Orioles consider asking for public money to upgrade Camden Yards, apocalypse threat level raised to “nigh”

So four years and change ago, I wrote this:

If current trends are going to continue, circa-1990 stadiums like SkyDome/Rogers Centre, New Comiskey Park/U.S. Cellular Field, and even Camden Yards would have to be replaced by the end of this decade. Okay, probably not Camden Yards — though I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Baltimore Orioles ask for “improvements.” But it’s going to be very interesting to see whether teams start demanding new stadiums, and if so how they justify them, as the first wave of “retro” parks start going out of warranty.

As it turns out, whoever had 2015 in the “When will the Orioles owners ask for upgrades to Camden Yards?” pool, you’re a winner!

The Baltimore Orioles are considering updates to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the 23-year-old stadium still celebrated for its red-brick hominess and retro charm…

The latest stadiums incorporate design elements — such as open concourses commanding views of the game — that Camden Yards lacks. Many also include stadium clubs for VIPs that offer prime, low-level field views.

Now, this isn’t totally crazy, depending on what the Orioles want to do with the stadium (and even team officials say they’re not sure yet). Doing some minor improvements a couple of decades down the road certainly makes a lot more sense than tearing a stadium down and building a whole new one, and shouldn’t be a problem so long as the public isn’t expected to—

The state holds a capital expenditure account that might be used. And since there is some retired debt on Camden Yards, new bonds could be issued to finance improvements.

Guh? I’d ask on what planet it would make sense for the state to finance upgrades that will benefit solely the Orioles, but the Baltimore Sun website never answers when I shout at my computer screen.

The one possible silver lining is that the state might ask the Orioles owners to extend their lease beyond 2021 in exchange — “Typically, when you see a very large amount of capital expenditure, it comes with a new lease negotiation,” Maryland Stadium Authority Michael Frenz told the Sun — though given that they have a decent sized market and a popular stadium and are making money hand over fist, it’s not like they could reasonably threaten to leave with or without a lease. Maybe the MSA will offer to float some bonds for stadium construction in exchange for the Orioles offsetting the bond costs by paying more in rent — ha ha, we all know that’s not likely to happen. But we can dream, can’t we?

Report: Camden Yards hasn’t done squat for surrounding neighborhoods

Bloomberg has a long article today counting the ways in which the Baltimore Orioles‘ Camden Yards has been a lousy investment for the city, costing taxpayers $282 million and bringing little tangible return. (Disclosure: I was interviewed by one of the reporters, but I’m not quoted.) Much of it ends up being he-said-she-said, but the hes (or the shes?) include a nice list of stadium experts, from economists Arthur Rolnick and Victor Matheson to Baltimore community activists William Marker and Julian Lapides, who were two of the first people I interviewed when I started research for the bookField of Schemes a billion years ago.

The most interesting point, given Camden Yards’ reputation as a neighborhood revitalizer, is that not only has there not been an explosion of development around Camden Yards, but the area has arguably declined since the Orioles ballpark and accompanying Ravens football stadium opened in the ’90s. The number of employers in adjacent neighborhoods has declined since 1998 — though as the Baltimore Business Journal rightly notes, comparing the peak of the ’90s economic boom with post–Great Recession figures is a bit unfair — with city having previously paid several employers to leave the area to make way for stadium construction. And unemployment and crime numbers are up as well. (Since we were playing with crime heat maps last week for central Atlanta, it’s interesting to compare with those for supposedly “revitalized” Baltimore.)

Florida State University urban planner Tim Chapin, whose speciality is studying which sports projects are better or worse catalysts for development (or maybe worse and less worse is a better way of putting it), tells Bloomberg:

“While it expanded the tourist bubble to the west, it didn’t wholesale save the downtown economy or prop up very poor neighborhoods not too far from downtown,” Chapin said.

The Baltimore Business Journal’s James Briggs complains that Camden Yards is unfairly being made the “poster child” for bad stadium deals when there are so many worse ones, but that really misses the point here, which is: The Orioles’ stadium has been widely portrayed as the poster child for successful stadium deals, but in fact its return for Baltimore has been somewhere between meh and craptastic. At best, you can say that the Camden Yards stadiums haven’t done much of anything for the surrounding neighborhoods, except bring a bunch of people to drive past them 81 times a year en route to the Orioles-controlled shops along Eutaw Street inside the stadium gates.

The Waverly neighborhood around the Orioles’ old home of Memorial Stadium, meanwhile, appears none the worse for wear since the team’s departure. On second thought, maybe this should go on some kind of poster, because the occasional Bloomberg article sure doesn’t seem to be getting the message across.

Orioles, Indians mull stadium refits

The New York Times’ Ken Belson has been busy on the stadium beat; today he has a profile of how Janet Marie Smith has been re-hired by the Baltimore Orioles to help spruce up Camden Yards, the stadium whose design she helped oversee 20 years ago. (And which helped set off the whole retro trend that kick-start the stadium-building craze of the last 20 years.)

The most interesting bit, though, may be an aside about the kinds of rethinking that tenants of ’90s-era stadiums are considering as they see their honeymoon periods disappearing in the rear-view mirror:

The club levels at Camden Yards will get a second look because the corporate appetite for expensive suites has diminished. It hasn’t helped that the Orioles last had a winning record in 1997 and drew their smallest crowd ever at Camden Yards earlier this season.

The Orioles are not the only team thinking about makeovers. The Cleveland Indians, who opened Progressive Field in 1994 (it was Jacobs Field then), are among the 10 teams looking at ways to revive their parks, said Earl Santee, a senior principal at Populous, the architectural firm that designed Camden Yards, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Coors Field and other retro stadiums.

This has been an issue I’ve been wondering about for a long time: What do modern stadiums that are designed for the luxury market do when that market evaporates? In olden times, it was easy enough to just rejigger ticket prices, but today’s class distinctions are cemented in concrete and steel — you can’t easily take just one chunk of glassed-in seats with their own restaurant and private entrance and turn them back over to the great unwashed.

Cleveland is going to be an interesting test case for this, as it has that vertical wall of club seats separating its lower deck from its upper. I’d love to see the recent generation of class-segregated stadiums retrofitted for more egalitarian uses, but it’s going to be a challenge.

Sports bubble watch: Big market, small market

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$1 O’s tickets available exclusively at orioles.com

Mets Wine Pairing * Wine Tasting Event in the Empire Party Suites * The ticket price includes the cost of food! * Tickets only $75!

Times are tough all over, but apparently some fan base’s times are tougher than others…