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Janet Marie Smith

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Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is project director at the Hajjar & Partners New Media Lab. He interviewed Janet Marie Smith from her home in Baltimore, Md

Perhaps the refrain, “If you build it, they will come,” in the film “Field of Dreams,” is still echoing in the ears of the civic minded. Perhaps it’s greed on the part of the owners. Or perhaps it’s just good business. Whatever the motivation, this decade has seen an explosion in the construction of new, state-of-the-art sports facilities, often paid for with public funds. Right now, Los Angeles is actively considering a renovation of the Coliseum to attract an NFL team, in discussions about building a sports arena for the Lakers and the Kings at the downtown Convention Center and also studying plans to upgrade Dodger Stadium.

For once, Los Angeles is behind the curve. Five new major league baseball stadiums have already opened in just the past five years, and next season the Atlanta Braves get a new ball park. All mingle old traditions with new ideas. This trend toward neoclassicism in stadiums began in Baltimore, where the Orioles’ Camden Yards park, which opened in 1991, has won praise from fans of baseball, architecture and urban renewal.

Camden Yards epitomizes the new stadium style. It’s not multipurpose; only baseball is played there. And it’s not in the suburbs, but right next to the central business district. It’s filled with expensive skyboxes. Fans can actually see relievers warming up in the bullpens. You can purchase barbecue prepared by retired Orioles first baseman Boog Powell. The stadium is an important ingredient in the successful revitalization of downtown Baltimore, and other cities have been eager to duplicate its success.

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They’ve also been eager to obtain the services of the 38-year-old woman from Mississippi who brought Camden Yards to life. Janet Marie Smith is trained as an architect and urban designer, but her uncanny ability to create a stadium that pleases fans, players, owners and civic officials has made her a hot property. Having completed her task for the Orioles, she now works for Ted Turner, and is overseeing the construction of two projects--a new stadium for Turner’s Atlanta Braves, and a new arena for his NBA franchise, the Hawks.

The mother of two small children, Smith commutes between Atlanta and Baltimore, where she makes her home with her husband, Bart Harvey, chairman of the Enterprise Foundation. She lived in Los Angeles during the 1980s while she worked on the Pershing Square project, but says she has not been involved in plans for Dodger Stadium, the proposed arena or the Coliseum. In a conversation from her Baltimore residence, she talked about ball parks and urban renewal, the search to find a site for an NFL team in Los Angeles and the intangible benefits a sports facility brings to a city.

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Question: Did you grow up a sports fan, and is that what attracted you to stadium design?

Answer: Baseball has always been a real passion. But the real reason I was interested in taking the job with the Orioles, in 1989, had as much to do with the urban revitalization aspect of that project as it did the sports aspect of it: What can you do to make cities better?

So when the Orioles announced, in 1988, that they were going to work with the state to build a new ballpark, and they selected a site in downtown Baltimore, I was very struck by that--because Baltimore has long had a reputation of being truly cutting edge about urban redevelopment. And in an era when a lot of cities talk about it, and pay homage to their downtowns through gesture, Baltimore truly rebuilt their downtown. Completely.

So what fascinated me about the Oriole project was that it was the first time in probably 50 years that a baseball team, or any sports team for that matter, had made a conscious decision to move into a town setting. The trend had always been to move out to the suburbs.

The Oriole management had a clear idea about what they wanted in a new stadium. It would be an old-fashioned ball park. It would be asymmetrical, and have quirks in it--like a scoreboard in the field of play--and would draw from the best of Fenway, Ebbets and Forbes fields, and a lot of parks that are no longer with us. The quirks that made those parks interesting largely were not gestures that were imposed on them by any kind of grandiose design objective, but rather a result of the fact that most of them were in urban settings, on pretty tight sites. The actual shape of the field and of the ball park was determined by the setting.

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. . . As a result of having worked on that, in an era where teams are rebuilding at a pace that we’ve never seen before in this country, it has certainly made working on other sports projects the obvious continuum of that career move.

Q: How has developing a ball park in Atlanta, for the Braves, differed from your experience in Baltimore?

A: My job in Atlanta has been interesting because it’s a very different situation for the Braves than it was for the Orioles. While we are in the city and within walking distance of downtown, we are separated from the central business district by a major highway. So I don’t think there’s any expectation that the Brave’s new park is going to be the same kind of addition to the urban fabric, though certainly it is hoped to be another knitting in the tapestry that gives people a reason to come to downtown Atlanta.

The other project that I’m working on for Turner is a new arena that we’re hoping to build for the Hawks . . . . That will be in the heart of the central business district, if the deal comes together as it’s currently proposed. So I think that many of the things that I have done in my previous projects, with respect to that kind of urban redevelopment, will be things that I’ll have a chance to do again.

Q: How have you convinced team owners that good architecture can add value to a ball park, and to a team?

