How the environmental process hurts design

On the northwest corner of West Santa Clara Street and North San Pedro Street in downtown San Jose, Baseball San Jose put up a series of Cisco Field renderings, many of which you’ve already seen. The renderings are blown up to poster size, which allows people to study them for details that may not be readily apparent when viewing small versions in a browser.

Cisco Field as it hugs Autumn Parkway

The aerial view above may be my favorite simply because it fully displays the one distinctive architectural element of the ballpark, the “colonnade” along Autumn Parkway. Maybe the colonnade was designed to integrate the ballpark with the rest of the neighborhood. Thing is, there is no semblance of a neighborhood along this block of Autumn, which is populated by nondescript office buildings and an auto parts store-turned-marijuana dispensary. It’s possible that the colonnade was not borne of some desire to create a snaking, thin colonnade structure. It may have been the product of designing to reduce the visual impact of the stadium. Light will be able to go right through the structure from inside the stadium to the street (and vice-versa), which should in theory make the structure less imposing from the outside. That, coupled with the lower profile of a smaller, double-deck seating bowl, makes Cisco Field the least imposing ballpark since Fenway Park.

As I studied the renderings for the umpteenth time, I couldn’t help but wonder if the CEQA process, which governs all environmental review in the state, artificially constrained the design. When 360 architecture was commissioned to design the ballpark by A’s ownership, they were already dealing with a number of major constraints:

  • An irregularly shaped lot, which could limit the ballpark’s size and field dimensions
  • FAA restrictions on building height
  • Uniform code and standards on setbacks (for sidewalks and such)
  • Budget limitations
  • A desire by civic leaders for a large entry plaza, preferably in the outfield

That’s a lot to design around and come up with something cohesive, which to 360’s credit they’ve done an amazing job conceiving. I still wonder if something more distinctive is possible. In my interview with Lew Wolff, he intimated that the design, which is largely coming from John Fisher, could be moreso. My untrained eye and lack of imagination can’t see where the change can happen other than some façade treatments and cladding, which has given many of the HOK/Populous brick ballparks their faux monolithic look. I think 360 and the A’s can do better.

A place like San Jose, with its many short buildings dating from the 50’s forward, is architecturally drab. Sink Combs Dethlefs was only partly successful in evoking trains via HP Pavilion’s steel siding. The way light shimmers off the panels is beautiful at night and in twilight, during the day it looks a uniformly dull gray. In downtown there are very few truly interesting buildings, except for some built largely with public money such as the Rep, Tech Museum, and Children’s Discovery Museum. Even the latter two were tamed after recently deceased Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta ran into a brick wall regarding the lively color palette he wanted to use for those buildings. As hearing after hearing, committee after committee waters down vision into a muddled mess, what citizens are left with is something more utilitarian in feel than imaginative. That’s a shame because it only furthers the perception that San Jose is a sleepy, uninspiring place.

If you’re looking for something more imposing at Cisco Field, a brick façade covers the walls behind the seating bowl. It matches well with the long Plant 51 building on the other side of the railroad tracks. Plant 51 was formerly a Del Monte cannery which has been repurposed into lofts and condos.

Pre-existing Plant 51 brick exterior with additional levels in a recessed, modern treatment. Caltrain is on the other side of the wall to the left.

You might think that in the above picture, the upper two levels were photoshopped onto the lower levels. It’s every bit real, and done to reduce the impact of the modern additions compared to the historic original building. The whole lacks unity and despite the intent, does little to preserve the integrity of the building. For me, it actually makes the building weaker.

Panoramic view towards downtown from a townhouse in Cahill Park. Cisco Field's brick façade would fill right half.

With redevelopment dead and its powers significantly curtailed, there are now fewer chances to create bold architecture other than in the private sector. I’m not asking for a Bird’s Nest here, the proportions and size of the stadium won’t allow for that. There is room for something bold and beautiful at Diridon. Aspirational should be achievable. If bold is good enough for the Fishers’ SFMOMA expansion, it’s good enough for Cisco Field.

38 thoughts on “How the environmental process hurts design

  1. i hope we get more posts and discussions about the design features of cisco field once the decision is made and the ballot passes rather than the bickering between the sj and oakland factions over the past few years on where is the best place for the a’s long term.

