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.

Peralta – The Skinny Jeans of Oakland Ballpark Sites

Earlier this week I did some calculations on the buildable footprint for a ballpark at the Peralta CCHQ. I gave the footprint an extra buffer on the channel, which dropped the footprint to only nine acres. Since then the always useful Planimeter to calculate a more realistic 10 acres, including the city-owned lot in the southeast corner next to 880 and the old WPRR rail easement. Without those two parcels, the acreage drops to 8 acres, smaller than Target Field. Even 10 acres is small for a park these days.

Size isn’t the only challenge at Peralta. Thanks to its location relative to Lake Merritt, the channel, and downtown, there’s only one way to orient it for optimum view or backdrop that includes the DTO skyline and the lake: north. It would theoretically be better to orient it northwest, but as we already know, that’s generally frowned upon. Three open-air venues currently face north: Progressive Field in Cleveland, Coors Field in Denver, and Petco Park in San Diego. Peralta shouldn’t be difficult to implement with a northern orientation, as long as they properly address a north-facing park’s biggest weakness: glare or light reflecting off the batter’s eye.

Click for larger image

This ballpark overlay is a generic version originally done for a multitude of sites 10 years ago, transplanted to Peralta. It could seat 32-35,000, with more space for standing room. It provides a solid 100-foot wide buffer around the grandstand in foul territory, which conducive to spacious concourses and additional square footage for offices or retail. It also allow for three large entry plazas. The main gate would be in left-center, accepting the majority of fans coming from downtown. Another plaza would be in right field at the corner of 5th Avenue and East 8th Street. The last one would be behind home plate and would be used mostly by VIP’s.

Ballpark seating chart

Not illustrated are potential restaurants along the channel which could be used 365 days a year, or bars built into the ballpark that could open either only during the home games or all year-round. There’s quite a bit of space to put in a children’s play area in right field, or picnic areas in left near the channel. Best thing about this orientation is that all of the outfield amenities could be kept at grade or field level.

The site is at a nearly uniform 10′ elevation. It’s adjacent to Lake Merritt Channel, which recently benefited from beautification and flood control projects made possible with Oakland’s 2014 Measure DD funds. To understand the potential impact of a ballpark, it’s worth looking at the other three waterfront ballparks and how the addressed the shoreline.

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park and Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park are located on active rivers, the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, respectively. SF’s AT&T Park is not truly on San Francisco Bay, but rather on an inlet, Mission Creek. Although there is a small ferry terminal at the park and the Lefty O’Doul drawbridge over Mission Creek, the waterway itself is not particularly busy at all, allowing for the use of kayaks, paddle boards, and other small personal watercraft on the water along the ballpark’s promenade. A Peralta ballpark would maintain at least a 100′ buffer to the channel, making “splash hits” unlikely thanks to an estimated 500′ distance down the left field line to the water. PNC & GABP created partial levees facing the water.

There doesn’t appear to be space for food trucks or other temporary or portable installations in the ballpark. I could see the A’s petitioning to close East 8th Street on game days in an effort to create a Yawkey/Eutaw-type environment outside the park. If that happens, there’s some very usable space for parking food trucks on E 8th.

The A’s have been hinting at a two-deck design for some time, which if implemented should conserve height. That creates a potentially uncomfortable situation where the main concourse along the third base line could be aligned with 880. To prevent this the façade would not be open air, with windows working in conjunction with concrete to mitigate highway noise.

Those are my initial thoughts on optimizing the Peralta site for a ballpark. They’re subject to change as we get more information on the site. If Peralta is selected as the future ballpark site, I look forward to seeing how creative the A’s and HOK are on evolving the vision at Peralta.

Bay Area Council releases Oakland Ballpark Economic Impact Report

This is not our first rodeo, folks.

What am I supposed to do with this? Yes, take with a grain of salt. Or a whole shaker full of salt. Reference Lyle Lanley, perhaps? That’s an homage. Maybe the original is more appropriate?

I do have some thoughts, such as Why were they so quick to tout ongoing spending by the team inside the stadium? Is it because it’s expected that the team will pay for it, instead of some sort of subsidy stream? Private enterprise is supposed to do that! Let’s not lower our standards because we’re used to sports franchises ripping municipalities off, or because a certain Oakland team continues to be subsidized even though they are leaving.

Or how about the construction spending? Could the Bay Area’s still white-hot real estate market throw that same money and resources into alternative projects such as housing or offices? Yes they could. The biggest hangup at this point is the approval process. Back in 2010 when Oakland was still struggling coming out of the recession, this argument might hold weight. Now it’s just noise.

