Monday, May 18, 2015

What Oriole Park at Camden Yards Got Right

The main entrance to Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Baltimore, Maryland
Hello Everyone:

Baseball season is in full swing (slight pun) and the "no fans allowed" game, following the civil unrest in the wake of the Freddie Grey funeral, has brought attention to the city of Baltimore and the role of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  Klaus Philipsen, of the blog, looks at how this young ballpark, it opened on April 6, 1992, has become the "best baseball park in the country."  Janet Marie Smith, the architectural consultant to the Orioles, meticulously guided the design and ambiance of the ballpark to mimic the oldest ballpark in the United States, Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  However, what really sets Camden Yards apart from its contemporaries is its urban setting, not set apart by acres of parking lots or a multi-purpose stadium lacking in character.  This state-of-the-art, yet throwback to ballparks of days gone by, is the shape of ballparks to come, nestled "neatly into existing and historic neighborhoods and play key roles in revitalization of urban America.

Fenway Park entrance
Boston, Massachusetts
From the day Camden Yards open, it held America's attention and continues to do in the twenty-three years since.  When Blogger visited Camden Yards, yours truly was captivated by the fact that here was this major league ballpark sitting in the middle of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a stone's throw away from downtown.  Mind you, Blogger is more accustomed to the ballparks, removed from their urban context.  Camden Yards is a source of genuine civic pride and Oriole fans.  By 2012, the ballpark's twentieth anniversary season, its successful formula had been copied and improved.  Camden Yards also made a few improvements and renovations by 2012.  Mr. Philipsen cited this quote from the New York Times.

AT&T Park at night
San Francisco, California
Not surprisingly, Camden being marketed as the "ballpark that forever changed baseball." There is no argument on that claim.  The proof is out there at newer stadiums like PNC, AT&T and Citizens Bank Park and in Citi, Target an Coors Field.
But 20 years is a generation.  Camden Yards was a template for other teams to try to improve on.
Most newer stadiums are smaller and cozier and have concourses that allow fans to watch the action as they buy food or beverages.  Other stadiums are effectively theme parks where baseball sometimes seems like a secondary concern.  And some look to better skylines.  (

Target Field
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Klaus Philipsen writes, "From an urban planning perspective, Camden Yards had departed from the standard model consisting of placing a very large multi-purpose with 'flying saucer' architecture somewhere at the outer periphery of cities, isolated from everything, around it a huge sea of parking."  This has been the case for decades-Dodger Stadium and the Houston Astrodome come to mind.  Rather than follow form, Camden Yards used this recipe for ballpark:

  • A location directly adjacent to downtown as an aggressive attempt of revitalizing downtown with a sports venue (there was no downtown living in 1987 when the location was first selected).
  • The reuse of a fairly large underutilized industrial area that make a poor gateway to downtown (there were no "brownfields" legislation and incentives in place back then)
  • A direct multi-modal public transit connection with a new light rail line designed to open with the first Opening Day in 1992 (the new light rail line was one of only a handful new light rail projects in the country and Oriole Park was a transit oriented development before the TOD became made popular). 
  • Shared parking assumed to take place mostly in adjacent downtown garages (the term "shared parking" was also not yet in use and not building seas of parking was a novel idea)
  • Adaptive reuse and preservation of two historic structures that were integrated into the stadium design and gave the park its name (the first larger adaptive reuse buildings in Baltimore happened around 1985-87, the Sailcloth Factory Ridgely's Delight and Tindeco on Boston Street)
  • A stadium designed specifically for baseball connecting to historic ballparks such as Boston's Fenway Park ( and Wrigley Field ( in Chicago
  • The incorporation of the downtown street grid as a design element for public spaces open to everyone outside of ballgames and events (the Eutaw Street pedestrian corridor between the warehouse and the ballfield)
  • The management of design and construction through a specifically created entity, the Maryland Stadium Authority (  (a state institution still in place, currently overseeing the Baltimore school renovation projects)
PNC Park entrance
Pittsburgh, Pennslyvania
Before you celebrate Oriole Park at Camden Yards twenty-three years success by tossing "peanuts and cracker jacks," it is helpful to remember that not everyone "root, root, root(ed)" in 1992 when the new ballpark opened.  The late Herbert Muschamp and several local architects looked askance at the retro-looking stadium.  Klaus Philipsen shares his observations during the construction phase, "I watched the progress on my daily commute entering the city via Russell Street and watching the daring steel structure slowly disappear under enormous amounts of brick turning what deemed an elegant superstructure into the heavy Colosseum type masonry monument we today.  In his April 6, 1992 review of the ballpark, Mr. Muschamp wrote,