  2. ML – You don’t seem to like the colonnade. Can I ask what it is you don’t like about it? Is there anything in the codes or EIR that specifically makes you think light is the reason for its design or is that more a general inference?
    Also, when you say this: “In downtown there are very few truly interesting buildings,” I take it you mean larger buildings. Because I can think of a lot of interesting buildings around downtown San Jose, just not many of the bigger ones.

  3. @Dude – I like the colonnade. I can’t read the architect’s mind, so I can’t divine his intent. I just worry that the rest of the ballpark will be conservative and staid in order to upset the fewest people possible.

    Re: Downtown SJ. Go ahead, name the buildings.

  4. @ML


    Bank of America Building


    The Old Santa Clara County Courthouse (amazing basement complete with holding cells from turn of the century)


    New City Hall


    Peralta Adobe


    Fallon House


    De Anza Hotel


  5. Civic auditorium…love the dome of city hall, California theatre, st Claire hotel, old post office, San Jose water company to name a few

  6. Medico-Dental, The 88 and 360 Residences

  7. I had always thought that the colonnade shape was to a certain degree defined by Los gatos creek which is across autumn pkwy- ideal all those buildings would come out and that area would be a park- I like the post ML- in general I agree that I would like to see a lot more creativity in downtown SJ architecture- and would like to see a ballpark that has a wow factor to it-

  8. San Pedro Square has a new Farmer’s Market. The McEnery brothers have a number of great stories from all of the businesses that have called SPS their home. In the late 1970s – 1980s gentrification of much of the areas in and around Santa Clara Street from 87 East has dramatically improved DSJ. A lot of DSJ is in convenient walking distance to the proposed Cisco yard. I can envision have a late breakfast at Il Fornaio in the new Westin and strolling over to the ballyard about a 7-10 minute walk in time for a 1230P Business Person’s Special. Can’t wait.

    • @Rayburn’s Son – Exactly. All of your examples except for New City Hall and San Pedro Square Public Market were pre-modern, pre-Dutch Hamann era. The new ones are the last vestiges of redevelopment. That’s out of an inventory of hundreds of buildings.

      @Nam Turk – The 88 is interesting from the ground to the fourth floor. The tower is uninspiring. 360 Residences is interesting.

  9. I’ve been saying for a while that the design, as is, lacks anything that is memorable or distinctive. I know that San Jose residents will initially flood the stadium, but you need to draw fans from other parts of the Bay Area. If the team isn’t winning, the A’s will need a ballpark that maybe doesn’t top AT&T, but at least offers a distinct and memorable experience.

  10. I agree that the park should make a bold architectural statement in keeping with the difficulty of the pregnancy. Let no A’s fan of the future fail to realize just how many roadblocks the A’s will have had to overcome to get it built. Maybe they should put a bronze statue of Bill Neukom out in front, complete with horns, tail, and pitchfork.

  11. Good article, ML. A couple of minor quabbles. I’m not sure you can blame some of these issues on the environmental process. Most of these standards are written into municipal codes and organizational standards. Regardless of the environmental impact, the five bullets you listed would be issues. Architects just have to deal with lot size sometimes, and in this case I think they’re lucky to have gotten as much land as they did. The FAA and setback codes you mention are non-negotiable really. Budgets and government officials are part of any high profile project.

    And to your point about public meetings and committees killing design, it’s really the job of the project proponent to convince the citizens and officials that the design is good. I do agree that the architect could be a little more creative, but maybe what they really need to do is stand up to some opposition. Of course, having some leverage (like, you know, actually knowing that a stadium will be built) would help.

  12. Thanks Dan. That’s excellent insight. Since there technically is no “project” yet, I realize that much of what I’m saying is premature. I can only hope that the vision that is presented is truly grand.

  13. I’d like to see the team stay in Oakland, so I’d be supremely pissed if they move to SJ and build a hitter’s park. The weather is already going to be warmer than Oakland on average, so really we don’t need to build a bandbox to make it crazier. Our strength has always been pitching, and seeing as how we can’t draft and groom any decent position players lately, I’d really like to see a design that would be more pitcher friendly. Plus, we should all remember that offense in baseball is starting to return to the sane levels of a couple decades ago, so it would behoove the team to have a park that favors pitching.