That 2010 study even spent a couple slides talking about how assessed property values would explode thanks to a ballpark. Today that talking point is anathema. Property values is practically a four-letter word.

These documents are sales pitches, always prematurely staged and distributed. They don’t hold up under scrutiny, but they also don’t get much scrutiny. So it does the job. I’ll let you discuss the various inconsistencies, or question the methodology. To me these are pamphlets, no more, no less.

Atlanta and Tampa Bay Trip: The Regrettable Past and Future

Photo: Thechased at English Wikipedia

The flights are booked. I’ll be in Atlanta and St. Petersburg the weekend of June 8-11, attending the following games:

  • Friday 6/9 – NY Mets at Atlanta, 7:35 PM
  • Saturday 6/10 – Doubleheader, A’s at Tampa Bay, 2:10 PM (Game 2 30 minutes after Game 1 ends)
  • Sunday 6/11 – NY Mets at Atlanta, 1:35 PM

Though it’s a fairly hectic travel schedule, I’ll still have to time to explore the areas around both ballparks. Cobb County’s SunTrust Park is being hailed in some corners as the future of ballpark building. I’m not much of a fan so far based on pictures and renderings, but I am interested in seeing in-person how everything is integrated, from sightlines to food and beer to transportation. A SunTrust Park tour will also happen, probably on 6/9. Tropicana Field, which I haven’t visited since before the blog started, remains unloved despite some recent renovations. A future park in the region could be at the current location near downtown St. Pete, or perhaps around Tampa.

I’ve spoken with some of you who may be in the Tampa area and could meet up during the double-dip. Hit me up on Twitter if you haven’t. If you’re in Atlanta and would like to chat during one of the Barves games, I’m game.

P.S. – I originally planned to go to Nashville to check out the Sounds. They’re out of town for the weekend and won’t be back until the following Tuesday, 6/13. Nuts.

Actually it’s a Flash Sale for A’s baseball

Well that was fast.

The A’s announced their $19.99 Ballpark Pass deal last Thursday. Today they announced that the plans will stop selling this Wednesday at 5 PM.

That’s right. Not even a week’s worth of sales. The good news is that the response has been incredible. The team already tallied 2,000 passes sold so far. The abrupt end of the sale aroused a lot of speculation, so it was worth asking what was going on.

This doesn’t shut the door on future sales. For now this group should provide a large enough sample size to understand how the passes will be used, what the demographics breakdown looks like, and what in-stadium purchases are made by pass holders. For now you’ll have 36 hours to decide, if you were on the fence.

Like many A’s promotions this year, the Ballpark Pass was rolled out later in the season, away from other promotions to give it some breathing room. After the normal winter season ticket push, the team offered digital options like the 510 Pack, which focused on field level tickets. Then the A’s opened the upper deck, which brought great excitement and fanfare but apparently not a lot of ticket sales. Because it’s such a new development, I didn’t expect gangbusters sales, at least as long as the team was mediocre.

The Ballpark Pass is different in that its aim is to provide a frictionless way to attend games. Pay once per month, decide if you want to go the day of a game, pick seats if you want using the At the Ballpark app. It’s easy and doesn’t require much planning, so combined with the bargain basement price point it should be a hit. At 2k sales so far, it most certainly is. But it’s also worth studying why the emotionally positive upper deck opening hasn’t yielded a big boost in attendance, yet the Pass is set to do just that.

The price point helps, yes. Disregard that for a moment. Is the problem more that the traditional walkup ticket sales model is dying, if not already dead? So much has happened to the entertainment sales model since the iPhone launched in 2007. The proliferation of apps has created new economies around tickets, with purveyors recognizing that ease and convenience are bigger factors than tonight’s pitching matchup or the A’s slugger pair. Last weekend I went to see a friend’s musical in a local regional theater. That mom-and-pop operation uses Walletini, an app aimed at modernizing small live theater ticketing operations. Movie theaters have been using Fandango for years. Sports events have Ticketmaster, Tickets.com, and a myriad of secondary market apps. The Pass cuts through all of that by making the Coliseum a sort of club where you can just show up – and not be forced to pay anything else once you’re there.

It’s a nearly egalitarian way of selling baseball to fans, except perhaps for longtime loyal season ticket holders who now have been severely undercut. I expect that if the A’s continue with the Pass, they’ll need to offer greater perks to retain those high-revenue customers in ST plans. Otherwise there will be questions about the value they’re getting. As far as marketing experiments go, the Pass operates at multiple levels. It’s trying to bring in new fans or disenchanted old fans. It’s trying a different pricing model. It’s trying to balance those new subscribers against the needs of MVP and club seat holders.