Sports stadiums are major urban investments.  along with convention centers and "festival marketplaces' like Baltimore's Harbor Place, they make up the trio of large-scale projects on which many declining older cities have stake their economic futures.
But what about a city's stake in its creative future?  To design these new buildings in retro style risks sending a message that contradicts their forward-looking purpose: that cities have no future except as well-endowed museum of their better days.  (

Coors Field entrance
Denver, Colorado
Herbert Muschamp's pointed questions were asked few years later when a new football stadium, for the National Football League's Baltimore Ravens, was being considered just a short block away from Camden Yards.  The proposed football stadium was already part of the baseball stadium's masterplan.  The big questions being, "Could a much larger football stadium use the same recipe, when it had no historic buildings to repurpose or historic urban precedents to glean its design language from?  Could a publicly funded football stadium even be considered an investment in economic development in the same way way as the baseball with its much higher usage?"  This questions can certainly be applied to the current sports stadiums in Downtown Los Angeles and Inglewood, California.

Citizens Bank Park
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Eric Okurowski
These question were carefully considered by the Baltimore branch of the American Institute of Architects Urban Design Committee in June 1996.  After much thought, the Baltimore AIA concluded the answer could be yes, "if the football stadium would just be dropped into the blank the Oriole Park masterplan had left for it, but rather would expand the vision and be used to leverage larger urban design break-throughs like opening the Middle...the 'second Baltimore waterfront.'"  A statement issued by the Baltimore UDC read,

Rendering of the Middle Branch Park
The football stadium, as a large public investment provides huge opportunities for the surrounding communities of Washington Village, Sharp, Leadenhall, Otterbein and South Baltimore.  Opportunities include providing a new gateway at the southern entry to the city, improved greenways, pedestrian and vehicular connections from downtown to the Middle Branch waterfront. The official masterplan which was created chiefly for the baseball stadium and included the area of the football stadium deserves a higher level of refinement for the football stadium area.  The current public discussion about the design of the new stadium should include the larger master planning issues which will ultimately determine what kind of civic presence the new facility will acquire in our City.  With its task force, the Urban Design Committee wants to ensure that the spirit of its Middle Branch study will be included in the plans for the new stadium and that the civic benefits are indeed maximized.  (Baltimore AIA, Urban Design Committee)

Rendering of Citi Field
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, New York
Many of the Baltimore AIA UDC's aspirations are still unfulfilled.  While the gateway into the city has been much improved by the stadia, the result is still a questionable experience.  The Gateway has been taken up by the city's own casino that seems somewhat at odds with the site, nor are either a common sense extension of past public investment , or the celebration of the Middle Branch envisioned by the UDC.  Instead, there is an enormous parking garage right on the water's edge and the casino is the proverbial "nail in the coffin of the idea of opening the Middle Branch up from downtown, at least along this western side of it."

Oriole Park at Camden Yards
 In the years that followed the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, some of the essential elements that made it so successful were threatened.  Mr. Philipsen writes, "The glorious view from the seats back into downtown was severely curtailed by a blocky city funded convention center hotel that also buried forever another idea of the UDC, that of a great open space in front of the old Camden Station, that the AIA Committee back then dubbed 'Oriole Victory Park' and which had been envisioned as link between the still ailing Westside of Baltimore's downtown and the vibrant waterfront and stadium areas."  Mr. Philipsen continues, "A probably flawed idea of decking over the track area on the rear side of the Camden warehouse for a 'Medmart' complex failed.  Because this mega project had been on the boards back then, a MARC train and light rail station facility that would be appropriate to the prominent setting at the Yards had been design but not realized back then, and it still hasn't 23 years later..."

Despite everything Oriole Park at CamdenYards is a success at the urban design, urban renewal, architectural level.  Game days bring a lively crowd, the light rail service is busy and fans are let off a mere few feet away from the front entrance, and the historic Camden Station head has been restored and repurposed as a baseball museum and event spaces.  The warehouse is not only a lovely background to the stadium but has been readapted as commercial and retail space.  The ballpark has also benefitted the historic buildings on Russell Street which would have fallen on hard times with out the stadium.  The buildings have been converted into sports bars, used as pre (and post) game party spaces.

The lessons of Oriole Park at Camden Yards should serve as a model for the proposed football stadium near The Forum in Inglewood, California and a newly proposed soccer pitch in Downtown Los Angeles.  The success of incorporating a stadium into an urban setting in a city smaller than Los Angeles proves that with careful planning and consideration, a stadium can be a catalyst for urban design, urban renewal, and economic development.

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