SunTrust Park: More Braves, Less Atlanta

SunTrust Park in left field as twilight approaches

After visiting the Braves’ new park a month ago and giving it a good amount of thought, I came to the conclusion that in many ways, it is the future of ballparks. That is not necessarily a good thing. The advent of full-scale ancillary development with ballparks will change the economics for some franchises where it’s available. We can’t truly judge that impact yet, so I’m going to mostly focus on the ballpark itself, with some observations about The Battery, the development surrounding the ballpark, along the way.

I’ll start with the good news. SunTrust is a real improvement on Turner Field inside the gates. It’s much more compact and intimate than Turner, while also having more amenities and luxury within. While I’m with the near-universal criticism that the Braves chose to make this move far too early, abandoning a perfectly functional 20-year-old building in the process, I also have to note that ballparks have come a long way in 20 years. I just don’t know that it’s worth the investment, especially if you’re not getting a public subsidy to help pay for it.

Four decks and three separate concourses serve the stadium

33 rows fill the lower deck, which itself is split into upper and lower sections. The club and premium seating sections are all stacked behind home plate, much like Marlins Park. Large group seating exists down the lines, with the Hank Aaron Terrace overlooking left field and the Coors Light Below The Chop bunker beyond the right field wall.

Braves Monument Garden on lower concourse behind home plate

The biggest achievement is the Monument Garden, a spacious and quiet mini-museum along the lower concourse. Suites block access access to regular seats, allowing Populous to eliminate restrooms and concession stands, replacing them with this meditative space. The Braves are the longest continually operating franchise in MLB, and the team will let you know about it with numerous old jerseys, a long timeline covering the team’s history in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, and the various Hall of Fame Braves. BBHoF plaques are mounted along the concourse wall, while their numbers stand in water features in the center of the Garden. While it doesn’t have a bar as in Seattle, there’s a lot more history to cover, so take your drink in and meditate in the Garden for a while. Having a concourse view is preferable, but if you’re going to remove that view, at least give fans something cool like this.

Hank Aaron statue atop Monument Garden

This same attention to historical detail is repeated all over the park. The terrace club allows the patricians to feel the same sense of history without having to share space with the plebes.

Technology is solid, as one would expect with a park dubbed the “future of ballparks.” The two large display boards in the outfield complement each other, though at times it can be confusing determining which one is the main board. There’s a single ribbon board above the lower deck. WiFi antennas are ubiquitous, with internet provided by Comcast. The cable giant even moved its local operations to The Battery, occupying the big glass office building in right-center.

Banks of LED lights can be turned on, off, partially lit, or with strobe effects.

Sandlot kid’s area behind CF

As perhaps an unintentionally nod to the declining popularity of youth baseball, there is no sandlot diamond at Hope and Will’s Sandlot, the designated kids’ area. Instead, there’s a zip line and a climbing wall, which when I think about it, would be neat additions to the actual playing field. Think about it, Rob.

The REAL future of ballparks

The level-by-level diagram shows you the real future of baseball. Every perceived premium space and seat is now at the field, along the infield, and most importantly, behind home plate. I wrote about this evolution in May. With the opening of SunTrust Park, it’s further confirmation of the concentration of high-$, high-amenity seats, as well as the separation of those premium sections from the regular seats. The Rangers’ ballpark is sure to follow in these footsteps, if not surpass the Braves’ efforts entirely. Think about that the next time you sit in 315-319 at the Coliseum. The cheap upper deck ticket behind the plate is not long for this world.

Catwalk leading to upper deck sections behind the plate

Like the lower deck, the upper deck concourse behind the plate has no view of the field. The press box is located there instead, with few amenities (a couple concession stands and restrooms) available. Since there are seats in the upper deck, access to them is granted by stairs leading to a catwalk on the roof of the press box. It’s these inconveniences that make me wonder what’s next in terms of ballpark development.

Pre-construction rendering of The Battery ATL and SunTrust Park

Like it or not, the theme everywhere at The Battery is Coming Soon. While the main plaza beyond right field has retail and restaurant tenants, many of the other buildings to the south (bottom of pic above) are not fully completed. The developers managed to get commitments to thousands of apartment leases, ensuring that there will be some amount of activity when the Braves aren’t playing. Signs on the ground level advertise a good mix of retail chains and local establishments to come. It’s hard to say how successful this will all be because the Cumberland area where The Battery is located already has three large shopping centers in place, including a major regional mall. And with the Braves treading water at the .500 mark, the team for now is a coming attraction, whereas the ballpark is already in place.

I didn’t drive to the park when I was there thanks to accommodations only a mile away. Many of the parking lots are in office parks on the other side of I-75, requiring a stroll over the interstate on a newly constructed pedestrian bridge. Some parking exists at The Battery, though most of it is for VIP’s and residents of the complex. It’s a mess, albeit one I didn’t get to experience directly. Since the area doesn’t have a MARTA (BART-like) stop anywhere close, fans hoping for reasonable public transportation are bound to be disappointed by having to use at least two bus transfers from the Midtown stop. A better option if ridesharing from Midtown, which for me cost about $15 a ride.

