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A New Old Ballpark

Architect Philip Bess has a novel answer to the White Sox stadium dilemma. But no one wants to hear about it.

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The debate over the future of the White Sox in Chicago has so far been described as a fairly straightforward choice: either some families lose their homes for a new, modern stadium or Chicago loses the team. The stadium could be built in South Armour Square, near the White Sox' present home or, according to a triai balloon floated late last week by Governor Thompson, it could go on the west side, next to the proposed new Bears stadium. But there's no two ways about what the thing would look like, to judge from the press and the public statements of the principals involved: Comiskey Park cannot be saved, the Sox have to have a new stadium, and these days that means one of those standard-issue symmetrical concrete bowls surrounded by automobiles. That much is assumed. The debate starts there.

Except, of course, that it doesn't have to start there. For one thing there might be a way to save Comiskey, or the park might not even need saving; so far, no one has really studied that in detail, contrary to the impression that the White Sox owners have driven home. More interesting yet, there is a proposal on the table that would give the Sox the new stadium they want, preserve what is best about the stadium they have, keep them at their present location without destroying the neighborhood, bring millions of dollars of new development into the area, and in the process perhaps illuminate new possibilities in ballpark design and urban development.

Did I say "on the table"? Actually, this proposal's most puzzling aspect is that it can't seem to get on the table. It can't even get into the room.

Philip Bess is a Chicago architect, and the director of a unique project: to design a new urban ballpark. Under the auspices of the Society for American Baseball Research (the group immortalized by Bill James's coinage "sabermetrics," for the science of applied baseball statistics), and with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Bess has designed a new park for the White Sox.

The original idea behind Bess's project was not actually to design a park for the Sox; they happened to provide the handiest occasion for Bess to illustrate his "argument for the urban ballpark" as opposed to the "suburban model."

An "urban" ballpark--a relatively small, single-purpose stadium that is shaped by its immediate surroundings--is, the argument goes, superior in a variety of ways to the "suburban model"--a large, multipurpose stadium built far from any physical constraints, surrounded not by other buildings but by parking lots.

The argument for urban parks is not just the romantic yearning of baseball "purists." The urban model, Bess and others argue, makes more sense economically: it is cheaper to build, can be much more attractive for fans, and can be the spark and focus of economic activity for an entire neighborhood.

Bess has put his drafting pencil where his mouth is: he's come up with a detailed plan for a neighborhood renewal project centered on a new, open-air, natural-grass White Sox stadium, with 40,000 seats and replete with more sky boxes than Comiskey. The old ballpark would be torn down and converted into a public park to replace Armour Square Park, just north of Comiskey, which would disappear under the new stadium. The new stadium and park would be lined on three sides with multiuse row house buildings containing commercial, office, and loft residential space.

The new park would include a new field house, and could include a section of the Comiskey stands as both a historic monument and a working grandstand: the Comiskey diamond would be preserved, so high school and American Legion teams could play on the same field once trod by Aparicio, Baines, and Fisk. A new civic building, possibly a branch library, would be the centerpiece of a new commercial strip along 35th Street, and more than 6,000 new parking spaces would be provided in new lots and garages hidden out of sight behind the row houses.

The new ballpark Bess envisions wouldn't be just another symmetrical oval like the indistinguishable stadiums in Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and elsewhere. Thanks in part to the size and shape of the parcel (which is, of course, part of the point of all this), the ballpark would have a horseshoe shape, leading to wild dimensions (280 feet down the foul lines, but 422 in the power alleys), and open-air bleachers. "No one would mistake this for [Kansas City] Royals Stadium plunked down in the middle of Bridgeport," Bess said. "This would be something uniquely Chicago," like Wrigley Field is, or as Fenway Park is uniquely Boston.

Most important, instead of 80 families losing their homes, between 25 and 50 would; and they would receive brand-new replacement housing within two blocks of 35th Street. The small bungalow neighborhood to the South would be rearranged a bit by the construction of parking garages, but not leveled; displaced residents would simply move across the street to new homes.

