Are sports facilities more like cars or houses?

This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed the useful life of sports facilities, but three recent articles have caused me to turn my attention in that direction once again. There has been wide ranging speculation about what the new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers will do to recoup their $2+ billion investment. Some have raised the possibility that naming rights might be sold or that an NFL stadium could be built on the site. The most likely prospect is that the parking lots will be redeveloped for a large scale mixed use project like Mission Rock which was recently announced for a site next to AT&T Park in San Francisco. However, no one has suggested that it is time to replace the 50-year old stadium. In fact, until Frank McCourt’s disastrous reign it was widely considered one of the best stadiums from a fan’s standpoint.

Dodger Stadium

Conversely owners of facilities in Milwaukee and Atlanta that are less than half that age have recently raised the alarm that their buildings are obsolete and must be replaced (the Bradley Center is 24 years old and the Georgia Dome is 20 years old).

This raise the question of whether we ought to be treating our sports facilities like cars to be used up and traded regularly for a new model that has the latest bells and whistles or like a house to be maintained regularly and updated periodically so that it can be enjoyed by generations of owners. Clearly it is possible to do the latter successfully and the cost of doing so is far, far less than the “use up, throw away” philosophy.

We’ve made it easier for teams to get public funding for a new facility than to include funds in their own operating and capital budgets to put off the need for a new facility as long as possible. When teams and municipalities negotiate over the terms of funding a new facility and the use agreement, they rarely spend much time discussing maintenance and capital improvements. Rather than face this issue and the significant cost of it head on, they conspire to ignore it.

I have a simple suggestion that could go a long ways to reversing the trend of shorter and shorter lives for sports facilities. The public sector should insist that the initial funding plan and lease agreement with the primary tenant include a detailed plan for insuring that the facility have a useful life of at least fifty years. While it may appear to add to the cost of the project at the outset, over time it will save the taxpayers of the community many millions of dollars. It would seem that if the host city is willing to “give” a team 50-90% of the cost of a new building, the least the team can do is agree to be responsible for the lion’s share of the cost of treating the building like a house and not a car.

When the ball game isn’t enough

Over the past several weeks, two sports teams have announced their intention to develop large scale mixed use projects adjacent to their stadium or arena. The San Francisco Giants are teaming up with The Cordish Companies to undertake a $1.6 billion, 3.5 million square foot project that will be known as Mission Rock. It will occupy 27 acres adjacent to AT&T Park and the San Francisco waterfront.

Site of proposed Mission Rock project

The Chicago Bulls are planning to move forward with a 260,000 square foot, $80+ million retail/entertainment project on land currently used for surface parking at the United Center. The area surrounding the arena is largely devoid of pre and post-game attractions for the 1.5 million people who attend games and events at the facility.

Proposed retail and entertainment complex at The United Center

It’s worth noting that it has been 18 years since The United Center opened and 12 years since AT&T Park was completed. So while it appears that both projects may finally be realizing their potential as catalysts for neighborhood rejuvenation, it also suggests that sports facilities may not provide the kind of instantaneous boost to redevelopment efforts often touted by their proponents.

Sports entertainment districts

Two recent articles present two very different takes on glitzy sports entertainment districts – Kansas City’s Power & Light District and San Francisco’s Mission Rock project. The former is completed; the latter has just been announced. What do they have in common? Both are anchored by a sports facility; the Baltimore-based Cordish Companies acted as the developer; and each includes the usual mix of chain retail, bars and restaurants.

Power & Light District, Kansas City

The Wall Street Journal has labeled the Power & Light District a dismal failure and significant drain on the city’s budget. The San Francisco Chronicle touts the all but assured success of Mission Rock. While I know San Francisco is not Kansas City, the Power & Light District is a cautionary tale for cities betting their future and investing their dollars in one of these districts.

Kansas City finds itself using general funds for more than 2/3 of the debt service on the $295 million in bonds it issued for the project because projected sales and property taxes generated by the project have lagged. In addition, the city funded more of the $276 million cost of a new arena that has been waiting for its first sports tenant since its 2007 opening. As a result, the city has been forced to cut back on basic services.

The story is much the same in Glendale, Arizona, where the city provided hundreds of millions in funding for a hockey arena and spring training complex only to see the hockey team and adjacent mixed-use development, Westgate, go into bankruptcy. For each of the past two years, the city has covered $25 million to the NHL which now owns the hockey team to cover operating losses. Now the city is facing a $35 million budget deficit and the possibility it will still lose the hockey team to another city.

San Francisco’s plans are even more grandiose – $1.6 billion cost for a park, 1,000 rental units, 1.7 million square feet of office and retail, and parking garages. The Giants and Cordish plan to ground lease 27 acres comprised of existing surface parking lots and Pier 48 and begin construction in 2015. I suspect San Francisco’s efforts to use a sports facility as an anchor and catalyst for a major redevelopment project will be more successful than either Kansas City or Glendale. The worrisome thing is that there are numerous second and third tier cities currently looking at smaller scale, sports entertainment districts (e.g., Allentown, PA) as an avenue to urban regeneration. One hopes that they will not only look at the promise of projects like Mission Rock but also the reality of projects like Power & Light and Westgate.

