Critic’s Notebook: The $100-million project is not so much a makeover as an incremental step toward better integrating the site with the city around it. But there are more radical ways to go.

April 01, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

When you see the revamped Dodger Stadium, you may wonder, at least at first, where that $100 million went.

A nine-figure budget usually produces a major overhaul or architectural transformation. But the changes that the new owners of the team, Guggenheim Baseball Management, carried out at Chavez Ravine over the offseason are not especially dramatic, at least not visually.

The most obvious changes fans will see at Monday’s opening game against the Giants are to the scoreboards beyond the outfield, which are bigger and show high-definition images while retaining their old chevron shape. Many of the upgrades, such as new locker rooms and batting cages, are sunk beneath the stadium. Others are technological, including a beefed-up wireless system.

But it would be wrong to think that the improvements, overseen by Janet Marie Smith, the Dodgers’ senior director of planning and development, are meant to be subtle or mostly about infrastructure. In fact they aim to change how fans think about and interact with Dodger Stadium in some fundamental and fascinating ways.
One essential goal of Smith and her collaborators has been to make the 51-year-old stadium more public. That they haven’t fully achieved that goal may say as much about the original design for the stadium as about the quality of their work.

The most intriguing question is how far the notion of a more public ballpark ultimately will take the new owners — whether these changes will lead in the next few years to a bold reexamination of the relationship between the stadium and downtown.

I can guess what you’re thinking: Isn’t Dodger Stadium already public? Well, not entirely. It was designed, by an engineer-turned-architect named Emil Praeger and his client, Walter O’Malley, to produce about as private and individualized an experience as you can imagine in a building that seats 56,000.

That attitude, as much as its forward-looking modern architecture, is what sets Dodger Stadium apart from other ballparks.

There is no main entrance or central plaza. The stadium was designed so that fans could drive almost right up to the stadium, park in a section of the massive circular lot near their sections and enter through one of 11 portals. The idea was to make the transition from freeway to stadium, from private car to individual seat, as efficient and seamless as possible.

Inside, of course, the experience of sitting in your seat and cheering along with tens of thousands of other fans is intensely communal. But getting from one level of the stadium to another has never been easy; stairs and escalators are mostly hidden.

The relationship between the stadium and the city around it is also unusual. The ballpark is in the middle of Los Angeles in a geographical sense but set apart from it.

You can see the downtown skyline from the park, but you can’t really see the park from downtown. The way Praeger chose to sink it into the hillside means it is an unusually reticent piece of architecture considering its size and fame.

Undoubtedly, this detachment has been part of the park’s allure. To feel as though you are leaving the city to reach a famous ballpark in the center of the city is a paradox of a quintessentially Los Angeles character.

But the city is far different now than it was when the stadium opened in 1962. It is bigger, more diverse. Its love affair with the car is on the wane.

Enter Smith, hired by Dodgers President Stan Kasten after stints working for the Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. Smith in turn brought in Los Angeles architect Brenda Levin, landscape architect Mia Lehrer and Thomas Quirk of the Massachusetts firm D’Agostino Izzo Quirk Architects.

Changes made by Frank McCourt, the previous owner, were mostly limited to the lower bowl. Much of the new work has centered on outside the stadium, in particular redesigning the sequence that takes fans from their cars to their seats.

There is still no single main entry, but the architects have pushed the walkways around the exterior of the stadium outward into the parking lot, at several points, by an average of 35 feet. Into those new spaces they’ve inserted amoeba-shaped planters, children’s play areas and stores selling Dodger souvenirs.

Inside, the architects have removed the last few rows of seats from sections on four levels, replacing them with drink rails where fans can pause and watch the game standing up. Removing seats has also widened the concourses at the rear of each section.

During Friday night’s exhibition game with the Angels, the lines for hot dogs and beer were still long and slow-moving. But removing seats has made it easier to see the field from many of the concourses and made some of them less dark and cave-like.

Quirk and his firm, who were in charge of the changes beneath the stadium to the locker rooms and other facilities, also redesigned two sections of seats at field level to improve their sightlines.

By reconfiguring some parking lots the Dodgers say they’ve kept the number of spaces the same. The seating capacity is down slightly, but the team says it could make up some of the difference by selling standing-room seats.

There is also a noticeable effort in new signs and graphics around the stadium to pay better attention to Dodgers history, both from the team’s early years in Los Angeles and its decades in Brooklyn. This is another departure from the original design, which was almost ruthlessly forward-looking.

And it makes sense given how much history the Dodgers have accumulated in Los Angeles. The team has now spent nearly a decade longer in Chavez Ravine than it did in Ebbets Field.

To be sure, the effort to make the stadium more public — to slow the transition between car and seat — also gives the team more chances to coax fans to spend money. But the larger architectural story playing out here is no less dramatic because it is driven in part by the team’s concern for the bottom line. Making one of the most privatized stadiums in professional sports more public-minded while also preserving its original architectural character is a major effort.

If the goal is huge, the new owners’ moves in that direction are tentative. A shuttle from Union Station — a cooperative effort between Metro and the Dodgers — will this year use a dedicated lane on Sunset Boulevard for the first time.

But it remains unclear what the team, over the long term, will decide to do with the excess space along the periphery of the parking lots. The stadium site is 260 acres in all, and only some of that room is needed for cars. That’s where the potential really lies in rethinking Dodger Stadium’s relationship to the city.

Could part of that acreage hold a giant solar array or a public park? What about housing or some other new architecture? Can the stadium ever be tied directly into the city’s transit network or be brought into a closer embrace with a resurgent downtown?

What about the biggest and most radical option of all: razing Dodger Stadium, building a ballpark downtown and freeing up Chavez Ravine for entirely new uses?

Those are questions the new owners of the team have yet to address in any detail. Consider the $100 million a down payment on an architecture and urban-planning project that will be in the news for years to come.