Bess's estimates--which are based on detailed surveys of recent stadium construction costs elsewhere, and which he says are "generous"--are that the stadium and parking would cost a bit less than $90 million, with replacement housing and the cost of the park and field house adding about another $10 million. Land acquisition and some minor infrastructure improvements--such as a fanciful archway fans would walk under as they approached the ballpark--would add a few more million, putting the total public cost well under the $150 million blank check currently being considered by the General Assembly.

The redevelopment side of the plan--the retail/office/row house development--would have to be funded by private developers. Bess puts the cost of the 480 housing units and 450,000 square feet of retail and office space that he envisions at just under $100 million.

Bess first made this plan public last summer, mailing it to each member of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (the agency set up by the state to build a new Sox stadium), and contacting the White Sox, "Save Our Sox," other community groups, developers, and city and state officials. He did generate one spurt of publicity: the Tribune's urban affairs writer, John McCarron, devoted some space in the Sunday paper to it on July 26, the same day that the Sun-Times's (former, and sorely missed) sports columnist, Ron Rapoport, wrote 40 inches on it. A couple of days before, a column on the idea appeared on an inside page of the Wall Street Journal.

And that was it. Bess's proposal didn't become even a sidelight of the debate over the White Sox. Editorial writers, state legislators, the Sports Authority, and The Sportswriters radio show greeted it with thunderous silence.

Some of the reasons for that may have to do with kinks in the plan, such as the fact that the Sports Authority does not, at the moment, have jurisdiction over Armour Square Park. But the most important factor in the failure of this well-thought-out, interesting, and provocative proposal to even become a part of the discussion is simple: the White Sox won't consider it.

The White Sox' only comment last July, buried in Rapoport's column, came from executive vice president Howard Pizer, who sniffed, "It would seem to me that someone genuinely interested in putting forth a proposal for anything other than publicity purposes would talk to the prime tenant."

Bess has tried to talk to the prime tenant. "I tried to invite Pizer to look at it," Bess says. "He felt that by proposing it, I was making it more difficult for the Sox to do what they wanted to do." Indeed.

Pizer last week refused to discuss any aspect of the White Sox situation, saying, "We are maintaining a strict no-comment policy." The owners, of course, are talking only to governors these days.

How about the Sports Authority? The chairman of the authority's governing board, Thomas Reynolds Jr., said last week that he had seen Bess's proposal, and, "Conceptually, I think it's a neat idea." But he was brutally candid about its prospects: "It's not doable, because of the demands of the Sox. They've got [the plan], and they said they're not interested. If they're not interested, we're not interested."

Peter Bynoe, executive director of the authority, saw Bess's plan for the first time on May 12 at a public forum on the White Sox situation, held on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus near Comiskey Park. Responding to an audience question after Bess made a slide presentation, Bynoe said he would be happy to examine the plan more closely.

"It looked exciting," Bynoe said in the days after the forum, noting that the funding package being considered by the General Assembly is not tied to a specific stadium design. Bynoe said he is "willing to learn," though he added that Bess would have to call him, because "I'm not out looking for additional things."

Bess called Bynoe's office twice the week after the forum, but as of the end of May, said Bynoe had not returned his calls.

A member of the authority board chosen at random, Joan Hall, said she had seen the plan, but refused to comment on it. Another member, Perry Snyderman, said he had not seen it.

It's not clear exactly why the White Sox have rejected Bess's proposal out of hand, since they aren't talking. A partner in the Kansas City architectural firm retained by the team to design a park, HOK Sports Facilities Group, was familiar with the proposal but sneeringly skeptical:

"I can go back to my office and draw up something I like for a client that doesn't exist, for a building that doesn't exist," Rick de Flon said. "Is it a plan or a proposal or what? Does he have a client, does he have budget constraints, and so on?" De Flon refused to comment on the specifics.

