the flawed economic model, while at the same time give the Mets a home field more in line with their owners’ family ties in Brooklyn.  For the design of the new stadium, the architects at Populous (formerly HOK Sport) were enlisted to create a “new Ebbets Field” in Flushing.  The nostalgic design for Citi Field was part of a bigger trend to build new ballparks in the spirit of an older generation of stadia.  Beginning with the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, MD (1992), also designed by Citi Field architects HOK Sport, this trend marks a shift in both how baseball stadiums look and how they make money.  Gone are the big, round multi-purpose stadiums that relied on ticket sales for revenue, these new stadiums are drastically smaller than their giant forerunners; seating capacity at Citi Field is 41,922 – down 15,411 from Shea Stadium.  The economic model of the new ballpark is a much more complex configuration for revenue.  In the excellent anthology, Stadium Worlds: Football, Space and the built environment. Routledge. 2010, Michael Zinganel’s chapter “The Stadium as Cash Machine” articulates this new model.  After one factors in stadium-naming rights, lease of VIP boxes, in-stadium sponsorship, TV rights and merchandising, the sum of gate receipts is negligible.

[Image: Citi Field scoreboard advertising, via MIKE CNY Flickr]
Citibank pays the Mets a $20 million annual fee for naming rights.  Additional money comes from in-stadium sponsorship, with branded seating areas ‘Pepsi Porch’ (not unique to Citi Field as it appears – Comerica Park in Detroit has one too), ‘MoZone’ and ‘PartyCity Deck’. Although spaces such as the Jackie Robinson Rotunda have been named to emphasize the links with the new ballpark’s historical antecedents, rather than being auctioned to the highest bidder, the overall trend in this stadium is to maximize revenue wherever possible.  With a reduction in regular ticketed seating, further revenue is drawn from an increase in Club seating – up from 4,300 at Shea to 7,800 at Citi – there are ten more luxury suites, inflated ticket prices, merchandising (the Mets team store nearly tripled in size at Citi), and an in-stadium food concourse so big and with so many food options that anyone bringing their own sandwiches to the game is missing out on the big event (arguably not the game).  The owners would like you to think the size of the stadium is in some way a gift back to the fans and establishes a further link between the Mets and their New York national league heritage – and perhaps it is in part – but the reduction in stadium capacity is in every way a financial decision.

Citi Field is not without its nice architectural moments.  Citi now has a front door.  The stadium is oriented to fans arriving on the 7 train, not by car.  Exiting the station, fans step into a landscaped plaza on axis with the main entry to the stadium.  Arriving at Shea Stadium from the 7 train, fans were dumped out at the far corner of the “C-shape” building.  The multiple entrances were distributed around Shea (Gates A-H) and fed spectators in from the sprawling parking lot adjacent to the stadium.  This new entry plaza is a reminder that Citi Field is an urban building, not just accessible by car, and creates perhaps the best link with its Brooklyn-based predecessor.

[Image: Ebbets Field entry, via Stadium Page]
[Image: Citi Field entry, via Wikipedia]
Although the new orientation of Citi successfully harks back to Ebbets Field, the main entry “rotunda” space does not.  Like Citi, Ebbets Field had an entry “rotunda”.  The rotunda at Ebbets was circle in plan and was flanked by ticket booths along its interior.  Although waiting in line to buy your ticket was the primary function of the Ebbets rotunda, it became an unofficial meeting place and fan clubhouse.  The crowds inside the rotunda were boisterous, full of colorful characters. “Always a guy with a greasy paper sack,” writes one fan in an online forum. “I remember an old guy on line outside cooking fish with a beat up Sterno stove. I say old, but I’d guess he was a ww1 veteran and I’m probably older now, than he was then.  What a smell!  He was tailgating without a tail gate and in line no less, sheesh!, but you know nobody cared much. I guess that was Brooklyn. He probably got in and sat behind a pole and ate it.”

