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How America's Oldest Baseball Fields Prepare for the Future

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The future Cubs Plaza.

The smell of freshly cut grass, the warm burst of the summer sun, and Cracker Jacks: baseball is here. We like our baseball drenched in nostalgic Americana. We call franchises "storied." We remember lineups and stats from our favorite teams in childhood. We pass on our team loyalties from one generation of fans to the next. And we feel the same way about the baseball parks that house these legendary teams.

Today, Chicago's Wrigley Field—home of the Chicago Cubs—celebrates its 100th anniversary. The park is an active field and a monument, ensconced in the dense neighborhood of Lakeview on Chicago's north side. This is the baseball park where, in 1932, Babe Ruth hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history. Ruth "called his shot" during the Yankees-Cubs World Series. At the time, John Drebinger of New York Times wrote, "A single lemon rolled out to the plate…and in no mistaken motions Babe notified the crowd that the nature of his retaliation would be a wallop right out of the confines of the park."

Wrigley Field is the National League's oldest baseball park and Major League Baseball's second oldest park. It still boasts hand-operated scoreboards and limited advertisements. The outfield walls themselves are a thing of beauty, made of brick and covered in ivy—no cushy foam padding here. These outfield walls reflect a time in sports and society when safety was an afterthought, if it even was a thought.

But the history brings with it wear and tear, and much of the last decade has been spent figuring out what to do with Wrigley Field: keep it? Change it? Build a new one? As facilities age, team owners often argue they can't remain economically viable or competitive without new revenue streams and updated facilities. Wrigley Field is no exception. The fate of Wrigley Field has been a source of vigorous debate in the Windy City. The Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field, argues the franchise cannot be profitable without a $500 million renovation to update the park and create new revenue streams. Die hard Cubs fans, Lakeview residents, and some Lakeview business owners would like it left as is. The City Council arrived at a compromise late last year, approving a preservation and renovation effort.

Wrigley Field wears its hundred years like a badge of honor: those hand operated scoreboards, those limited advertisements, and those brick and ivy covered outfield walls. And new baseball parks have, over the last two decades, tried to repeat that history, aiming for smaller, more urban parks with turn of the century flair. Baltimore's Camden Yards, Cleveland's Progressive Field (formerly Jacob's Field), Denver's Coors Field, Seattle's Safeco Field, San Diego's Petco Park—all of these parks sought to replicate the same qualities Wrigley Field has by virtue of its years.

Most recently, ballpark owners have taken this effort one step further by preserving historic parks where possible, rather than bulldozing them and rebuilding from the ground up. The recent renovations of Boston's Fenway Park and Los Angeles's Dodger Stadium offer lessons in baseball park preservation and a glimpse at how Wrigley Field will fare when its own renovation is done.

Fenway Park

Built in 1912, Fenway Park is the oldest park in the Major Leagues and has been home to greats from hitter Ted Williams to pitcher Cy Young. But those features weren't necessarily enough to make up for the park's problems, some of which it shared with Wrigley Field: limited concessions and merchandise outlets, out-of-date bathrooms and technology, and an original seating capacity of 27,000, a fraction of today's standard 40,000.

Over ten years and at a cost of $285 million, Fenway Park completed renovations in 2012 for its own 100th season. The park added regular and premium seats that brought its minuscule seating capacity up to 37,000; the premium seats include those atop the "Green Monster," Fenway Park's iconic, massive left field wall. The renovations also expanded concession and merchandising stands throughout the park, renovated bathrooms, shored up infrastructure, and updated video display screens. Today, the baseball park is both functional and economically viable.