Bess has invited the citizens' groups opposing the Sox' plans to see the proposal and comment on it. Mary O'Connell, cofounder of Save Our Sox, said that since her group is committed to saving Comiskey, she couldn't say much more about Bess's ideas than to call them "interesting." She said one reason for the White Sox' reticence may be an absence of solid proof that Comiskey Park must even be razed.

The claim that Comiskey Park has outlived its usefulness originally came from an engineering firm, George A. Kennedy & Associates, that was hired by the White Sox. In April, Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman got Sox coowner Jerry Reinsdorf to concede that the firm's 1985 "report," cited by the team as proof that a new stadium is required, was actually only a two-page letter (a letter the Sox have still not made public), rather than a detailed engineering study.

A week later, Cary Tisch, chief project engineer for Kennedy & Associates, was quoted by Spielman as saying that Comiskey was in "relatively good shape" after heavy winter repairs, and could be renovated for perhaps less money than it would take to build a new stadium. Spielman quoted Tisch as saying, "I don't think we ever said you couldn't save it. . . . Given the proper resources and the desire, it could be done."

Spielman added that Reinsdorf "was taken aback by the new assessment and refused to comment."

Reinsdorf, no doubt, didn't have any trouble commenting to Tisch in private that evening. At any rate, the next day's Tribune included a John Kass piece in which Tisch denied everything, saying Comiskey had "outlived its usefulness." Spielman, he said, "completely misrepresented my comments."

The Sports Authority has commissioned a $245,000 engineering study of Comiskey Park's structural integrity, by a different firm. The results of that study are expected around late June.

Even if that study says Comiskey is sound, though, the Sox are likely to insist on a new stadium, though it is again not clear exactly why. It is clear that with the state of Florida flying White Sox officials down for cozy chats about luxury sky boxes, the Sox hold all the cards. As Sports Authority board member Gayle Franzen told Spielman, "This whole project has to be tenant driven. What does the tenant want?"

The South Armour Square Coalition, which includes most of the mostly black families who would be displaced by a new stadium south of Comiskey Park, finds all this "interesting," as group spokesperson Sheila Radford-Hill put it.

George Marshall, president of the coalition, said, "We would like to see the present ballpark saved where it is. We think it could be renovated. If that can't be done, we support a park north of 35th Street."

Radford-Hill said, "Mr. Bess's ideas were explained to a number of people early on. [Bess said suggestions from coalition members were incorporated into the proposal.] What they indicate is that there are options to build a stadium without maximum displacement. The current [White Sox] proposal would mean the destruction of the South Armour Square community."

The coalition, she said, "is not in a position to endorse a particular plan. It is the Sports Authority's responsibility to develop a site plan that meets the needs of all interested parties" (though that is not, apparently, how the authority sees its role).

Radford-Hill said the Bess proposal "is consistent with our position that a variegated community would be conducive to that kind of development."

Bess's plan does not have unanimous community support, however. Residents of the "white ethnic" area just north of Comiskey Park, known as either North Armour Square or simply the southern end of Bridgeport, are sharply opposed to the idea of trading in historic Armour Square Park--designed by Daniel Burnham--for a new park south of a new stadium, as 11th Ward Alderman Patrick Huels told John McCarron in July.

John Aranza, a Bridgeport resident and Save Our Sox member, has seen Bess's plan, and explained that residents find the present location of their neighborhood park "ideal." Also, he said, a new stadium north of Comiskey "would put the wall of the stadium up against a residential neighborhood" without the buffer of Armour Square Park, creating noise and other problems residents hadn't bargained for when they bought their homes.

Marshall said he could sympathize, but added with a sigh, "If it's a choice between our homes and their park . . ."

Aranza also brought up the question of the feasibility of the economic development aspect of Bess's plan, saying the row houses "don't make any sense to me. Nobody would buy those. You don't build on top of a nuisance."

