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A low-key $100 million

Camelback Ranch has a relaxed charm that belies its price tag (at

March 16, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — The new spring training complex in Glendale, Ariz., where the Dodgers have been working out their preseason kinks, getting an extended look at their top prospects and welcoming their dreadlocked pied piper of a superstar, Manny Ramirez, back into the fold, might easily have been a public-relations disaster.

The sprawling facility, which covers 141 acres and cost $100 million, is the largest and glitziest in the Cactus League -- by far. Known as Camelback Ranch, as if it were a high-end gated community instead of a baseball complex, it includes more than a dozen practice fields, including one that re-creates the dimensions of the Dodger Stadium outfield down to the inch. It has its own orange grove, a lake already stocked with carp, and not one but three large and fully decked-out clubhouses.

The top ticket price at the main ballpark, which is overlooked by a curving row of luxury suites lifted a safe distance from the sun-baked masses, is $100. You can spend $10 on a single bottle of beer.

In other words: Just in time for what's shaping up as the biggest economic crisis in at least a generation and maybe since Babe Ruth hung up his pinstripes, owner Frank McCourt has unveiled a facility that boasts an intimidatingly large footprint, a nine-figure price tag for construction, three figures for the best seats and two figures for an Anchor Steam. All of that as a backdrop for games that don't even count.

Dodging trouble

Camelback Ranch seemed at risk of qualifying for a Cactus League variant of the bad press already hitting bling-encrusted stadiums opening this year to house the New York Mets ($850-million construction cost), the New York Yankees ($1.5 billion) and the NFL's Dallas Cowboys ($1.1 billion, including a $35-million, 160-foot-long high-def video scoreboard).

That was the danger on paper anyway: timing so monumentally bad that it begins to resemble tone-deafness -- or worse, hubris. Think Merrill Lynch's John Thain and his $1.2-million bathroom renovation, spring training edition.

And yet in person, Camelback Ranch, designed by the Dallas-based architecture firm HKS, has a surprisingly, winningly low-key and entirely accessible personality. Those qualities bode well for the $500-million architectural upgrade McCourt is planning with HKS and the Los Angeles firms Johnson Fain and Rios Clementi Hale for Chavez Ravine. There, as in Arizona, the key to success will be figuring out how to balance newfangled amenity with informal charm.

That replica of the Dodger Stadium field? It's nearly as open and modest as a high-school diamond. When the Dodgers take morning batting practice there, fans can get within a few feet of home plate. The lake is more like a pond, not to mention filled, in an eco-friendly, drought-sensitive touch, with reclaimed water. The buildings scattered around the campus are all long and low, their simple geometries complemented by a series of gabion retaining walls that pile stones inside wire mesh.

And don't forget that the team shares the new facility -- and shared its construction costs -- with the Chicago White Sox. That gesture alone, with all the co-branding and scheduling headaches that go with it, is a compromise that nicely complements the culture's new frugality. It allows all the bells and whistles at half the price. Let's see the Mets and Yankees try that!

To its credit, Camelback Ranch offers many of the modest pleasures that make the average Cactus League game so much more relaxed than a visit to the typical big-league facility.

HKS, which happens also to be the firm responsible for the new Cowboys stadium, and the Dodgers have aimed to give fans the impression on game days that they are sharing most of the acreage of this extensive facility directly with the ballplayers, and to a surprising degree they've succeeded.

The complex has the same rubbing-elbows-with-stars ambience that marks the best of the older generation of spring training parks in and around Phoenix.

Some stray fouls

There are some touches that don't work. The combination of the hulking, industrial-chic structure behind home plate, covered in pre-rusted metal panels, and the mottled paint covering the clubhouses, which gives them a faux-Tuscan feel, suggests a certain confusion about the reigning design aesthetic.

The sort of strange-bedfellows character of the complex as an architectural whole was summed up memorably by Dave Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times, who in reference to highly eccentric White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen and even more eccentric architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent years in this valley running his Taliesin West fellowship, described Camelback Ranch as "Guillen-meets-Taliesin."

Fits like a glove

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