Ballpark architecture is functional art. The design of a baseball park has to be something more than just a work that presents an emotional response. It also has to serve its main purpose, creating a playing area for the game of baseball and seating for the fans. Since the construction of Orioles Park at Camden Yards in 1992, to some extent the design of ballparks has been focused on the emotional response to ballparks from our past-they’re designed to remind us of a ‘golden era’ in the past.

The problem has been that, HOK Sport (the primary firm used on the vast majority of the new ballparks) has designed nearly identical interior designs with exterior facades of brick and mortar for all of their clients, stadiums that invariably appear to be similarly “throwback” or “retro.” The exteriors, and the view from inside each, are the only main differentiating component in their overall design. Stand inside Great American Ballpark, or Citizens Bank, or Busch III, and the resemblance is striking. As for the views out from the ballparks, for the most part the MLB and the municipalities have pushed skylines, with the idea of constructing new ballparks located inside the urban core.

What has been lacking in the classic design over the last decade may have more to do with location of the ballparks than their design. The remaining ballparks that are revered as the most sacred-Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and even Yankee Stadium-are the last of the original “neighborhood” ballparks. Their designs were meant to accommodate their being shoehorned into tight urban locations. The atmosphere outside the ballpark was that of the surrounding neighborhood streets, instead of the personality-free automotive arteries designed to move you to and from the ballpark in the most expedient fashion.

The idea of a neighborhood ballpark design hasn’t been approached since well before the cookie-cutter multi-purpose stadiums of the ’60s and ’70s. That is about to change. The first strikingly different ballpark since Skydome is about to be born in Fremont, CA, of all places.

Cisco Field Harkens Back to Neighborhood Design

When Lewis Wolff, Owner and Managing Partner of the Athletics, and President and CEO John Chambers of Cisco Systems unveiled plans for new ballpark in Fremont, understandably the main talk was of the relocation from Oakland. The fact that Fremont was the chosen location made perfect sense locally due to proximity to San Jose and the lack of progress in getting a deal done in Oakland. At the same time, the move to a non-urban core location will break with nearly every ballpark constructed in the last 20 years.

Dulles - Diamond Lake

The 143-acre site in Fremont is far from an “urban core” location, as we’ve seen in nearly all new ballpark development over the last decade. As a matter of fact, there’s presently very little in the way of development around where the ballpark will sit. Wolff’s plan is develop around the ballpark–not build a ballpark and see if economic development comes with it. As my colleague Neil deMause points out, this type of development has been done in the past with Petco Park and the Gaslamp District, as well as the development projects around the new Phoenix Coyotes arena as examples. This use of a “Ballpark Village” is also being used at New Busch Stadium. Not much more than empty land sits where the proposed Cisco Field will reside.

The most recent prior attempt of bringing the “city” to the ballpark was the ill-fated Diamond Lake proposal near Dulles offered by William Collins and the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority (VBSA) during the Expos relocation derby. In that design, a large rock quarry was the main property around which housing, retail, and other mixed development would be built to add some sense of community around the ballpark. A key difference in that design was the use of the rock quarry: it was to be flooded to create a large lake in the center of the development outside the ballpark.

Dulles - Diamond Lake

What the A’s and both 360 Architecture and Gensler Architecture have planned for the Cisco Field and the immediate surroundings might best be described as a synergy of a classic neighborhood ballpark with a modern twist. Instead of expansive plazas around the ballpark where there is a decidedly less intimate feeling, Cisco Field will be tightly squeezed inside a series of mixed-use structures, including multi-level condos. The design is suppose to lend a street atmosphere reminiscent of Lansdowne Street and Brookline Avenue at Fenway, and the rooftop clubs on Sheffield across from Wrigley Field. The site parcel is so tight that parts of the left field seating actually goes over an access street outside the ballpark and butt up against condos across the street. The entire seating section looks much like “The Triangle” at Fenway.

In the case of both mixed-use structures where condos or (possibly) a hotel will reside, the roof space is utilized much as the rooftop clubs around Wrigley are. Across from left field, a rooftop bar will be situated. Across from right field, bleacher seating will be on top of the structure under the ballpark lighting. Both of these features will be done in brick and mortar, and in the case of the building outside of right field, this author sees a bit of the appeal of the B&O Warehouse standing behind right field in Camden Yards. The tight spacing is similar to that seen in the original neighborhood designs, but instead of the site footprint being set by existing structures, the ballpark and surrounding buildings will instead be built from the ground up, as if constrained in a neighborhood location.