Bess maintains that the idea of living across the street from a ballpark would add to the apartments' value, much as the three-flats along Waveland and Sheffield avenues next to Wrigley Field are worth more than comparable buildings two blocks away. In his plan, Bess deliberately left the outfield seating area of the new park uncovered, both to give the park a more open feel than Comiskey and to make sure apartment dwellers across the street could watch the games from their windows and balconies.

The question of whether private developers' dollars could be attracted to 35th and Shields is open. Bess said he has talked to several developers, and gotten "mixed reactions on the salability. There is a perceived racial problem," he said delicately, "but some developers were excited by it."

One of those Bess contacted last summer was Ken Marshall, then the assistant director of the Illinois Housing Development Authority. The authority is a quasi state agency set up by act of the legislature but funded by bond sales.

"The housing component was interesting, but not developed enough to reach any conclusion," Marshall said recently. "There would need to be some market and economic feasibility studies. I really don't have any gut feeling on the plausibility of the plan."

Radford-Hill speculated that developers could be attracted to the neighborhood "if the uncertainty about the White Sox is resolved."

The Tribune's John McCarron was skeptical, quoting unnamed "real-estate experts" as doubting that retail and office tenants could be found. He did, though, also quote an associate with a local architectural planning firm who said that "there should be an effort to create a real commercial strip along 35th Street and put the parking behind it."

Having completed drawings of the site plan, Bess is now working on constructing a model of the site and detailed architectural plans for the ballpark. If finished, those will be presented at July's annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research in Minneapolis.

The ultimate aim of Bess's work, as described in the NEA grant, is to produce a complete design and "public document." The plan is to be circulated to urban planners, city managers, baseball officials, and other interested parties, to make them aware that the giant, multipurpose, suburban stadium surrounded by acres of parking lots is not the only way.

Comiskey Park, along with Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium in Detroit, and Yankee Stadium, belongs to the first generation of steel-and-concrete ballparks, built between 1909 and 1923. "Each of them is different, with their own idiosyncrasies, because of the constraints of the urban environment," Bess explains. "Those constraints are precisely what has been lacking in ballparks since," leading to a series of generic "cookie-cutter" stadiums.

As Bess says, "A concrete doughnut surrounded by 8,000 parking spaces does nothing for a city." His design (fanciful arch and all) is, he explains, aimed at making "an event out of going to the ballpark, make a place out of the ballpark."

Besides being cheaper to build, a small, intimate ballpark also makes going to a game more enjoyable than does a giant all-purpose stadium, Bess believes, and thus can help sell tickets (as the Wrigley family understood so well with their "beautiful Wrigley Field" shtick). First of all, a 60,000-seat stadium with 20,000 people in it feels cavernous and empty, whereas Wrigley Field with the same number feels full and lively. Also, Bess says, his inspection of Royals Stadium in Kansas City (generally considered one of the best modern stadiums) showed that the first-row seats in the upper deck directly behind home plate are farther from the field than the last-row seats in the same section of Comiskey Park.

Given that major league baseball is expected to expand over the next two decades, it's possible that some other city will be inspired by Bess's work, and build a comfortable, attractive baseball park right in the city, in a neighborhood setting, near mass transportation and with its own idiosyncrasies.

Of course, the south side already has one of those, and the question of whether it can be renovated, or even needs renovation, is still open, in fact if not in Springfield. Meanwhile, Bess's proposal clearly would need some tinkering with to become a serious option. But if a new stadium is really necessary, as Mary O'Connell told the Sun-Times last summer, then "somebody who thinks about one as part of the neighborhood and not just something dropped down next to an expressway should be making the plans for it."

Bess is, of course, but no one's listening. So, the south side seems likely to end up with either an empty, rusting ballpark standing in the middle of a neighborhood robbed of its identity and economic lifeblood, or else a sterile, suburban one standing where 80 families once lived.

But maybe that's just par for the course these days, here in the City That Doesn't Work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph; illustrations/Rael Slutsky--courtesy SABR Urban Baseball Park Design Project.

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