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.
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.