A: In 1989, when the Orioles started looking around at other parks, we couldn’t help but notice the irony in that the teams with the highest annual attendance records at that time were the Cubs and the Red Sox--both of whom not only hadn’t won a pennant in decades, but were in the two smallest parks in the major leagues. That says something about ambience being a magnet for people coming back again and again.

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Up until a few years ago, stadiums tended to be designed by either an architect or an engineer, working for the public sector. Because they were publicly financed, and because teams often did not have a say in how they were designed, what you got was a good competent facility in terms of its structure--but that was it. You didn’t have anyone at the table who really could be an advocate for the kinds of amenities that fans care about, like how good the food is, how diverse the food is, what kind of price ranges, what kind of various atmospheres, or an advocate for how the “jewelry” on a building might enhance the place through design.

If you look at the way Americans spend their recreational dollars, and you look at other options out there--ranging from Disney World to the Hard Rock Cafe--you start to see that there is an integral experience. It’s not just about design in terms of the photographic image of what has been designed, but it’s about creating a total atmosphere, and giving fans a lot of options and a lot of different levels on which to love the experience . . . .

Q: Let me ask some questions now about Los Angeles. There has been a long-term problem with the Coliseum. If someone came to you, with your knowledge and experience, and said the community wants to put an NFL team here and wants to preserve this historic structure, what would you do? What options are available to you, as an architect and designer?

A: My guess is that it would be difficult to create a stadium that truly has all the amenities of the new stadiums--with the number of seats, the private suites and the club seats, all the food service, retail, sight lines, playing fields, irrigation systems and lighting. People often say that renovation should be less expensive, but often it isn’t. When you start to pick a building apart that way, you just can’t pretend that it costs less, because you’re dealing with a very delicate structure that you’re trying to preserve.

Q: From an urban-planning standpoint, there are people who like to think about an extended downtown--bounded on the north by Dodger Stadium and the south by USC and the Coliseum. If you buy into that concept, the Coliseum is a perfect place to have a major sports arena. Wherever it ends up in Los Angeles, how might a new stadium affect the growth of the city, and also the consciousness of the city?

A: I think it’s not unlike the two examples I just used with Baltimore and Atlanta. In Baltimore, because the park was built contiguous to the central business district, it literally changed the definition of downtown. It allowed restaurants, retail shops, hotels and the like to have another level of business that they didn’t have before. So it makes a lot of sense, not only from the standpoint of redefining a downtown by expanding its boundaries, but in terms of pumping more activity and more money into existing businesses. Plus, it reduces the cost of infrastructure, because you’ve already got your subways, your buses, your parking garages and roadways in place in an urban setting that typically supports a work force that is four or five times what you get in a sellout crowd in a stadium.

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But neither Dodger Stadium nor USC are truly a part of downtown in terms of a walking environment--where people can participate in a lot of other things once they’ve parked their car. There are not going to be other major businesses sprouting up, because it’s not that kind of a neighborhood. That’s not to say that it’s not a positive, but you can’t pretend that it’s the same as if you were building next to Union Station or some other similar area that has a lot of growth potential beyond just a stadium.

Q: There is certainly an element of worship, of religious overtones to sporting events, and they are often the only time we really mingle in a way that breaks down many class and cultural barriers we live with. How does that affect your feeling of how stadiums or arenas should be designed?

A: That’s one reason why I grew to love baseball so much--because I love not just the ethnic, economic and demographic diversity of the fan base, but I also love the fact that, especially in baseball, the facility is such a reflection of the city, and a city’s feeling about itself. You can see that in the food. Even before this recent rash of new facilities, the fact that you could get fried chicken in Atlanta and Philly cheese steaks in Philadelphia, and Dodger Dogs, with their fresh chopped onions, in L.A., has always been a part of the sport. It’s not just about the diversity of the city--it’s about the city itself.

Q: What about the economics of all this arena-mania? Critics are saying that Camden Yards may be the most beautiful place in the world, but the state started a Lotto to pay for it--perhaps not the best public policy. Other governments are willing to give away things like the revenues of state-owned liquor stores. Cities and states seem to be willing to go to any lengths for this. How can you justify it?

A: There are plenty of economists who can rationalize the construction of these facilities by telling you how many jobs they create, what the ripple impact on the economy is, but I don’t think cities are doing this strictly for economic benefit. There is an intangible that cities don’t talk about as much.

I think there is something very important about being a “major league” city. You only have to look at a city that’s lost a team, and you can look in the mirror for this one, to understand how it rips apart a city’s sense of self-esteem, self-confidence and enthusiasm. On the positive side of things, when the Dodgers are in a pennant race, most of Los Angeles manages to overlook the fact that there is high unemployment, and job recession or whatever else is going on. For a few days, the headlines in the newspapers will be about the pennant race, and that’s a wonderful feeling for a city, to get behind that kind of endeavor. It’s like having a little mini-Olympics every year, and that’s a great thing. So I think that the reason cities bend over backwards is often justified by the numbers, but any economist can tell you that you can make numbers do anything you want them to. The real motive is about putting things out there that enhance the city’s psychic self-image.

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