My hotel would be in the lower left of this map, putting me closer than a lot of fans who parked nearby

Planning for the ballpark always seemed like a head scratcher to me. The land on which the ballpark and the development sits is 60 acres of former forest land that is sloped down from northeast to southwest. That makes for suboptimal ballpark placement and orientation. The Braves chose to place the ballpark in the northeast corner, with home plate facing nearly true south. When sitting in the ballpark one can look towards right field and see the rest of the Battery. The rest of your vision is freeway and greenery interrupted by the occasional office building or hotel. It’s not a skyline, the site’s distance from downtown Atlanta is too far to incorporate the skyscrapers in the distance. It may have made more sense to put the ballpark at the south end, orient it a more natural northeast, and build the surrounding stuff to fit. The plan could have allowed for fans parked to the north to descend to the park, creating a grand entrance in the process. The location is clearly suburban and while it’s suited for a neighborhood ballpark, the plans reach much higher to be more of a downtown ballpark (there are clear differences). All in all it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Chop House is a restaurant. Don’t make it more than what it is.

That brings me to the most popular criticism of SunTrust Park: the park’s lack of a signature feature. It’s hard to come up with such things when there’s no existing building to incorporate into the park (San Diego, Baltimore) or a small, hemmed-in site to force design decisions. The Braves so far are trying to use the Chop House as that signature element. The effort falls flat because it tries to puff up the Chop House to being more than multi-level restaurant that it is. Even if you accept the premise, the Chop House is not impressive enough nor of a scale to demand that kind of attention. It’s only open during games. Other group accommodations are directly above it, blunting its visual appeal. The Comcast building looms behind it, much more imposing but outside the actual ballpark footprint. I’m not going to call it the whole package “fake” or “artificial” because those are cheap shots that don’t get at the heart of the issues. Over time the place will fill out and wear in like a pair of jeans. Question is, will those jeans be out of style in 10 years? Knowing what we know about the last 30 years of ballparks, the answer is probably yes.

8 thoughts on “SunTrust Park: More Braves, Less Atlanta

  1. Only question in my mind is why they chose to build in the only county in Metro Atlanta that isn’t on MARTA.

    • It is an interesting question for which I don’t really have a good answer. Even at Turner Field the MARTA station was over a mile a way so they ran bus shuttles (and those things really sucked the two times I went to Turner Field).

      I have been to Atlanta 4 or 5 times for various work things. There is a different attitude towards public transportation down that way. I don’t know why, but I do have a hilarious story about public transportation and a major milestone in my life… It all took place in Atlanta and started as a conversation about why there was no MARTA to Turner Field.

      I posed the question “Why is there no MARTA to Turner Field?” to some new friends of mine, a gaggle of Auburn alums/fans from up my Muscle Shoals. I was going to watch their team play against Clemson in the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome and we had all gone to the Braves game the night before.

      One of the dudes, who had taken to calling me “California,” responded something to the effect of “Public Transportation is an assault on my personal liberty.”

      I started laughing and everyone squinted at me. It was the first time I ever had a group of people from the South tell me “Bless your heart…” as a euphemism for “You sure are stupid.” I felt proud.

      • You should feel proud. Those folks can just enjoy having car gas/maintenance liberate money from their wallets, if they’re so afraid of public transportation. Then they can enjoy their liberty sitting in a rush hour traffic jam.

        And they thought you were stupid. LOL.

        Back on topic – what a waste this new ballpark is, regardless of amenities or how modern or how awesome it is. They just got a perfectly good one only 20 years ago, which probably only needed some updates.

  2. Jeez, what is that catwalk? Is that really supposed to be an upper deck “concourse”? You couldn’t even have two people walking there side-by-side, even if the picturesque trash bags weren’t sitting there in the way.

  3. Even in new baseball stadiums with their reduced foul territory, I think most fans are too far away from the field.

    I think netting technology has improved to the point where we don’t need a warning track all the way around the entire field. You could remove most foul territory, have netting extend farther down the base lines to keep fans safe, and almost every fan in the park would end up being at least 10 feet closer to the action.

    Like, where Pac Bell has bullpens, to me those seats should be basically flush with the foul line in the next MLB park that’s built.

    The seats at pro soccer and basketball always feel closer to me, and I think it’s partially because those sports don’t waste precious real estate on foul territory.

    To get eyeballs to the game you gotta give them something unique…the closer you are, the more likely fans can hear player/umpire/coach dialogue.

    The safety risk would go up perhaps but if it came with increased netting, safety could actually be better than the status quo.

  4. I’m originally from the Bay Area but have lived in the Atlanta metro for 14 years. Not being a Braves fan, I look at this park as a massive money grab primarily because of the Braves’ terrible tv deal and their faceless corporate ownership. It’s easy to criticize a single owner but at least there’s a name and a face to shake a fist at. This team has a budget and must stick to it, and will likely never change.

    Even with reduced capacity I doubt the team will ever consistently sell out, because this town is full of transients like me. I’ve been to a game at Suntrust and have never been less impressed by a park before. It just lacks character, but that’s true of many areas in Atlanta in general. If it were me designing it, I would have at least tried to incorporate trees somewhere in the outfield just to display how densely forested this area is. Could have been a cool way to blend into the area without being gimmicky.

  5. Turner Field had to go. It was “value engineered” for the olympics and then re done for the Braves.

    The physical structure needs massive maintenance because of this. When you value engineer something your doing it as “cheap” as possible.

    The Braves were able to piggy back the Olympics at the time get a new place to play.

    It just was not meant to be used for 81 dates year over year for 30 years.

    The public subsidy is outrageous I will say.

    But in these kind of cities it needs to be done for the stadium to be built.

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