Double play: Turning ballparks into concert venues

ARCHITECTURE

Boston shows other cities how to step up to the plate

September 27, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

BOSTON - Fenway Park has enjoyed a succession of sellouts any sports organization would envy, but twice this month the sellouts didn't involve baseball.

On Sept. 10 and 12, when the Red Sox were out of town, Fenway Park was transformed to a concert setting for Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band. The concerts each drew more than 38,000 people, on nights when the park otherwise would have been empty.

Many came from outside the area, filling hotels, bars and restaurants throughout the city. They created hundreds of jobs for ticket takers, vendors, security guards and parking-lot attendants.

"It's good for the team, but it's also good for the city," said Charles Steinberg, executive vice president for public affairs for the Red Sox. "It's an undeniable economic boost" for the area.

Boston's experience provides a model for Baltimore and other cities seeking ways to get more use - and revenue - from local ballparks on days when the home team isn't home.

This summer, the Maryland Stadium Authority created a Camden Yards Sports and Entertainment Commission to bring major events, including concerts, to Baltimore's two downtown stadiums. One idea is to use both the Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, plus the area in between, to mount a music festival.

Earlier this year, the Orioles and the rock group Van Halen explored the possibility of a show at Camden Yards. It would have been the first concert inside the ballpark, but it never came about, prompting Van Halen to file suit last month against the Orioles.

Concerts are new for Fenway as well. The previous owners of the Red Sox, the Yawkey Trust and its limited partners, didn't use Fenway for anything but baseball. The current owners, a group headed by John W. Henry, Thomas C. Werner and Larry Lucchino, have started holding concerts on a limited basis. Bruce Springsteen performed there twice last year and also drew sell-out crowds.

Opened in 1912, Fenway is the oldest and smallest ballpark in major-league baseball, with a legal capacity of 38,298. The concerts are a byproduct of incremental improvements made to Fenway in recent years as part of a Red Sox campaign to increase the number of seats and upgrade amenities for fans.

Much of the planning and preparation for those improvements has been coordinated by Janet Marie Smith, the Baltimore-based architect who worked for the Orioles when Oriole Park was designed and built. Lucchino, president and chief executive officer of the Red Sox, held the same position with the Orioles until 1993.

Smith is vice president of planning and development for Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, a Baltimore-based development firm with projects up and down the East Coast. She also serves as vice president of planning and development for the Red Sox, and has drawn widespread praise for her work at Fenway.

Improvements that have made the park better for baseball, such as adding entrances, exits and restrooms, also gave it the ability to accommodate concerts, Smith said. "They allowed the field to be used in a way that couldn't be done before."

But the number of concerts must be limited, team representatives say, because converting the ballpark to a concert arena takes considerable effort, and only certain dates will work.

For the Buffett concerts, the Red Sox designated an area in centerfield for a temporary stage, with Boston's legendary outfield wall, the Green Monster, as a backdrop. Crews laid a metal flooring surface over the outfield and set up more than 9,500 chairs. Much of the infield was unused, because the team was reluctant to disturb it.

Red Sox representatives say they look for entertainers who can draw a broad range of fans to Fenway - both to the outfield seats and luxury suites. That rules out acts that might draw teens, but not their parents.

Selecting concert dates also took careful planning.

According to Smith, the concerts couldn't be held in the middle of summer, because the metal decking might cook the grass underneath if it got too hot. The Red Sox didn't want to book any concerts in late September or early October, in case they got into the playoffs. They also didn't want to hold any concerts too late in the fall, because the weather might interfere.

During the Buffett concerts, the 57-year-old entertainer tailored his performances to the Fenway crowd, singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Sweet Caroline," the song the Red Sox play during their seventh-inning stretch. He clearly enjoyed performing in Fenway Park and spotting his name on the scoreboard.

"I have to say these are two of the greatest shows we've ever done," he said onstage toward the end of the Sept. 12 concert. "This was not easy, but I'd like to thank the entire Red Sox organization."

The Red Sox got plenty of mileage out of the concerts, too.

People already have strong feelings about Fenway Park as a setting for baseball, Steinberg said, but concerts such as Buffett's give people another reason to come to Fenway.

"You're not doing this for the money," Steinberg said. "You're doing this to enhance the lure of Fenway Park as a community gathering place. This adds even more luster to its rich history."

With adequate planning, such concerts could work just as well at Camden Yards.

Call for nominations

Baltimore's Neighborhood Design Center is seeking nominations for its Larry Reich Award, given annually to an individual whose volunteer and professional work exemplifies "a special commitment to community based planning and design."

The award was established by colleagues of longtime city planning director Reich to commemorate his concern for inclusion of grass-root groups in neighborhood initiatives. It will be presented during the design center's fall gala on Oct. 26 at the Fava Building, 33 S. Front St. Friday is the deadline for nominations: Neighborhood Design Center, 1401 Hollins St., Baltimore, MD 21223.

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