The renovation to Fenway Park was accomplished without "destroying the spirit or essential character of the park," said Janet Marie Smith, the Planning and Development professional who helmed Fenway's nip/tuck. The updates have not washed away the park's early twentieth century memories of Ted Williams or Cy Young. To the contrary, the preservation practices implemented in Boston maintained the park's core historic feeling and look. For this reason, Fenway Park was listed in the U.S. Park Service's National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

Dodger Stadium

As at Fenway Park, the renovations to Dodger Stadium—built in 1962, making it the third oldest park in the Major Leagues—were understated, even if the cost, $100 million, was not. The challenge and goal of the 2013 renovations was to maintain the character and charm of the 1962 Modern venue, which has been home to players like Sandy Koufax and and Don Drysdale. It was the first baseball park to cantilever its grandstand so that no support beams were needed, an innovation that provided unobstructed views of the field from every seat. The hexagon-shaped jumbotron scoreboards and screens were another stadium trademark. The renovation restored them (with modern video technology), widened the concourses and updated the bathrooms, added concessions and team stores, and aimed to bring in more families with a new children's play area. As at Fenway, the innovations help the stadium's bottom line.

The renovations to Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium serve as blueprints for updating any beloved stadium with a storied franchise. In both cases, the changes were needed and understated, offering modernization in digestible doses. The modifications didn't detract from the stadiums' trademark historic designs but actually enhanced them. Regardless of the era a team is from, fans expect a certain amount of tradition. If Wrigley Field is similarly able to tastefully integrate $500 million worth of modernizations with tradition, both Cubs faithful and ownership will realize a better baseball experience. But it isn't clear what path Wrigley Field will choose just yet.

Wrigley Field's Future

Compared to Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field's approved plans call for a more "conspicuous" preservation. With a budget that is five times that of Dodger Stadium's, it is difficult not to be conspicuous. $200 million of Wrigley Field's total $500 million budget is earmarked for the building of an adjacent boutique hotel and office building with a clock tower, and an open-air plaza with a large video advertising board. The other $300 million will go to direct baseball park updates. Those updates to the park include a new 6,000-square-foot video scoreboard in left field, a see-through ad in right field, additional advertising in the traditionally empty outfield, and a three-story addition that will add more amenities as well as in-game seating and suites.

The 6,000-square-foot video screen and its accompanying advertisements have been the source of much protest from the neighborhood. Wrigley Field's traditionally unobstructed outfield has allowed Lakeview neighbors to watch games from their nearby rooftops throughout the park's history. With the proposed changes, these historic views would be blocked. While the views are no longer free like they once were (the Wrigleyville Rooftop Owners Association now charges attendance fees), they have historically been an integral aspect of Chicago Cubs baseball at Wrigley Field. It is this monumental change to the Wrigley Field experience which has the start of construction mired in neighborhood squabble. The renovations have been delayed until this coming offseason.

While the addition of a large video scoreboard and advertisements might not be considered understated preservation to many Chicagoans, the truth is that Wrigley Field is no stranger to renovation and modernization. Wrigley Field, perhaps more than any other baseball park, has undergone a constant stream of work from shortly after its initial construction. At the time of construction, in 1914, Wrigley Field (then called Weegham Field) had a capacity of only 14,000. Today, Wrigley Field holds over 41,000 fans, thanks to a 1927 addition of a second deck to the park's grandstand. But the tension between modernization and preservation is not new, either. Wrigley Field was the last holdout for nighttime baseball in the Major Leagues—the stadium didn't get lights until 1988, when Major League Baseball threatened to move the Cubs' post-season games to Milwaukee unless they complied.

Wrigley Field "trades on nostalgia," notes Wrigley Field historian Stuart Shea, the nostalgia drawing fans and tourists alike through a record of almost 70 years of pennant-less baseball. Without a home drenched in that nostalgia, the Chicago Cubs lose a bit of their mystique. The Ricketts family's plan seeks to capitalize on Wrigley Field's pull through new development—a hotel, office building, plaza, and more. Will this development detract from the nostalgia from which it hopes to prosper? Can the fans love Wrigley Field even if she's had some major work done? So the Ricketts hope. In the end, perhaps a heavy dose of development now will spare Wrigley from the knife for another hundred years to come.

· Curbed Features [Curbed]