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Los Angeles Times Interview

Janet Marie Smith

On Building a Modern Sports Stadium With Old-Fashioned Appeal

September 29, 1996|Steve Proffitt | 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.

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.


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.

. . . 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?

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