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If they revamp it, will Dodger fans stay longer?

April 25, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic

Since buying the Dodgers in 2004, Frank McCourt has faced a tricky balancing act in dealing with the team's stadium, the fourth-oldest in the major leagues.

Most big-league owners are architectural amnesiacs, and for good reason. As their ballparks hit middle age, they make plans to build new venues, often with generous public subsidy. But 46-year-old Dodger Stadium, even in a city that doesn't typically have much affection for old buildings, is an unquestioned landmark. For McCourt and his ownership group, suggesting a brand-new stadium in Chavez Ravine, even a design showpiece by Frank Gehry or Thom Mayne, would have been public-relations suicide.

Understanding the ballpark's place in the city's literal and psychic landscape but also keen to wring more revenue from it, the owner has moved methodically -- with purpose but with caution, and generating a bit of controversy -- in his attempts to update it. He rolled out changes to the most expensive box seats two years ago, to the parking lots last spring and to concession stands along the lower concourse this season.

That was all prelude, it turns out, to a grander architectural vision, unveiled at a news conference Thursday. Produced by Los Angeles firm Johnson Fain, along with HKS Architects and Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the plan calls for a pair of low-slung pavilions outside the stadium: one beyond center field, framing a new grand entrance through which the team expects most fans would pass, the other south of home plate.

It also includes a "green necklace" of new landscape elements and twin nine-story parking structures buried into the hillside -- along with terrifically vague ideas about connecting the stadium to public transit. The budget is $500 million, and it's scheduled to be completed by the spring of 2012, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the stadium's opening.

The additions are all connected to a single goal: to extend the amount of time a typical visitor spends at the stadium. McCourt wants Dodger fans to arrive at the park earlier, to stay later and maybe even to drop by on days when no game is scheduled.

The success of the plan, then, won't be hard to gauge. If there are scores of Angelenos milling around the stadium grounds on, say, a Saturday afternoon in January 2013, snapping up foam fingers and Russell Martin jerseys, then McCourt's ideas for updating the landmark will look prescient. If Dodger fans bolster their reputation for showing up in the third inning and beginning the walk to their cars in the eighth -- and not even thinking about the stadium during the winter months -- we'll be justified in wondering whether that $500 million was worth it.

Architecturally, McCourt's vision for the stadium requires Johnson Fain to attempt two contradictory things at the same time: to pay appropriate homage to the stadium's landmark status while undermining -- in the most tasteful possible way, of course -- how quickly fans can get from their cars to their seats.

These plans are still conceptual, but it doesn't appear that the new structures ringing the stadium will be grand or virtuosic. Though avoiding the cloyingly old-fashioned touches at the heart of so much stadium architecture these days, the Johnson Fain proposal is also content to defer to the existing stadium, designed by a Navy engineer-turned-architect, Emil Praeger, with detailed input from his architecture buff of a client, Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers owner at the time. The ribbon-like top of the proposed entry hall, for example, offers an aesthetic middle ground between the existing saw-tooth roof line atop the bleachers and the rolling San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

Even the architectural images the team showed Thursday were meant to soften the blow for Dodger purists: Instead of the sleek computerized renderings we see so often, Johnson Fain presented a series of watercolors by the architectural illustrator Ian Espinoza. It was as if the aging stadium, like a vain and wrinkled actor, had demanded to be shown in soft focus.

The various updates, however, also offer a direct challenge to the relationship the ballpark has forged with fans since 1962. Though the stadium sits near the geographical center of the city, its spirit is wholly suburban. Even more than at other ballparks from the same era, Praeger's design makes it possible for fans to drive right up to the stadium edge, leave their cars and walk directly to their seats.

There is no main entrance -- that would require fans to use their legs more than strictly necessary. You simply slip through one entry portal or another and -- wham -- there is the green field in front of you, with the hillsides beyond. At the end of the game -- or in the seventh inning, depending on the score and the state of traffic on the freeways down below -- you leave your section and hop back into your car.

It isn't just living in Los Angeles, the ultimate auto-friendly big city, that has taught us to think of a visit to the stadium that way -- a mind-set Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain calls "car-seat-car." It's also the architecture of the stadium itself. There has never been a sense that O'Malley or subsequent Dodgers owners wanted to funnel you through a maze of attractions as you made your way to your seat, each offering something for sale. They were selling baseball (and maybe a Dodger dog and a beer), and aided by Praeger's layout of the stadium, that's what they gave you -- in remarkably pure form.

There is a kind of freedom -- and even a kind of anonymity -- in the way fans use Dodger Stadium that mirrors the way we've historically moved through the city at large. Though the change is probably unavoidable, as pro sports and Los Angeles both continue to evolve, the Dodger Stadium of 2012 will probably offer a much different experience.

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christopher.hawthorne @latimes.com

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