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From the Design Quarterly: Switching on the off-season

May 21, 2018

By William Ketcham and Percy “Rebel” Roberts

Activating stadiums to create sports entertainment districts that strengthen a community year-round

Typically, at season’s end when the referee blows the final whistle and the athletes and fans go home, professional sports stadiums become largely forgotten places. Except for a concert here and there, they’re underutilized spaces but not without their attraction.

The iconic marquee at Chicago’s Wrigley Field remains one of the most popular places in the Midwest to take a selfie—even in the dead of winter. In many locales, however, city planners, owners, and fans are asking more of our professional sports stadiums. The impetus for creating mixed-use entertainment complexes complementary to the stadiums has renewed interest in the cultural life of cities and the desire for owners and developers to invest in these neighborhoods to bring long-term revenue outside these popular venues. There’s great value to owners in creating places that are much more fully utilized. At both Wrigley Field in Chicago and at Coors Field in Denver, we’re creating mixed-use entertainment districts that come alive for 80+ home games but also switch on their neighborhoods for the other 285 days a year.

The Park at Wrigley, Chicago, Illinois.

Game day potential and beyond

In the case of major league baseball, these ballparks bring tens of thousands into these districts 80 times a year but often only for the duration of the event. The challenge is how do you make game day more accessible for a broader spectrum of visitors for a bit longer and then how do you solve the other 75% of the year when there’s not a game?

At Wrigley, the big question was: Is there a better way to think about the collateral environment that was conducive to creating a wonderful neighborhood place in addition to a wonderful place to go see a ballgame? How do you extend the experience of the stadium, particularly in the time when individual attention spans are shortened?

A look at an all-season element of the stadium district near Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Extend the game day experience

The answer, for game days, is to extend the experience, so people come before the game and shop dine, dwell, and interact with the franchise beyond just watching the game. At Wrigley, you can now come early, access the plaza, watch the pre-game coverage on the big screen, eat and drink outside, and stay an hour after to relax and wait for the traffic to die down. In Denver, this means fans will be able to rent a hospitality suite before and after the game. For the Rockies, this means adding a hall of fame, interactive technology, and a maker space where visitors could brand their own bat or jersey and take home a custom memento.

Make a neighborhood

At Wrigley, we’ve created a programmable plaza that’s supported by the office building, the ballpark, the hotel, and retail spaces—even some residential. It creates a neighborhood that is livable throughout the year. Create a place that’s synergistic and complimentary to the ballpark and that place actively contributes to the public realm 365 days a year.

Make it multi-generational

Going to the ballgame is a great family outing, so the sports complex should have something to offer fans at every stage of life. Ideally, it appeals to a broad demographic of tourists and residents, whatever transport they’re taking, and at whatever level of fandom they may arrive. These districts should be multi-generational and welcome all segments of the population.

Make it a destination

At Wrigley, ownership has aligned themselves with great local institutions like Old Town School of Folk Music and the Music Box Theatre to program everything from concerts and film screenings to farmers markets and fitness classes in the park. In Denver, a partnership with the local arts commission and other urban content activators will enable the space to serve as a venue for live music and arts festivals.

The master plan for the Colorado Rockies West Lot redevelopment is centered around a new public plaza and includes a new Rockies Hall of Fame with urban retail and restaurants, multi-family residential development, hotel, and office spaces.

Make it open

The idea is to open up this portion of the cityscape and make it something more than a stadium. You really want to make sure these districts are real environments, connected to the urban fabric, a place where daily dwellers, urban residents, and tourists are compelled to participate. We want to be careful not to brand too much related to the team at the retail and plaza level with but rather create a real environment that connects to the street.

In designing the plaza at Wrigley, we looked at Venice, the grand piazzas in Rome and historically successful public spaces in Europe to discover the relative scale, density, and the edges that makes an urban place.

You really want to make sure these districts are real environments, connected to the urban fabric, a place where daily dwellers, urban residents, and tourists are compelled to participate.

Let the light in

At Wrigley, the park and plaza are positioned to offer light and fresh air, a bit of relief from the urbanity that surrounds the ballpark. It’s bright and cheerful character attracts locals and visitors.

Make it accessible by transit

Ideally, urban stadium districts are accessible by public transit for game days—they are intrinsically interwoven into the city’s fabric. Wrigley’s location means that it is accessible by bike, train, bus, and car. Coors Field benefits from its proximity to historic transport hub Union Station and will also tie into the developing 5280 bike loop in downtown Denver, making it a bike-friendly destination. Leverage those connections throughout the year to offer the everyday commuter an enriched urban experience including civic spaces, parks, retail, and restaurant offerings. 

Approach it as placemaking in the city

One might assume these projects are about sports, but they’re more about creating an urban lifestyle, about making great places to experience our cities.

Whether you’re a die-hard or game-a-year fan, participating in life at the stadium district should be an engaging experience. We’re bringing innovative thinking to how people use the public realm, how that activity and public space can leverage and energize dining, hospitality, and residential—and make it a place where you want to be. Ultimately, the measure of success in sports entertainment districts is this: Do you want to visit even when there isn’t a game on? If the answer is yes, then we’ve succeeded.

  • William Ketcham

    With over 43 years of experience, William is an architect and designer for numerous well-known projects

    Contact William
  • Percy “Rebel” Roberts
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