When my family takes a vacation, we often go to another city. Typically, visiting a sports arena is on the agenda. When you’re surrounded by boys, big and small, (I have four of them) sports are always competing for their attention in some way. So, our summer getaway to Boston had to include a trip to Fenway, home of the Red Sox and one of the world’s most beloved and oldest ballparks. As it turns out, there was more in it store for me than I anticipated, because our tour of the park had some hidden lessons about city building.
Here are the 10 lessons Fenway taught me about city building:
Lesson #1: Create a tight urban fabric
When Red Sox owner John Taylor decided to rebuild Boston’s ballpark in 2011, he chose to create an infill project in the Fenway neighbourhood. The area was previously marshland which had been drained and turned into a park, now known as the Emerald Necklace. The surrounding development and neighbourhood became now known as West Fens or Fenway Park. Fenway perfectly demonstrates the closeness that can exist between a city project and the existing community surrounding it. It serves as a critical piece of the neighbourhood contributing jobs, culture and vitality, and a model for a downtown ballpark, accessible on foot and transit. In addition to the approximately 33,000 fans that come to games, the area welcomes 40,000 daily employees and 80,000 university students.
Lesson #2: Build Up
More height and less sprawl is a practice that’s near and dear to my heart as a developer and a good citizen. When Fenway Park had its first game in 1912, seating capacity was 27,000. After a fire, it went through a first renovation and expansion increasing the capacity to 33,817. The most famous feature was a 37-foot wall called the Green Monster. Over several decades, more “density” was added, including seating along the roof and on top of the Green Monster (FYI – The latter was a concept that was considered “blasphemous” at the time, yet are now among the most coveted and expensive.) Current seating capacity is nearly 38,000 and the Red Sox claim they will never exceed seating of 40,000.
Lesson #3: Respect Where You Came From
As Fenway started to show signs of aging, it paled in comparison to newer and larger ballparks and there was debate about whether to rebuild or renovate. The argument to rebuild focused on the financial drain of maintaining the park, its inferior comfort/small seats, obstructed sight lines, low seating capacity and expensive ticket prices. Those rooting for a rebuild equated renovations with a fresh coat of paint and facelift, which they felt, just wasn’t going to cut it.
The outcome was a 10-year renovation costing an estimated $285 million that would touch nearly every part of the park. SAS Design founder and principal Arturo Vasquez who was involved in the campaign to save the park described the project: “I don’t call it preservation. I call it progress, that you are able to take a structure with that history and have another century of people participate in the history, finding ways that the park could function as a more modern facility while still preserving an important building typology.” It’s a lesson that despite strong arguments to rebuild (Fenway was not deemed historical at the time ) an even stronger sentiment and nostalgia can overrule.
Lesson #4: Good Bones Stand the Test of Time
Renovations uncovered various types of construction from different eras that had been seamed together. There was reinforced concrete in the seating bowl, structural steel supporting the roof, and load-bearing masonry. The work was equated to a sort of engineering archeology dig. According to Kevin Westerhoff of Fenway consulting engineers McNamara Salvia, “The biggest challenge was just peeling through all the layers.”
Remarkably, what they discovered was quality construction and a structure that truly withstood the test of time despite minor wear and tear, some water damage and the heavy, stomping feet of fans. It had “good bones” that made it easier to work with. According to Arturo Vasquez, “You find when you work in buildings like this that the main structure is usually the most beautiful part, and it’s built to last.”
Lesson #5: Love where you live (and work)
Fenway has a reputation for being prestigiously maintained, which goes a long way toward its preservation. Its superintendent Donnie Gardiner puts in hundred-hour weeks, occasionally even sleeping in his office. He’s worked there for over 30 years and says that with almost every decision he makes, he’s figuring out how to make best use of the limited space while preserving the ballpark’s character. It shows. The official groundskeeper is David Mellor, who people say is responsible for the nicest lawn in Boston. His job requires being in touch with mother nature (and the weather) as it impacts the field and the players. Safety and play abilities are first priority. “I’m honoured and humbled to have the opportunity to stand on Fenway Park’s field,” he said. You can’t fake that kind of care – and every organization would be blessed to have this kind of love and loyalty.