All of it put together should provide a good picture of what A’s baseball is really worth to A’s fans.

 

Laney, Peralta, and Howard: It’s a ballpark not a horse race

Last Saturday I spent most of the day (and night) at a Derby party. One of the hosts is from Kentucky, so the party had great authenticity all the way down to me taking a nap in the front yard after a group photo. That’s my authenticity, at least. During the brief lucid state I was in as we feverishly bid up horses, I started to feel a sense of familiarity to the whole affair. That’s because ever since the Dave Kaval-led A’s narrowed potential ballpark sites down to four in and around downtown, fans and observers everywhere placed bets on their own favorites. I’ve gotten no shortage of requests to handicap the four sites. While I’ve pointed to the Raiders-less Coliseum as the easiest, fastest site due to work already done and reduced complexity, there are far more interesting sites out there, sites that could prove more compelling to the A’s.

Peralta is the site between Laney (red) and Brooklyn Basin (light blue)

Kaval has been careful to not tip his hand. In public interviews and private conversions, Kaval praised all three sites, pointing out advantages for all three. If you’re gleaning some sort of favorite from him, it’s probably your own bias at play. Nothing wrong with that, just acknowledge it and understand that the team has a process it’s trying to follow.

That didn’t stop Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf from opining that the A’s have narrowed down the sites to Lake Merritt (Laney College) and Howard Terminal. Today, Robert Gammon expanded on that culling, explaining that the A’s are worried about getting 35,000 fans across the active railroad tracks running through Jack London Square. Brooklyn Basin, or the part of it that was being offered, is no longer under consideration. I suspect this is because they couldn’t assemble all of the needed land. Lake Merritt is actually two sites, the Laney fields and the Peralta Community College south of East 8th Street. Gammon’s scoop is that the A’s may be focusing on the Peralta site. That’s a bit of a surprise because most observers and Laney site fans have been fantasizing about those fields forever. Assuming that Laney wanted to keep its athletics program, bringing in the A’s is a nonstarter. Peralta is smaller, is further from BART, and rather close to 880. Peralta’s also smaller, with at most 10 acres available. Or does it?

Peralta parcel map

In the above map the word “College” has “16.70 Ac.” That nearly 17 acres includes all but 4 acres of the Laney College parking lot across Lake Merritt Channel. And because the ballpark is next to the Channel, a large buffer will be required along each bank for flood control and recreational purposes (Tidelands Trust). The buildable area is a square measuring roughly 600′ x 600′. That’s less than 10 acres in footprint, which would make the A’s park by far the smallest modern venue in baseball, while also leaving precious little room to build anything else. I wrote last October:

If the Peralta site is chosen, the administration offices and support for all four campuses in the district would have to be relocated. Perhaps a solution could include a large parking structure with offices atop. That could help serve parking needs for Laney, Peralta, and the A’s. It could also be crazy expensive on its own.

Peralta in bottom center, Laney fields upper right, BART tunnel begins bottom right

Since the undivided parcel includes the parking lot, any land deal could be a little easier if it’s confined to the 16.7 acres, though with the Channel removed only 4 acres are left to build a multi-level garage, the replacement district administration buildings, and other offices. A pedestrian bridge over East 7th Street would also be in order. That doesn’t leave much land to build a ballpark village unless the A’s buy or the city/college volunteer additional land in the area.

There’s also an old rail easement immediately south of the Peralta parcel, plus a corp yard butting up against the Nimitz. Those could prove useful in the future. It’s not realistic to expect any street grid changes or other infrastructure to help support the ballpark other than revamped on/off-ramps. This is little more than a thumbnail sketch of the Peralta site. We’ll surely find out more in the coming months.

Unusual Peralta lot boundaries

The Coliseum was mentioned as the third-place site in the Gammons piece, which is not a problem from a process standpoint. With the Raiders leaving, the Coliseum is not going anywhere and can also serve as a fallback position if the need arises. Then again, MLB has often said it prefers downtown ballparks, yet two of the last three parks (SunTrust, Marlins) were not built downtown, and the Rangers’ replacement will also be built in the suburbs. Only Target Field is downtown, lacking an adjacent ancillary development. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s seems to be conflating “downtown” with “ballpark+development,” truly a perversion of the traditional definition of downtown.

Schaaf thinks ballpark sites have narrowed down to Howard Terminal and Laney College

Watch:

Big if true.

If I had a drone I’d take some updated pics of the Laney site. Instead, here are some Google Earth 3D renderings looking south, east, and north.

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As this is more-or-less informed speculation on the mayor’s part, I’m going to hold off on major posts until the A’s announce (or leak) something.