  14. Actually, the design kinda parallels the HP Pavilion in a way. HP is on the small side for an arena, and though it does have some external charm and has a very open feel to it inside and a nice entrance- that’s not what people talk about. They talk about how there really isn’t a bad seat in the entire place, and how it’s a great place to watch hockey, and how freakin’ loud it is there (the crazy Sharks fans get some credit) and how visiting teams consider it a tough place to play. Fans love going there and players love playing there.
    I see very much the same potential in Cisco field- definitely on the small side for capacity, and the small dimensions and only two decks put the fans right on the field. You’ve got a flat surface in the colonnade, and awnings over the top decks- it’s going to concentrate the sound inside and make it pretty loud I would guess. I like the entrance and the colonnade personally. Believe me, I get it- the A’s need something with some serious wow factor to compete with the likes of AT&T, especially considering all the BS involved with making Cisco Field happen. But once you are done looking around, eventually you are going to want to watch some baseball. And I have a feeling that Cisco is going to be the best place to do that- and in the end, isn’t that what you want people to talk about? And yeah, it would be awesome to put a park by Los Gatos Creek.

  15. I’ve always been worried that the approval process takes so long that, due to time constraints, the stadium is hastily built without much input from fans. I hope this won’t be the case, but each day this TR dispute drags on I get more anxious.

  16. @go john-360 is well recognized for their designs- as I recall they won ballpark of the year a few years ago for the Columbus AAA park- figure they have good background in the fan experience and design areas-

  17. My favorite building in SJ is Henry’s Hi-Life. But then again, I live in Vacaville, so I have limited subject matter knowledge.


    I would guess that the video screen – at the hi tech world’s home ballpark – would be the biggest most hi-def video monitor ever seen…perhaps that becomes the park’s signature feature? Also, while I dont want a coke bottle and glove per se, I know that theres huge Coke bottles and the like all over the major leagues. Heck, the one in Atlanta is made out of baseball equipment! These are not only iconic, but I’m sure revenue generating as well.

  18. Hey RM, if that’s the view from YOUR Cahill Park townhome than you’re one lucky guy! My favorite downtown buildings are the old BofA Building and the future Westin St Claire. Newer buildings that I’m fond of include 360 Residences, the Marriott and Axis. By the way, if you haven’t already, check out the book from the Images of America series “San Jose’s Historic Downtown.” It is downright sad to see how many architectural gems were destroyed in the 1960’s-70’s in the name of urban renewal and vast parking lots. Just thankful some buildings were spared from the wrecking ball.

  19. @Tony D. – No, I don’t live in Cahill Park. Though I might look at a home there if there’s an exodus related to ballpark construction.

  20. Thanks ML. I see where you’re going with the analysis now. It’s a good point and I think the Colonnade can be that element and hopefully we’ll see that in further rounds of design. Maybe they’ll go ultra-modern with it. That or the total opposite and really play off the truly historical stuff downtown, perhaps even going for something mission-esque.
    “Exactly. All of your examples except for New City Hall and San Pedro Square Public Market were pre-modern, pre-Dutch Hamann era. The new ones are the last vestiges of redevelopment. That’s out of an inventory of hundreds of buildings.”
    If we’re limiting it to newer buildings, then my list gets pretty small. I didn’t realize that was your reference point. Anyway, I was thinking of things like the Bank of America building, Saint Claire, De Anza, St. Joseph’s Basilica, most buildings lining FIrst St south of San Carlos and north of San Fernando (Second St and Market St too), much of Santa Clara St., etc. I’m a big fan of pre-war stuff, so you can see where I’m going with this list.
    The only newer ones I can think of are 360 (especially given its juxtaposition against the surrounding block), and The 88. I disagree with you on that one. I find it to have nice lines and a distinctive look, especially from the east. But I take your larger point that most of the new stuff varies from bland (just about every office tower I can think of) to awful (Axis). I know everyone loves City Hall and it has won a ton of awards, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I keep trying to like it though.

  21. @hecanfoos. i agree that those small things like the coke bottle or the glove or the apple for the mets are very iconic. i agree that cisco field should deinitely have one. they dont take up much space (depending on what it is. and if its one of the small outfield things like they have for the mets then it would fit) and they add a memorable thing to the ballpark. i woud love to see something out there in center field. idk what they would put but something signature to the bay area or san jose would be cool. the cisco logo with the bridge wouldnt look bad behind the center field wall. also when the giants moved to ATT park they originally had an electronic puppet thing that would slide along the brick wall in right when they scored. that has been taken down but something similar to it would definitely be something they could put out on the colonnade.

