Penguins, preservationists battle over demolition of Civic Arena

On the heels of the Steelers‘ Super Bowl defeat, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has rapidly shifted gears, making yesterday’s lead the future of the Mellon Arena, a facility that has not been used since June 2010.

The arena, initially called the Civic Arena until a naming rights deal was struck with a financial services firm, was the production location of that all-time film classic, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. The Penguins moved into the new Consol Arena in August 2010, after receiving developmental rights to the old arena property in a 2007 deal with state, city, and county officials.

Though the Sports and Exhibition Authority voted unanimously on September 16, 2010 to have the arena demolished, a group of preservationists has remained a fly in the ointment, and at least one board member said the authority’s decision does not have to be final if someone proposes a better idea. That has given opponents of demolition some hope, but the meetings underway now are likely to lead to eventual demolition, unless there is a dramatic public outcry. The historic preservationists look at the lack of a highly specific plan to move forward as an opportunity to gain landmark status for the arena, which was built with a retractable roof before any other arena or stadium tried the idea.

According to the Post-Gazette, the planning process could take nine months or more, suggesting that the Penguins don’t have a too much of a game plan as to what to do here. A spokesperson for Pittsburgh’s mayor said that these “pre-application” meetings were established to “cut through red tape” and ensure that developers and the various agencies involved are on the same page. Historic preservationists were not mentioned in that part of the story, though. That may mean a wrecking ball will soon follow, but stay tuned.

Astrodome: To raze or not to raze?

A Houston Chronicle opinion piece published today suggests either fixing up Houston’s Astrodome, at considerable expense, or tearing the darned place down.

The piece, written by Richard Justice, suggests that a teardown might be more likely, stating, “If Yankee Stadium and Tiger Stadium can go, then the Astrodome can go, too.” Nevertheless, he recommends trying to save it, suggesting a full-scale renovation and a conversion into vast retail and hotel space so that it becomes a place “where people stop and stare and remember the spirit of a great American city.”

But stopping and staring and thinking about a city’s spirit is not likely to get the cash register ringing to the degree that might be needed to save the place, so Justice opens the floor to democratic alternatives, stating, “If my vision is the wrong one, that’s fine. Let’s hear yours. Let’s work together and come up with a consensus and see if there’s a way to save it.” Generally, when stuff of this nature hits the papers, it is a precursor to demolition, but time will tell.

Rose Bowl renovation: your tax dollars at work?

For those of you angered that our folks in Congress meet every so often to discuss the college football championship fiasco, consider that one reason a $163 million renovation of the Rose Bowl is being pushed forward is the possibility of tapping stimulus funds as one reason for doing so. The Rose Bowl with its huge capacity will host this year’s college football championship game on January 7.

A New York Times report on New Year’s Day suggested that Rose Bowl folks fear going in the same direction as the Orange Bowl (the wrecking ball) if something is not done, but Times reporter Billy Witz explains that plans to merge renovations with an NFL team met with a variety of obstacles. Among them, community opposition, with many having recollections of Raider fans converging on LA in strange and intimidating costumes before Al Davis took his ball and moved back to Oakland, as well as concerns that a Soldier Field-style renovation might occur. In that instance, the historic facility lost its landmark status, and rightfully so.

To avoid that problem, the Rose Bowl’s general manager, Darryl Dunn, has brought in Janet Marie Smith, best known for Camden Yards planning and Fenway renovation. As for why stimulus funds might be needed, Dunn indicated that they’d go after donors and look to events, but said, “We’re a stadium….We don’t have an alumni base.” The Rose Bowl currently owes $43 million on earlier renovation projects, so the $163 million renovation, if it moved forward, would push the renovation costs well above the $200 million mark. It is still small compared to the high price of recent professional sport venue construction, but 200 million bucks isn’t chicken feed either.

For those who are outraged by this, consider that you can fire up your TV this evening and watch the GMAC bowl, sponsored by a recipient of federal bailout money, and a few days later enjoy the Citi BCS Championship Game, sponsored, once again sponsored by a beneficiary of bailout funds. The Rose Bowl hopes to sponsor many more BCS games after renovations take place. If taxpayers seem to be funding the college football championship tournament both directly and indirectly, maybe we ought to have a little more of a role in fixing the mess!

Giants bid swamp bowl adieu

One of the best ways to get the nostalgic fervor going for an old stadium is to have a “last game” there. The New York Giants played their last game in their old New Jersey Meadowlands home, and the NYC press corps did not disappoint with nostalgic references.

Neil Best of Newsday (link here for Newsday subscribers or those willing to pay to register) described yesterday’s shellacking of the Giants by the Carolina Panthers as “the most embarrassing of their 283 games there,” perhaps overlooking the 1978 Giants/Eagles game where Herm Edwards helped Big Blue snatch deafeat from the jaws of victory in a play Giants fans know as simply “the fumble.” The New York Times was a bit more circumspect, with Joe Lapoint suggesting the 41-9 blowout had “the feeling of a funeral” with more than 78,000 moruners attending the ceremony.

