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When Done Right, New Stadium Development Can Transform Neighborhoods

In addition to a sports medicine clinic, the new Henry Ford Health Detroit Pistons Performance Center will be home to a Plum Market grocery store and café and at least two additional retail tenants.

The practice of building large stadiums and sports arenas in urban areas has long been a hotly debated strategy. Critics cite the civic disruption that comes with unavoidable breakdowns in infrastructure and transportation and the significant parking and logistical requirements. There’s also the difficulty of reconciling the financial bottom line, or the aesthetic and functional disconnect of a grand facility that operates intermittently and towers over its surroundings.

Stanford economist Roger Noll, an expert on the economics of sports, has argued persuasively that “NFL stadiums do not generate significant local economic growth, and the incremental tax revenue is not sufficient to cover major financial contributions by the city.” Noll has also suggested in the past that smaller, multi-use facilities, and facilities that are “embedded in larger commercial and residential projects,” make more sense.

Amy Chesterton, Rossetti

In recent years, innovators in the world of sports and performance arena design, as well as urban planning and design experts, have embraced such an approach, creating inspired new compact arena concepts that are a better fit for urban environments. They are also figuring out new ways to make smaller, multiuse venues a community asset rather than a liability.  

As cities like Detroit make difficult decisions about how to make new arenas fit against the backdrop of redeveloped and reinvigorated urban cores, questions about design, use and fit are becoming more relevant.

The bigger they are…

The challenge — and the true art for those who can overcome that challenge — is getting these facilities to work not just with, but also for, the surrounding community. In other words, to not be the structural equivalent of Godzilla smashing his way through downtown Tokyo. These facilities must instead provide the vital and necessary fan experience without compromising everything else nearby, and examine and exhibit the character and culture of the surrounding neighborhood.

The practical reality, however, is that those lofty goals are essentially impossible with supersized stadiums. The requirements and logistics for construction, zoning, parking and operations are just too overwhelming. Consequently, design and planning professionals are learning to be mindful of size, recognizing that arenas designed for the suburbs aren’t likely to work in the city, and that smaller-scale facilities open up new possibilities while still serving as pivotal anchor pieces you can build around. 

New concepts like the proprietary “Inverted Bowl” are reimagining the structural fundamentals of traditional arena design with upper levels that lean in instead of sloping away. In addition to a wide range of experiential benefits for audiences, this concept allows for a much smaller, more flexible footprint that fits within the existing street grid and is more suitable for urban environments. 

Today, complementary pieces like professional training facilities and fan experience centers are also moving back into urban areas. One excellent example is the new Henry Ford Health Detroit Pistons Performance Center, which is now under construction just three miles from downtown in the New Center area of Detroit. The performance center is not only the team’s new training facility and headquarters, but also a critical touch point of economic and community impact.

In addition to the team’s corporate offices, the multi-purpose facility will be home to a branded Henry Ford Health System walk-in sports medicine clinic, a Plum Market grocery store and café and at least two additional retail tenants. The new center will increase neighborhood amenities by 20 percent, adding 25,000 square feet of retail and service space. 

The facility is designed as a true neighborhood asset, accessible and desirable to the local community. It’s also pedestrian-friendly and convenient to public transit. The design includes active street-level frontage along primary walking streets with numerous storefronts, outdoor dining and streetscape amenities that promote walkability.

Strategies and synchronicity

When done right, smaller arenas and multi-use sports facilities can be a powerful economic and neighborhood catalyst. The institutional backing from sports teams and established brands can lend credibility to development efforts and inspire additional and even transformative neighborhood development, especially in marginalized neighborhoods. The real estate is relatively affordable, and the city gets a welcome development boost. If it’s executed successfully, it’s the very definition of a “win-win.”

But the investment — and the planning — must be truly multidimensional. Urban planners and architects must consider the urban context outside the venue just as much as the venue features themselves. Think critically about how these venues relate to their surroundings, including the existing street network, the building patterns and the needs of the existing and future residents and employees. 

It starts with basic form, design and functionality. Developers and planners need to understand and account for the true needs of the community. Underserved neighborhoods are often in need of grocery stores and food markets, for example, but those brands must be a good community fit with respect to concepts and price points. In other words, don’t just consider the program; select specific tenants with care and consideration.

Ideally, designers and planners should think of themselves as community partners, and be intentional about how a facility can/will be used when games and events aren’t happening. 

Titletown, the 46-acre sports-anchored district outside of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, leverages and enhances the Packers brand by providing tailgating experiences on game day, while creating a destination district for the community in all seasons. A sledding hill, skating rink, brewery and several youth sports facilities drive traffic and stimulate economic activity year-round.

Finally, think incrementally and consider long-term outcomes. Allow room for natural growth and future expansion by multiple development parties, but also low-impact retraction. If the building were to become obsolete in the future, the neighborhood should still be able to flourish.

Ultimately, the success of urban sports facilities isn’t just dependent on design, but on meaningful and holistic urban planning. Professionals with demonstrated expertise both in and outside of the sports world are more likely to have the critical high-level understanding of these nuances, and to appreciate the fact that they aren’t just designing facilities, but a true community resource. A diverse portfolio of arena and stadium design is vital, but so is small-scale community development expertise. The ability to seamlessly connect the two disciplines is rare and coveted.

— By Amy Chesterton, Director of Urban Planning, Rossetti Inc. This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Heartland Real Estate Business magazine.

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