Beyond the exterior, the interior is strikingly different than the HOK designs from the last decade. In the HOK designs, the lower bowl seating has become more of the focal point. As Earl Santee, a Senior Principle at HOK said in an interview with me on ballpark design:

We (HOK) are designing much smaller upper decks like what you’ll see in St. Louis. There, you have only 9,500 seats in the upper deck, so I think that’s what you’ll see in the future.

From a personal viewpoint, that is my preference: Build as many lower deck seats as I can. Part of that is usually based on grade or access by the street. The experience of being in the lower deck is much different than being in the upper deck. I’m an advocate of large lower decks, starting with PNC Park and now St. Louis, which both have fairly significant lower deck capacity. So I’m an advocate of large lower decks and small upper decks, for a variety of reasons.

The Cisco Field design will have a seating capacity of between 30,000 – 34,000, easily making it the smallest in MLB. The lower bowl is decidedly smaller than an HOK design, with four levels of seating as opposed to three levels as it is now for the A’s at McAfee Coliseum. With the lower bowl smaller in size, the 360 Architecture design has the upper decks moved closer to the playing surface. This also is reminiscent of many of the old ballpark designs such as Tiger Stadium, and the aforementioned Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

Cisco Field - Click to enlarge

An interesting design twist is a section of seating low to the playing surface in right field. The section appears to have approximately 100-200 seats that would see dives into the stands to prevent home runs. The rest of the right field bleacher seating is actually elevated to the 200 level. By resting the seating on column supports, the windows at the lower levels of the building across the street are able to see into the ballpark.

The use of all of these different seating designs is described by the A’s as “seating neighborhoods.” (Click on the thumbnail at right for a closer look.) The design includes field level box seats, 66 four-person mini-suites, lower reserved seats, 41 16-person suites, rooftop box seats, outfield seats, the outfield rooftop, decks, clubs, and restaurant seats.

While it is now becoming standard for mini-packs of full or partial season ticket packages to be sold by all 30 clubs, the Cisco Field design takes the “mini” aspect to luxury suite design. As described by the Athletics, this would include the four-person mini-suites, which will be located just 15 rows from the playing field, 16-person suites cantilevered over the lower reserved seating (with access to shared club spaces); party suites available for single games as loge boxes; and terrace viewing tables with access to premium clubs.

Park outside the Park

Outside Ambience, Overhead Obstruction

Another interesting design element allows for fans outside Cisco Field to enjoy the game. A grass park sits outside center field, with a large Jumbotron display actually projecting outward from the ballpark. In what is sure to be a controversial design aspect, the traditional solid-black batter’s eye is removed, and fans outside the ballpark will be able to stand at the street level and watch directly from dead center field. Whether this design aspect is allowed will remain to be seen, as it is sure to impact the vision of the batters as they try to pick up the spin on the ball from the pitcher’s release point.

The main structure of the ballpark is ensconced, not in a roof, but in what appears to be a metal frieze. The frieze does not fully block the sun, or rain, but rather helps diffuse it. Added to the design of column supports and openings throughout the concourses, this should make the ballpark seem less cramped.

With Cisco Systems adding high-tech accoutrements such as the ability to watch instant replays via laptops at your seat, digital advertising displays that switch depending on the buying habits of fans, use of intelligent networks which would enable fans at the ballpark to buy and upgrade tickets through smart cell phones, or access real-time scorecards at their seats and buy pictures of themselves from crowd cameras, Cisco Field has the capacity to become as much of a destination trip for baseball fans as has been the case with the A’s cross-bay counterparts, the Giants.

The key will be pulling all of this off. Ballpark proposals and the actual finished facility are almost always different. In the case of the high-tech aspects, if it all works seamlessly, it will be fantastic. If there are bugs in the system, it will stand out like a sore thumb. At the very least, the Cisco Field design hopes to make a break with the norm while retaining some of the classic charm of ballparks such as Fenway and Wrigley. Whether it comes across as such will have to wait until the day the ballpark opens and the reviews start to come in.

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