In contrast, at Citi Field tickets are collected upon entry into the rotunda, not from within as at Ebbets Field.  Escalators and stairs shuttle ticket holders from the entry into the stadium with such efficiency that fans end up spending very little time in the rotunda space.  Though the Mets Hall of Fame Museum and team store are entered via the Rotunda on the ground level, this does not create enough energy; the space is left feeling empty and the intended dialogue with the rotunda at Ebbets Field falls flat.  Perhaps if there were additional functions (i.e. ticket purchasing, food court, beer garden, etc.) fans would gather in the space and the allusion to Ebbets Field would be more tangible.Once inside, Citi Field is cozy and comfortable where Shea was big and rough – a private country club to Shea’s public rec center.  Citi Field is smaller than Shea and the fans are closer to the field.  The sight lines inside Citi Field are for the most part good.  No longer is your seat in line with something other than the game.  Because this stadium is built only for baseball, all the seats are angled to the infield.  However, incomprehensibly there are still seats in the upper decks with partially obstructed views.  If you are sitting in the upper most section the guard rails below blocks the view of the infield.

[Image: Sections of Citi Field and Shea Stadium courtesy Baseball Fever.com]
Should you need a snack or bathroom break you can follow the game on the walk to the food vendor or restroom (all waterless urinals!).  Though, should you opt for a burger at Shake Shack for example, you must wait in a long line from which the game isn’t visible as the main food court is located behind the giant outfield scoreboard!Beyond the outfield fence at Citi Field is the “Shea Bridge”.  Though somewhat kitsch in design, this steel trussed walkway aptly references the nearby Whitestone Bridge and spans an entrance to the stadium below.  This space has become a popular meeting spot and vantage point from which to watch the game.  Fans have taken to the bridge to vocalize support for certain causes, in particular when fan favorite Jose Reyes was in contract negotiations during the 2011 season, fans took to Shea Bridge with banners and t-shirts reading “Don’t Trade Reyes” to let their opinions of Reyes be known to team owners.

[Image: Fans gather on Shea Bridge courtesy Split Susan Second]
Sadly, these unique moments in Citi Field are far too few.  Overall, the stadium is formulaic and the allusions to Ebbets Field empty.  Though both stadiums look alike, both are brick, both have arcaded facades and both display their name above the main entrance, the appearance of a newly built brick stadium in this location is anachronistic.  Historically, brick was the chosen cladding material for urban stadiums as it helped the hulking structures blend in with their surrounding context, often brick residential or warehouse buildings, as at Fenway Park in Boston.

File:New York World's Fair August 1964.jpeg
[Image: 1964 World’s Fair Unisphere, World of Science and Shea Stadium beyond courtesy Wikipedia]
This is not the case at Citi Field as it is located on such a unique site.  In addition to the transportation structures that border it to the north and south, the geometric spheres, rectangles and spline curves of the nearby 1964 World’s Fair provide a unique and otherworldly context to which Citi Field could have referenced.  If the designers of Citi Field hadn’t blindly followed the recent nostalgia trend, enticed by the enhanced revenue of similar new stadiums, and the belief that baseball is inherently sentimental they could have produced an exciting, modern addition to Flushing Meadows, a true contextual dialogue with the futurist structures that surround it.  Citi Field might have had a modern, deconstructivist exterior (think Thom Mayne’s new Cooper Union Building in New York or early Frank Gehry Santa Monica House) to fit in with this eclectic, modern context.

[Image: Cooper Union, New York, NY courtesy New York Times]
A new stadium that creatively and progressively chooses its materials and form, while retaining a charming, distinctive building in line with its smaller historic ancestors, is Target Field, new home to the Minnesota Twins (also a Populous designed building which opened in 2010).  For the exterior of Target Field, the designers at Populous chose a local limestone for the majority of the bowl. A dramatic, iconic canopy roof sweeps above, containing floodlights and providing shelter from the elements for upper deck spectators. Dynamic, angled glass volumes mark major entrance gates.

[Image: Exterior Target Field, Minneapolis, MN via StadiumPage.com
Exterior Target Field, Minneapolis, MN, via StadiumPage.com
Both Citi Field and Shea Stadium are imperfect buildings. Their designs feel copycat, the result of an over-dependence on cost analysis and mathematical formulae where the financial model rules.  Conservative thinking, a lack of creativity and thought follow and the result is boring, generic and flawed buildings.  The choice of brick for Citi and the dogmatic adherence to Ebbets Field as the design precedent seem like lazy design decisions and thus a missed opportunity to create a unique architecture for the Mets and their fans.