It’s not actually the last game at Giants Stadium, though as that may be played out on Sunday evening, when the Jets take on the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that is sure to fire up the forces of wistful nostalgia once again. The Bengals, many might recall from previous postings on this site, are draining the coffers of Hamilton County, Ohio, as the cost of financing the team’s new “jungle” in the Queen City has caused taxpayers to dip into their pockets more than they were initially led to believe. We’ll see how things work out in the Meadowlands when the new sports palace opens up for the Giants and Jets in 2010. Both teams have set seat license fees to stratospheric levels, so New York metro season ticketholders are likely to be a bit poorer in 2010.

While taxpayers tend to fund professional sports complexes in the U.S. as part of our ongoing support of private enterprise, which for some reason does not pass as “socialism,” our friends to the north are debating how to get ice rinks built for, shockingly, average people to use for their own events and activities instead of for pro team use. An article today’s Globe and Mail says that if a new public rink goes ahead as proposed “it will be one of the few publicly funded arenas to open in Toronto in the last 28 years.” Not sure why 28 years is significant, but the construction of a publicly funded facility for something more than spectatorship sounds like an interesting idea.

Cincy stadium fund running $13m a year in red

Hamilton County, Ohio, is now projecting that its stadium fund will run a $13.2 million deficit for the year 2010 if tax revenues dip by a mere two percent, an amount that might be conservative in light of hard times. Commissioners are hoping to get concessions from the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals [ed. note: Good luck with that], and/or cuts from the Cincinnati Public Schools to close the gap.

Long before Bernie Madoff, Hamilton County Commissioners and insiders in the Cincinnati area knew that a day of reckoning would come as bills for the two stadiums came due. In 2004, County Commissioner Phil Heimlich called the stadium debt a “fiscal time bomb,” suggesting service cuts may be needed in the future.

Since schools have a tougher time threatening to relocate, the smart money on who will make the most concessions might be placed on education. The county could roll back property tax relief, but the commissioners argue that would be “the last option they will consider.”

One possible way to close the gap might be to offer naming rights to someone for the Bengals’ stadium, something that Bengals owner Mike Brown bypassed so that he could put his Dad’s name on the new facility. Betting that the taxpayers of Hamilton County will be able to benefit from naming rights revenue might be as unwise as betting on Cincinnati Reds games if you were a local legend.

On the eve of the 4th: The Nationals, the ballpark, and development

It appears that the stadium building lobby is taking time off for now, but there is always time for introspection. As talk radio hosts rail against stimulus funding and government waste, the Washington Nationals, a beneficiary of a pre-stimulus package in the form of almost $700 million of taxpayer money to build a new ballpark, sit in last place in their division. What are taxpayers getting for their money? Well, stimulus hasn’t occurred, though it was presumed to be a product of construction as plans were being drawn up and pushed through the political process.

Nationals president Stan Kasten was on C-SPAN recently, telling a National Press Club audience to be patient because a bright future lies ahead, despite a dismal on-field performance this season.

For a less upbeat overview of the Nationals’ progress, including some focus on the stadium issue and pathetic development that has unfolded around the new stadium, Jeff Blair at the Toronto Globe and Mail put together an article which explains that the new ballpark is so nondescript that it could have been plopped into Minneapolis, Cincinnati, or Cleveland. To be fair, the departure of the team from Montreal to Washington may have some Canadians agitated, but the team has struggled with attendance, and Blair reports that the neighborhood surrounding the new ballpark features little more than a seedy liquor store and a temporary tent that serves as a faux-tailgate area. So much for the brisk economic development the new ballpark was supposed to bring…

I’ll be on break this weekend, and look forward to seeing Neil return with his insights and humor. If I see anything break in the next 24 hours, I’ll do my best to have it posted, but I suspect things may be slow as we move into a holiday weekend. I hope all of you have an enjoyable and safe Fourth of July weekend.

Marlins agree to kick in $6.2 million shortfall in bonds

The shovels are in the ground as site preparation is underway for the long-lobbied-for 37,000-seat ballpark to be constructed for the Florida Marlins.

The project almost got hung up after a bit of confusion and muddling through the project finances, but Marlins president David Samson said the team would make up an approximately $6 million shortfall. Miami-Dade county manager George Burgess reported that the bond sale fell $6.2 million short of the needed $306 million, causing questions and concerns, and leading county commissioner Dorrin Rolle to say as things were being hammered out yesterday: “I love baseball, but I don’t love it so much that I’ll be here all night.” Samson said the team would pick up the $6.2 million difference, but some skeptics suggested the team would pull back from full construction plans, trimming back the total cost of the project. Samson denies that will happen.

The project is scheduled for completion at the start of the 2012 season. Since the Marlins lease expires in 2010, some Marlins fans may be concerned that the entire 2011 season may have to be played in a nearby parking lot. My guess is that something will be worked out.