Mission Rock site plan


One man’s quest to save California’s coast

An article about California’s coast that caught my eye recently turned out to be a remembrance of Peter Douglas, who was responsible for writing and helping pass the measure that created the California Coastal Commission and then served as its executive director for 25 years. I did not know Mr. Douglas personally, and I am not going to recite his accomplishments on behalf of that spectacular coast; but I will share my personal memories of it.

I grew up in northern New York as far from sunny beaches as one could be. Never a strong swimmer and with fair skin that burned from even short exposure to the sun, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1982 it was not for the siren song of Malibu beach! But like many before me I soon found myself making a regular trek to the coast. Los Angeles seemed to have no end to it or at least not one that didn’t require a couple of hours of driving. From my west LA apartment a 45 minute Sunday morning drive not only got me to the beach but well up the coast to what became my favorite haunt – Westward Beach in Malibu. Adjacent to the better known Zuma Beach, what attracted me to it was its relative isolation and solitude. I would arrive early – always before eight – and leave early as well just as the crowds were starting to build. I was usually covered from head to toe in clothing for sun protection and rarely did more than dip a toe in the water. Nonetheless the beach became for me my retreat from the city and something I looked forward to all week long.

As I read about Mr. Douglas’ advocacy on behalf of the public’s right to access and enjoy California’s coastline, I thought about those Sunday mornings and was grateful for his efforts and those of so many other who recognized the incomparable gift that the state’s coast is. It became a bit of a game over the years as I traveled the coast to spot the coastal access signs that were result of the Commission’s work (and all too often in the face of dogged opposition by the privileged and wealthy who are fortunate enough to own a piece of that coast and somehow feel that their enjoyment of it will be lost if it must be shared with the public). I can think of no better memorial to Mr. Douglas than to insure those signs remain forever and grow in numbers over the years.

California coastal access


Parking maximums can make strange bedfellows

Traditionally local zoning ordinances required project sponsors to provide 100% of the parking demand generated by the proposed project. More recently both Smart Growth and sustainability advocates have begun to question that approach as reinforcing the existing car culture. It is becoming more common, particularly in metropolitan ares with extensive public transit systems, to reduce minimum parking ratios thereby reflecting increased usage of public transit. In some cases, municipalities are going a step further and instead adopting parking maximums (i.e., rather than require a developer to provide a certain number of spaces, the city prohibits the developer from providing more than a certain number of spaces).

The underlying theory is simple enough to understand. Fewer parking spaces will eventually translate into fewer cars, less traffic, less land devoted to parking lots and parking garages and greater ridership on bus and rail systems. In turn, this means a reduction in exhaust emissions and gasoline usage and cleaner air. This trend is occurring in locales as disparate as New YorkSeattleTacoma, Los Angeles and Fairfax County (VA).  

Los Angeles

When this new approach is put into practice, however, it can lead to some unexpected arguments being made by the parties who participate in specific project zoning decisions. For example, developers typically tried to reduce parking requirements to save money on construction and operation. Now developers may be arguing for permission to exceed the new parking maximums if they are afraid they will not be providing as much parking as prospective tenants are seeking. Neighborhood activists usually want to make sure that office workers and shoppers are not using up the scarce supply of on-street parking used by residents. With parking minimums, these activists usually were on the opposite side of the fence from developers. But with parking maximums, neighbors and developers can find themselves as allies fighting together against planning officials who seek to minimize the amount of new parking.


A recent cleverly designed study done in New York City made a compelling case that the availability of a guaranteed private parking space increased the likelihood of the car owner driving into Manhattan. This study of how parking minimums influence commuting patterns by Rachel Weinberger of the University of Pennsylvania has provided empirical support for parking maximum proponents who believe that restricting such parking will reduce commuter trips.



Wind rights

It is well established by this time that a landowner can grant an easement over his property to a third party who wishes to build wind turbines that will capture the wind and convert it into electrical power. It is still somewhat of an open question whether an adjacent landowner can still make use of his land for something that would block the flow of wind (e.g., planting a windbreak to impede soil erosion or building a grain elevator). One commentator has noted that some states have recognized a solar right that prevents a  landowner from blocking sunlight needed to power solar panels on a neighbor’s land.

A recent lawsuit in California seeks to have wind rights of a different sort recognized. The Mountain Valley Airport in Tehachapi, California, has filed a lawsuit seeking to block construction of a wind power project that called for erecting up to 137 410-foot tall wind turbines on 7,100 acres. The owners of the airport are arguing that its users have established a “public easement” in the unique wind currents that occur above the proposed project site.

Wind by its very nature is not a resource that is confined to any single parcel of property regardless of how big. Should it be thought of more like free flowing water and treated similarly from a legal standpoint? The airport’s claim raises another possibility: should the wind be thought of as a resource owned collectively by all of us and held in public trust by state and federal governments? Such an approach would not mean that private landowners couldn’t capture wind resources as they pass over their individual parcels. But it might mean that government would have a role in resolving disputes like this one and ones that are increasingly likely to occur between adjacent landowners.