Lesson #6: Amenities evolve over time
As a developer that focuses on lifestyle, at Tridel we know amenities are a moving target with a definition that changes. A large part of the renovation plan was to preserve Fenway’s character while improving its functionality. It was obvious that 21st century amenities were needed: luxury suites, a club section, a craft beer concession aka “Sam Deck” (makes sense since Sam Adams is the team’s official beer), an urban garden, new restaurants, better and more seating, new HD video boards (without sacrificing the manual score board that has staff working inside it.)
Janet Marie Smith, who spearheaded the 10-year renovation plan, also had the foresight to incorporate three elevators providing accessibility to all of the sky boxes. And a more recent addition is a 5,400-seat performance space, connected to the rear of Fenway, which will become Boston’s largest indoor music venue.
Lesson #7: Grow your own food
Fenway Farms, a 5,000 square foot, milk crate organic rooftop garden was one of the most unexpected and beautiful parts of our Fenway tour. It recognizes the team’s commitment to the environment and reflects the belief that urban agriculture has social, health and environmental benefits. It’s also a tribute to the neighbourhood’s past, which has a history of vegetation. In fact, not long ago there were tomatoes growing in the bullpen (circa 2000 according to John Cumberland – former bullpen coach).
Every season, the Farm grows over 6,000 pounds of produce which is used at its restaurants, concession stands, press boxes and media dining room. Anything in excess is donated to community food banks.
Lesson #8: Take two wheels, not four
You can imagine the traffic on game days adds up in the “tight” city space. So, how you get to Fenway can make you or break you. Parking is an urban nightmare so, it’s best to ditch the car and opt instead for a bike. Fortunately, since Boston is a great city for cycling (one of the main reasons we chose it as a destination) it’s a preferred mode of transportation for getting to Fenway, where Bicycles Valets have been incorporated (which are free to ticketed patrons at home games).
Lesson #9: Beauty is beyond skin deep
One of the observations of those who participated in the “archaeological dig” of renovating Fenway was the interconnectedness of the engineering with the architecture. When Fenway was built, engineering was more integrated with design than it is today. According to Arturo Vasquez, “The main structural elements were actually ornate. They were designed for beauty and ornamentation.” The best modern example I can think of is the way Steve Jobs believed the inside of computers should be just as beautiful as the outside. That’s something you don’t see much in a world as fast as ours.
Lesson #10: Collaboration is innovation for rehabilitation
Fenway is considered an exceptional precedent in collaboration and integration for rehabilitation. In the 1990’s the park’s possible demolition and reconstruction disturbed not just the residents of the neighbourhood, but a city and a country. Against the odds a collection of small community groups peacefully and collaboratively created attention about their concerns. No easy feat, since the owners and fans were opposed to renovating.
Their successful approach was due in large part to the community involvement led by a woman named Janet Marie Smith (who was part of the front office team while it was under the ownership of John Henry). Her methods which were almost magical showed that by working with community groups, residents, and politicians, not against them, and by leveraging their suggestions and intellectual capital, you can successfully restore a physical space and improve it.
BONUS: Build for human scale
First off, stepping into Fenway felt different than I expected. It gave me a strange “gut” feeling that contradicted anything I’d ever felt in a sports venue. It did not feel overwhelming the way other venues can. It felt small. It felt intimate. It felt nice, and I felt like I belonged. I felt like I fit in. Typically, when I walk into a ballpark, hockey stadium, or football arena, I feel lost. And because it’s 2019, I also uncomfortably wonder what would happen in a catastrophe. How would the masses evacuate safely? For some reason Fenway doesn’t give you that feeling. You feel secure.
They say the nature of the experience of Fenway Park derives from the intimacy of the space and the proximity of the fans to the team (as well as each other). After visiting, I get this. And it makes perfect sense. We live in a world of big. Some people say that the price we pay is the loss of connection. We know the more urban and densely we live, the more isolation we feel. I also think many of us live in a world of “luxe” and have to remember that to appreciate the new, you have to appreciate what’s gone before. While I don’t have the connection to Fenway that Bostonians have, my opinion is that Fenway manages to do both. Beautifully.