Ratner and Brooklyn: Eminent domain and tax-exempt status

New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner’s quest to build a vanilla, big-box style arena in Brooklyn just got a bit more complicated, with New York’s top court allowing a challenge of his desired use of eminent domain for this project to move forward.

For those in the Brooklyn neighborhood, The Empire State Development Corporation plans public hearings at the New York City College of Technology on July 29 and July 30.

The clock is ticking on Ratner, as he needs to get all his financial ducks in a row and get a ceremonial shovel in the ground by December 31 to be eligible for tax-exempt status.

With estimated arena costs at $772 million and capital tough to come by as the economy lurches along, not achieving tax-exempt status could torpedo the project. To hold opponents at bay, perhaps he could threaten local opponents with a decision to bring back the quirky architecture of Frank Gehry if they refuse to back down.

An anniversary few noticed: 100 years & Forbes Field

Few noticed a historic anniversary in stadium building yesterday, in part because almost two decades of mediocrity by the Pittsburgh Pirates has kept anything related to Pittsburgh baseball off the radar screen unless it involved a trade of their players to a big market team.

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of Forbes Field, arguably a moment that changed the stadium-building landscape forever. It was the first ballpark to cost at least a million dollars to construct. Forbes Field used more than three times the structural steel and concrete as Philadelphia’s Shibe Park which opened a couple months earlier in 1909. Now remembered as a small intimate ballpark that has long since been demolished, at the time Forbes Field was the most massive monument to professional sports ever built.

It was built entirely with private funds, and it ushered in a sort of competition among team owners to build similar ballparks, places like Fenway, Wrigley, Comiskey, Ebbets, and Navin in Detroit. The Pittsburgh area papers did some coverage of this anniversary on Sunday and Monday, and the Pirates did a ceremony yesterday at PNC Park, but enthusiasm for the Pirates is low, so very few noticed.

Though few visiting the Field of Schemes site will want to visit this issue further, for those who do, you might hit the library and check out a book entitled Forbes Field by David Cicotello and Angelo Louisa (a 2007 publication of McFarland Press).

To put things in a current context, MLB had the inhabitants of the two remaining ballparks of the Forbes Field era (Red Sox and Cubs) open up exhibition games in New York’s shiny new monuments to modern retro ballparks. The Red Sox played the first major league exhibition game in the Mets new place, and the Cubs played a preseason game in the Yankees new palace. My theory: Now that the real ballparks of a bygone era have inspired construction of numerous “retro ballparks,” MLB is not wedded to keeping the old dinosaurs around. In short, Fenway and Wrigley have served their usefulness in prompting the kind of new construction that has made team owners around the country lots of money. If dumping them for shiny new models is in the cards, MLB would not have a problem with that.

The irony is that if that ever occurs, the powers involved will propose tearing down an authentic ballpark of the past and propose building what would likely be yet another replica of the past, but with much more retailing space and nice new cupholders.

It is entirely speculation on my part, but consider that MLB officials also had the Pirates/Cubs game scheduled in Pittsburgh on the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field’s opening, with a brief ceremony as part of the action. I don’t think the three scheduling decisions were entirely random or done without some thought. The game on the 100th anniversary was scheduled against the same team that opened that new ballpark in Pittsburgh in 1909, but in 1909, the Cubs were defending World Series champions. Many regard PNC Park as a place that emulated some of the features of Forbes Field.

Unless you want to see the ballparks of this era gone forever, support the friendly folks at Save Fenway Park! or your local Wrigley activist should calls for a brand new ballpark in Boston or Chicago emerge any time in the next decade or so.

Yankee repairs at the AAA level

The New York Yankees may have their own set of problems with the new Yankee Stadium, but trouble may also be brewing at the lower tier of the Yankee empire. Calls for renovation of their AAA Scranton, Pennsylvania facility were reported yesterday.

The Scranton Times explains that about $13.3 million in repairs will be needed to revitalize the 20-year-old stadium, including $4.5 million in electrical system replacements.

Lackawanna County is responsible for maintenance of PNC Field (not to be confused with PNC Park in Pittsburgh), but in a situation similar to the old Yankee Stadium, work can be arranged by SWB Yankees, the team owners, and charged against county stadium revenues.

The Yankees minor league franchise deal ends in October, prompting the predictable non-threat to move, something that is pretty standard in opening negotiations, with team president Kristen Rose saying “we’re still happy here.” If the shakedown model in most cities follows, Scranton officials and/or reporters are likely to highlight the potential for a move to another city, and tax dollars will fund whatever renovations and repairs the team wants.

The amounts are small in the grand scheme of things, but Lackawanna county is likely to have a number of other uses for $13.3 million. No word as to whether Dunder Mifflin paper products were used in the publication of this Scranton Times article or if they currently serve as a sponsor for the local team.