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How to Build a Successful Downtown Stadium

How to Build a Successful Downtown Stadium
Reuters

Coors Field, in downtown Denver, became home to baseball's Colorado Rockies in 1995. Its impact on the city was as immediate as it was considerable: housing units in the area of the stadium doubled within a year of its completion, and retail and restaurant development experienced a similar boom. Soon after it opened the stadium's economic influence was estimated at $195 million a year, twice what city officials had predicted.

Chase Field welcomed the Arizona Diamondbacks to downtown Phoenix in 1998, but despite being modeled on Coors Field, it didn't achieve the same level of success. The stadium had little positive impact on its surrounding neighborhood and never became the centerpiece of a downtown redevelopment plan, attracting mostly suburban fans. And while residential development in the downtown area did grow after the stadium's completion, that might have been the result of the housing boom as much as the stadium.

That Coors and Chase Fields had diverging fates is no accident but rather the result of poor planning, write Arizona State researchers Stephen Buckman and Elizabeth A. Mack in a recent issue of the Journal of Urbanism. Phoenix's attempt to copy Denver's success shows that sports stadiums are not a one-size-fits-all solution to downtown redevelopment efforts. On the contrary, Buckman and Mack argue, these projects must strongly consider the natural form of the city to avoid failure:

A key consideration that is often overlooked in the planning phase of these projects is the historical urban growth patterns and resulting urban form of the cities in which stadium development projects are proposed.

Buckman and Mack conducted a point-by-point review of both stadiums in their effort to determine what factors contributed most to their success, or lack thereof. They quickly found that population differences weren't the source of the difference. Phoenix and Denver had similar demographic profiles at the time the fields were being proposed, with no marked variations in age of the potential fan base or ability to pay for tickets.

Where they began to see a clear difference was in urban form. Metropolitan Phoenix is a widespread area without a distinctive downtown core. Its satellite cities of Glendale, Tempe, and Scottsdale all have significant attractions and downtowns of their own that create what the researchers call a "centrifugal effect" on potential visitors to downtown Phoenix. By some estimates, Phoenix has the least developed downtown core in the country.

Denver, on the other hand, has a historic core that dates back to the city's founding in 1858. In addition, the city itself is far less expansive: encompassing only about 150 squares miles, to more than 9,000 for metropolitan Phoenix. The result of this urban form, for Denver residents, is a considerably more convenient proximity to the stadium.

While 99 percent of Denver county residents live within 10 miles of downtown, that's true of only 41 percent of residents in metro Phoenix (Maricopa county), Buckman and Mack report. A better illustration of proximity comes from a ratio of populations near the stadium: at a mile away from the stadium, Denver has 1.77 times the population of Phoenix, a ratio that continues to favor Denver until 7 miles out. In other words, the fan base of Coors Field lives rather close to Coors Field.

The upshot of Phoenix's polycentric layout, the researchers argue, is that Chase Field must attract suburban residents who come for the game but don't stay for the city. This " 'if you build it they will come' mentality" failed to consider barriers to pre- and post-game downtown activity like travel time, Buckman and Mack write. Their evaluation of building density within half a mile of the stadiums suggest that it increased in Denver, and decreased in Phoenix.

The lesson for other cities considering a downtown stadium, the authors conclude, is to understand beforehand whether or not the mega-structure fits the urban form, and if it doesn't, to design a development plan that enhances whatever impact it might have on its own:

Perhaps the most important shortcoming of this project that remains unrecognized in the literature is the impact of Phoenix’s polycentric urban form on the outcome of the project. This oversight is not only important in the context of stadium redevelopment projects but downtown redevelopment efforts in general. Recognition of the suburban inertia exerted by sprawling polycentric areas is just the first step for development efforts in these types of urban areas. Only after awareness of the impacts urban form can have on these projects is created can comprehensive plans be formulated that effectively combat this inertia.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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