I was the lead lawyer for this project and worked on it almost full time for more than three years. Rather than give you an account of the physical features of the ballpark, which can be found in numerous places, I will share ten memories of the process the resulted in Phoenix being awarded a franchise and the stadium being built.
- Expansion was most certainly not on MLB’s agenda in 1993 when Mike Gallagher & Joe Garagiola, Jr., approached Jerry Colangelo about heading up an effort to bring major league baseball to Phoenix.
- The enabling legislation that provided for public funding was already in place having been passed in the wake of Phoenix’s unsuccessful bid during the prior round of expansion. While many were critical of there not being a public vote on the sales tax to funded the public share of the stadium’s cost, that was not the fault of the Maricopa County supervisors but of the legislation itself. It only provided for a vote by those five supervisors sitting as the Maricopa Country Stadium District.
- Two of the three voting “yes” on the measure lost their next reelection bids and saw their political careers end. The other supervisor who voted “yes” was shot and wounded by a disgruntled and probably deranged homeless man during a public meeting several years later. Only the supervisor who conjured up a reason to abstain went on to bigger and better things. I suppose there is a lesson there for aspiring politicians.
- The vote ushered in a 1/4 cent sales tax increase county wide. The resulting revenues came in more quickly than money could be spent on construction so the stadium was built with no long term debt and the sales tax increase was rolled back before the first game was ever played in the building. This novel funding method meant that Maricopa County taxpayers saved hundreds of millions of dollars in interest payments that would normally have been paid if the project had been funded with 20-30 year bonds.
- Even though the stadium was to be located in downtown Phoenix, the city played a marginal role at best in site selection because of concerns over the proposition that required a referendum on any municipal expenditures for a sports facility. From an urban design and economic development perspective, it would have been far better for the stadium to have been located south of the railroad tracks in the heart of the warehouse district. This would have created a pocket ripe for redevelopment bounded by the convention center, arena and ballpark. Instead the ballpark was located adjacent to the arena and convention center creating a veritable blockade discouraging redevelopment to the south of downtown.
- The positive experience of bringing in America West Arena on time and on budget led the Diamondbacks to agree to cover all cost overruns. The team ultimately had to fund nearly $100 million more than they originally anticipated. This along with the raft of high priced contracts there were signed after the team’s disastrous first year performance ultimately led to Colangelo having to seek major outside investors and eventually losing control of the team to them.
- The design direction for the stadium was heavily influenced by the recent acclaim for the retro ballparks most notable Camden Yards in Baltimore. I wondered at the time and still do whether a more logical (and daring) approach for a stadium in Phoenix might have been to work with Taliesin West, a firm that carries on the design tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright, and fashion a design reflecting both the desert environment and Wright’s association with the state.
- Initially sized to be about the same as Progressive Field in Cleveland (just under 43,000 seats). But after witnessing the record breaking attendance at the new, 50,000-seat Coors Field in Denver, the Diamondbacks changed their minds and directed the design team to expand the capacity to as close to 50,000 as possible. The resulting 48,500 seat capacity proved to be a mistake in all but the most successful of the team’s years. It is rumored that the team has even explored options for downsizing the stadium but has not announced any plans for doing so.
- The large operable panels on the building’s north wall required a change in the Phoenix zoning code to allow much larger “billboards” than customary. The city was sold in part on design concepts that were shared during the amendment process, but the team later abandoned the most novel and visually interesting concepts proposed by Sussman-Prejza and opted for something conventional and bland.
- The most noteworthy design feature of the building was the combination of a retractable roof and natural grass playing surface which had previously thought to be incompatible. In order to get enough daylight on the grass, the roof opening had to made as large as possible significantly increasing its cost. The results have been mixed at best as extraordinary measure have to be employed to keep the grass healthy and midseason resoddings have become standard. In addition, the presence of natural grass has limited the non-baseball use of the facility from February to October, and other uses in the off season often require a complete resodding after the event is over.
So one could argue that the most controversial aspect of the project – the public funding of a portion of its costs – turned out to be the most successful. While it has certainly helped with the revitalization of downtown Phoenix, that impact might have been far greater if city officials had played a role in choosing a site for the stadium.
It is interesting to note how the experience with Chase Field (originally Bank One Ballpark) affected the subsequent football stadium project. Before any detailed funding plan for it emerged, the Cardinals stated their support for a public vote on any such funding mechanism (the team later lost a 1998 public vote in the city of Mesa before finally winning public approval in a county wide vote in 2000). The football team opted for a different natural grass strategy that turned out to be far more successful. Their design team combined a much smaller retractable roof opening with a retractable natural grass playing field – the first in North America. This not only has insured ideal growing conditions for the playing field which is regularly rated one of the very best in the NFL but made it possible to create a 160,000 square foot multipurpose surface inside the stadium that is regularly used for trade shows, meetings, exhibits, concerts and many other events.