VENTURA — For 35 years, Dodger Stadium has served as a powerful symbol for the paradoxes of modern Los Angeles. Through ruthless political machinations worthy of a "Chinatown" sequel, a valuable parcel of land was delivered by a city to a private business, not just to make that business rich, but also to achieve the city's own destiny. The resulting structure is widely admired as one of the best in baseball, even though it is visually absent in the city that sustains it. Dodger Stadium sits in the middle of L.A's dense and ever-changing urban container, but its surrounding 300-plus acres, including open-field parking, telegraph to the world the continuing image of Los Angeles as suburban paradise.
Dodger Stadium cannot nourish such paradoxes forever. Even the most diehard fans concede that something is going to change at the stadium--not just inside but outside as well--when new owners arrive. Whoever buys the Dodgers from the O'Malleys will soon realize that the most valuable, and probably the most exploitable, asset in the package is not Mike Piazza or Eric Karros, but parking lots.
Sports experts contend that the new owners will have to raise more revenue in order to keep the Dodgers competitive. Real-estate experts say the simplest answer is to begin turning those parking lots into money. One standard-issue solution is to create a kind of sports-oriented CityWalk. Virtual-reality, sports-themed games and other wallet-draining "entertainment retailing" should be built adjacent to a renovated Dodger Stadium, which itself could be transformed into a theme attraction, perhaps highlighting the supposedly innocent postwar period when the Dodgers arrived in town.
Hopefully, the city's leaders and the new ownership will see in Dodger Stadium the potential for something more than a 300-acre sports bar. They might even recognize the power of Dodger Stadium as a metaphor for the city--not just the former city, with its freshly paved freeways, its drive-in movies and carhops, but the more complicated city of today, with its immigrants and traffic.
At its inception, the idea undergirding Dodger Stadium was to protect the ballpark from getting hemmed in on all sides by urban decay, as was the fate of the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. In the postwar era, virtually all baseball teams played in old ballparks, some dating back to the 1910s, that were located in older urban neighborhoods going downhill (in part, because night baseball made them less pleasant places to live). To survive, almost all teams rushed to spanking-new stadiums in the suburbs--except, oddly, the Dodgers. Rather than building a stadium in a cornfield, the O'Malleys, with the city's assistance, built it in the middle of the city. Indeed, Chavez Ravine was so urban that it had previously been earmarked for a public-housing project.
More recently, baseball has returned to the cities, where the intimate setting of an older urban neighborhood is now viewed as an asset in marketing the sport. In Cleveland, Denver and Baltimore, politicians have built traditional-looking new baseball parks squarely in the middle of urban environments in an effort to revive the surroundings. Meanwhile, Los Angeles is stuck with a new-looking ballpark that is actually 35 years old.
For Los Angeles, the path to the future is to do the opposite. Unlike Cleveland or Baltimore, the ballpark cannot be brought to the city. Instead, a livable, manageable city should be taken to the doorsteps of Dodger Stadium.
Though hilly and in many ways remote, the Dodger Stadium site is actually a key connector in the fabric of urban Los Angeles. The stadium itself is framed by the hills of Elysian Park. It is a mile from downtown Los Angeles, still Southern California's largest employment center, and features a spectacular view of the city. The stadium property cascades down Elysian Park Avenue to Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park; it's just up the hill from Chinatown. Union Station, with its growing web of commuter rail lines connecting Los Angeles to outlying suburbs, is about a mile away.
The favored approach to developing Dodger Stadium property rejects the inherently urban nature of its location. A better idea is to embrace it. While building revenue-producing facilities and attractions on the property, the team's new owners should also construct bridges to its surrounding neighborhoods and districts.
It would make sense, for example, to create a shoppers' street along Elysian Park Drive from Sunset up to the stadium, thereby giving the stadium property a logical "front door" that would generate revenue and connect the stadium to Echo Park. The retail district could replicate, in design, the distinctive and elegant style of the city's prewar, hillside neighborhoods, a far more fitting theme for this part of town than building a three-quarters-scale model of the Reseda Drive-In.