  22. as for the colonnade i would love to see something other than the usual brick that all the new baseball stadiums are having. if they made it in the mission style it would look really cool AND reflect on the local culture of san jose and california. also an ultra modern look like what they make sky scrapers out of would look really cool but there is the risk of the sun shining off of it and blinding fans. i think the brick look was very cool and innovative in the beginning but now that all new ballparks are getting it i hope that we will have something different. i would love to see lots of stuff there that reflect on san jose and the bay area. any ideas? again i think that if the colonnade had a mission style look it would look so freaking sick.

  23. @hecanfoos
    Henry’s is the ONLY place I’ve ever been kicked out of — during 1989 World Series – scuffle with some lowly Gnats fan during Game 4 (how sweep it was)! I’ll never forget that day…..

  24. Man!! Look at all the suites all those san Jose corporations will fill! There is so many!!!! Lol this is a triple A park! You could fill it with the typical crowd in Oakland and it would go down as a sellout! This is the worst stadium I’ve ever seen!! Seriously I play on Evans diamond in Berkeley and I pretty sure we have more seats and suites

  25. Please don’t feed the trolls.

  26. I understand the desire for something bold and imaginative, but given the need to make any such “statement” fit a horizontal, low-slung footprint, along Autumn Parkway, I’m not sure how much potential there really is, relatively speaking. Real “statements” architecturally are usually visible from more than just across the flanking street, after all. With SJ’s spread-out, now-diminished downtown (a poster child for the post-WWII effects of suburbanization and annexation to begin with), I fear the deck is stacked anyway against any mindblowing design innovation–and in general most architects will say that this sort of public-building project nowadays is just gonna be hamstrung from the git-go, by all the factors you list, and more….Construction costs really took off nationally in the 60s, and it hasn’t been quite the same for architecture (IMO) since then, unless (as you noted) it’s a privately funded affair, with a patron who has not only deep pockets, but tolerance of cost overruns in the name of design distinctiveness (or if the public is getting soaked, as in Miami).

    Personally, I really hope the final design of the colonnade is NOT revival-historicist (Spanish; or brick-arched, etc.). That just seems played out to me (as a reflection of the postmodern, post-Field of Dreams, “Baseball is Life”-t-shirt sort of yuppie schlock). Target Field seems more up-to-date to me as a model. I would favor (just IMO) something ultra-modern along the Parkway, esp. since the other, L-shaped corners of the property look like they will necessarily present rectilinear, humdrum, office-building sorts of looks (there’s a problem right there with making a bold statement that the architects can’t control, where function will dictate something more useful than interesting design-wise simply because that’s what the patron wants/needs). And using brick just to match the facade of an overrestored brick-facade ex-plant, *across* the Caltran tracks, and behind tree landscaping to boot, is just going to be too subtle and sort of “so what” in effect ultimately (to the extent that everyfan even gets the connection at all)…it’s not really a statement so much as it is the sort of “blending in” you’re hoping WON’T occur too much. Something ultramodern would also have better associational fit, on numerous levels (image; products, etc.), with the Silicon Valley backing that the As will be looking for once the move is approved. But maybe a combination of metal and some stone or brick textures as accents would be nice, like in Minneapolis. Whatever sort of stone that has been used locally/found locally in downtown historically (if there is any pattern to those things) would be great.

    Don’t underestimate, either, the appeal of that curved roadway and the curved facade it dictates to the designer. Whatever they end up doing, the final product will look nice in an otherwise-gridded downtown– that sort of sweep visually will be nice in and of itself–not innovative or new per se, but still nice in a downtown of gridded blocks (esp. since most viewers will be seeing it as they move by at speed, in a car, instead of on foot [except for ticket buyers, 80-odd days a year, during home games]).

    Once everything gets approved, I agree that the colonnade facade may well get a little more interesting. But I would prefer (FWIW) that it stay modern in vocabulary, and I suspect it will stay modern–just more in the spirit of Target Field, and not over-the-top spectacle like the new Marlins field. The fact that it will be mostly privately funded, with finite constraints for Wolff, than the half-billion-plus public gouge job emerging in Little Havana, in and of itself militates against the latter anyway.

