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07.09.2008
Comment: Ups and Downs in Dodger Town
LA's Dodgerland stadium-cum-mall is crying out for mass transit. And a decent center-fielder.
The proposed Dodgerland preserves the 1962 stadium amid retail and parkland development.
Courtesy Johnson Fain

The recent announcement that the Los Angeles Dodgers plan not to raze their revered stadium overlooking downtown but instead revitalize it with a parklike themed mall has been greeted with guarded optimism by both fans and a faithless public.

No one but the most imprudent publicist wants to lend the ambitious $500 million proposal his blessing just yet—certainly not in this hype-happy city, annually promised new architectural icons, fanciful ephemeral attractions, and a championship baseball team.

Then there is the down-and-dirty concern of how people are supposed to get to the new, improved, and pricey stadium, if not by private car. There already are hints of an attendance fall-off because of the increasing crush of traffic, though I suspect the team’s mediocre performance so far this season has also been a factor.

Though close to downtown, the stadium was designed and built 50 years ago in a suburban mode, surrounded by sprawling surface lots and served by a web of freeways that was adequate for the first few decades but has since become a nightmare. If “Dodgerland” is to attract the crowds needed to viably take its place in the Southland’s galaxy of themed attractions alongside Universal City and Disneyland, it is going to need a rail connection to the nearby Gold Line in Chinatown or to the Union Station transit hub serving downtown. Buses just won’t do.

Another possible connection would be the construction of a less costly tramway or trolley. This also would pay homage to the origination of the team’s name in Brooklyn, from a popular description of its fans a century ago, who when going to Ebbets Field to see a ballgame would have to dodge the streetcars converging there.

Indeed, I remember fondly in the 1940s in that beloved borough of my birth paying three cents to ride the Coney Island Trolley to the Parade Grounds and the bandbox of a ballpark beyond, to sit in a 25-cent bleacher seat. The ticket was courtesy of The Brooklyn Eagle where I worked as a newsboy.

Both the Dodger management and Mayor Villaraigosa heartily agree that a transit connection is needed, and at the press conference announcing the stadium plans, pledged to actively explore possibilities. However, given the present meltdown of the municipal budget along with federal aid to the city, no one is holding his breath.

Whether a real hope or hype, the plans for “Dodgerland” read well, taking advantage of the stadium’s dramatic hilltop site. Featured is a welcoming entry marked by a tree-lined promenade and grand plaza, conveniently connected to a relaxed landscaped pedestrian street encircling the ballpark. Christened Dodger Way and lined with eateries and an array of stores, the street is designed to entice fans to come early and stay late, to shop and dine, and not incidentally to reduce the crush of traffic around the stadium immediately before and after the games. Also in the offing is something labeled The Dodger Experience, described as a museum “showcasing the history of the Dodgers in an interactive setting.” Welcome to Dodgerland, but don’t forget your Visa card.

Playing to LA’s benign climate, the team’s culture, and the Southland’s consumerism, the plans were fashioned with appropriate flair by the design team of the locally based firms of Johnson Fain and Rios Clementi Hale Studios for architecture and landscape, together with the HKS Sports and Entertainment Group.

To their credit, the plans also respect the local concerns, especially among fans, that the landmark stadium not be compromised. Hailed as the epitome of the modern major league ballpark when it opened in 1962, the stadium now is the second oldest in the National League, and when Yankee Stadium is demolished this year, will be third oldest in the majors, ranking behind Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park. Given its potentially valuable site for housing on the edge of the central city, the stadium over the years has been subject to various threats. These have included its wholesale relocation downtown, to be gift-wrapped in a nostalgic urban design in the mode of the recent ballpark re-dos in San Francisco and San Diego. These proposals have been belittled by the Dodger faithful and the city’s landmark police. Also roundly razzed and promptly dismissed was a pie-in-the-sky proposal by Pritzker-award-winning architect Thom Mayne to demolish the stadium for a residential and recreational development and rebuild it a few miles away on recently dedicated city parkland. The plan alienated almost everyone, from park advocates to Dodger fans and community groups.

In addition, there’s an inherent distrust of the team’s ownership among fans. Baseball being a sport of traditions, fans have long memories, particularly Dodger fans who have not seen a World Championship in 20 years as the team passed through the hands of the miserly O’Malley family and the otherwise engaged media mogul Rupert Murdoch to the migrant McCourts, freshfaced and full of vim and vigor from chilly Boston where their nouveau ways were not appreciated as they are here in California.

Not forgotten by some is the team’s relocation from Brooklyn a half-century ago. That broke the collective hearts of the hapless faithful in the then-diminishing outer borough, mine included, until of course I moved to Los Angeles (like so many other New Yorkers). It will be interesting how that tidbit of history will be handled in The Dodger Experience museum, that is, if the team can find the financing for its plans while still looking for a center fielder who can hit.

Sam Hall Kaplan

Sam Hall Kaplan is a noted Los Angeles architecture historian and critic.