    As someone upthread noted, it almost doesn’t matter how it ends up looking as long as the atmosphere inside is great–and it definitely has the potential for that, given the relative intimacy that the park will have! Simply by association, the park overall will become beloved, regardless of the statement it makes outside, because of the stuff that happens inside. Function will enhance the form if it is well-designed for the purpose it’s meant to fulfill (Modern Architecture 101). I know I can’t wait to visit the finished product.

  27. Spanish Colonial could definitely work, if they did it right. I live in South Texas, and there’s a ton of hoky Spanish-oid stuff made from prefab elements. Blecch. If they sought out the right sorts of cast-concrete molds to give accents that really look Renaissance-Baroque, that would be very cool, and not that expensive, per se–it would just entail some footwork. The suppliers are still out there.

    And if it looks too traditional to Silicon Valley types, there are ways to modernize it all a bit, as Californians should know. There was a lot of great design in the 20s and 30s and 40s where Spanish Colonial stucco met Art Deco. That would probably necessitate bagging the sculptural detailing mentioned above in the name of cleaner lines and geometry.

    So, yeah, a colonnade (or an arcade–arches in sequence), with some Deco-like geometrical accents might work out if the designer is really good. Or maybe use Deco-Spanish for the office-bldg. fronts, and a more traditional arcade with accents of Renaissance-Baroque sculptural ornamentation (small medallions; keystones) along Autumn Parkway.

  28. Going with a California Mission style design would be great (provided it is not hokey). I think “Silicon Valley types” would appreciate it. Speaking as a semi Silicon Valley type, myself.

  29. @Richard: Thank you for the two posts. Please keep it up, as the process evolves.


    @Rayburn’s Son: Interesting to think that the crowd at the Hi-Life was probably very pro-Giants in ’89, but will soon (hopefully) be full of A’s fans.

  30. I’d prefer a cannery theme. Maybe a water tower in the outfield with the Cisco logo

  31. @Richard – Thank you for those comments. I concur with much of it. I imagine that because of how transparent the colonnade will be, there will be a lot of TV bumper shots of the colonnade at night. Which is just fine with me. I don’t think Fisher and Wolff are going to go revivalist. If Fisher has any say it’ll be very contemporary.

    @Larry E – There is a water tower that I think is unused across the tracks from the southwest corner of the ballpark site. Currently it’s painted black.

  32. @Larry E and RM,
    Love the water tower idea! Place it in the NE corner of the entry plaza, complete with Cisco logo and painted Forrest green. You could even go hi-tech and place a curved fascia display around the lower portion of the tower. GO PACKERS! 😉

  33. Dont mind the look of the colonnade from the inside of the park, but I really don’t like the look of it from the outside. As I’ve said on a previous thread, the current design doesn’t look substantial enough, kind of light and weak. It almost looks like construction scaffolding. I’d like to see something a little more substantial, but yet keep the comtemporary look. Maybe use stone or brick with a lot of glass.

  34. Screw all that quaint BS about missions, orchards, and canneries, none of it relates to modern day Silicon Valley. Make a design that evokes the connected world, pervasive connectivity, the Internet, integrated circuits, virtual networks, and seamless social interaction. That’s a more challenging exercise for the designer, but it highlights the fact that the A’s are a team of the future based in the city that invents the future.
    Bogus coke bottles and 19th century baseball gloves in a park that caters to tourists with a team owned by Tori and Trina can’t touch this.

  35. @Mossback, I would love to see a super modern look made in the same style that newer skyscrapers look. but i think we need smaller things that can fit inside the ballpark or in the plaza that would be visible from the inside of the stadium to make it unique. for example, the coke bottle(s), the giant baseball glove and the apple at shea and citi field. i think a water tower out in the plaza that it painted green and gold with a cisco logo on it and is visible from the inside of the stadium as part of the view would be awesome

  36. After spending today at Cannery Row in beautiful Monterey, I’m convinced that Wolff/the A’s should go with a retro-cannery look for Cisco Field. In fact, Montgomery Street between the ballpark and HP Pavilion should evoke the cannery style of Monterey and SJ’s former fruit packing industry. Beautiful day at the coast by the way (albeit cold).

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