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Why Wrigley Field is the ideal urban ballpark

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For all the ballpark’s charms, its integration with the neighborhood may be its best feature

After a miracle for Chicago Cubs fans occurred last weekend on the hallowed ground of Wrigley Field, the nation’s second-oldest major league ballpark—a World Series game between the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians under the lights of the Friendly Confines—the Cubs have now ended their championship drought, winning the World Series in an incredible extra-inning finish.

It’s not hard to see how Wrigley, a classic ballpark built in 1914 on Chicago’s north side, earned such a congenial nickname: intimate seating, ivy-covered outfield walls, an iconic hand-operated scoreboard designed by Holabird & Root, and mobs of fans packed in the outfield bleachers combine to create the platonic ideal of live baseball.

But the blessing of Wrigley Field extends far beyond the field. Writer George Will observed that for many years, fans had to accept that “Wrigley Field is lovelier than the game played on its field.”

Long-suffering Cubs fans, whose team has spent decades failing to make it back to the World Series, have been blessed not only with one of baseball’s greatest parks, but one of the best examples of a stadium as an anchor for a thriving, walkable neighborhood (just check the countless videos of Cubs fans celebrating on nearby streets). Outside of the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the surrounding area stand as the best case study of stadium urbanism in the country.

The park’s great integration with its surroundings comes from the timing of its construction—built in 1914, it leaned on public transportation instead of cars—and the vision of its architect. Zachary Taylor Davis, known as the “Frank Lloyd Wright of Baseball,” grew up in Aurora, Illinois, and got his start in a very Chicago way, designing meat-packing plants and working as a draftsman for the legendary Louis Sullivan.

Davis gave the park, initially named Weeghman Park after owner and charismatic businessman Charley "Lucky Charlie" Weeghman, a single-grandstand design. The steel-and-concrete structure with exposed bricks and steel beams reflected the city’s modern, industrial character.

The park was Davis’s second successful Chicago ballpark. In 1910, he designed the long-since-demolished Comiskey Park for the White Sox. Like Wrigley Field, Comiskey blended in with its surroundings; the old-school, kite-shaped structure had a brick facade that mirrored nearby Southside factories.

Wrigley has stood the test of time because it’s sewn into the urban fabric, from nightlife to street vendors. Hours before the game tonight, fans will stream into the Wrigleyville neighborhood, packing bars and restaurants. Those arriving by public transportation will step onto the platform at the Addison Red Line stop and look down on bustling streets and a view of the field. Nearby buildings are so close to the field that owners have even converted their rooftops to bleacher seating they sell to fans.

As stadium design has evolved over the last century, Wrigley’s connection with the surroundings streets and shops has become even more significant and unique. The coming of the automobile pushed stadiums to the suburbs, where cheap land could house bigger, bolder designs and throngs of fans rolling up in their cars. The pinnacle of this style may be Dodger Stadium, a beautiful ballpark that opened on a hill in Los Angeles in 1962, offering gorgeous scenery and a manicured landscape.

While Chicagoans who live near Wrigley see their neighborhood overrun by Cubs fans during game days, they also don’t have their blocks broken up by huge surface lots. They also make a pretty penny renting spots in garages or back alleys.

The shift toward suburban stadiums also created super-sized parks, 50 to 75 percent percent larger in both interior square footage and building footprint area, according to Philip Bess, a professor of architecture at Notre Dame. He calls them “stadiums on steroids.” Despite the “clear evidence” that it’s possible to be both profitable in smaller neighborhood ballparks, and be good neighbors, he feels it’s impossible to turn away today’s suburban culture.

In the last few decades, parks have begun to return to the cities, serving as anchors for urban renewal, with franchises and cities siting huge complexes and entertainment districts—such as Cleveland’s Gateway complex, a huge campus in downtown Cleveland that’s home to the Indians as well as the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers—near central business districts.

Some of these new generation parks, such as Camden Yards in Baltimore, have brought back the old-school architectural stylings of the early 20th century. But they haven’t brought back the scale or urban approach.

Since they often try to apply a suburban model to the city, serving as new destinations instead of appropriately sized compliments to a mixed-use neighborhood, they don’t create the same kind of urban synergy. It’s arguable that while many have helped bring business and benefits to their cities, none have succeeded in creating a lived-in neighborhood in the same way as Wrigley.

It’s as much about economics as urban design. Wrigley, with room for just 41,268 fans, was not only built in an era before parking, but at a time when attendance provided a bulk of the team’s revenue. Today, parks need to not only accommodate vehicles, but also provide massive new revenue streams. That puts pressure on franchises to bring food, beverage, and memorabilia sales in house, inside a larger, more self-contained structure and off the streets.

As scholars Victor Matheson, Robert Baade, and Mimi Nikolova wrote in their 2006 paper “A Tale of Two Stadiums: Comparing the Economic Impact of Chicago’s Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field,” the new generation of stadiums is a perfect example of how team’s “commercial intent toward the neighborhood is not benign.” Wrigley was designed in a way that encouraged an ecosystem to grow up around it.

The paper goes on to compare how Wrigley stands in stark contrast to U.S. Cellular, the new White Sox park that was built in 1991 amid a sea of parking lots. Wrigley is a “shining example of how a sports facility can integrate itself within a local neighborhood and provide positive economic spillovers to the nearby community,” while U.S. Cellular, separated from the nearby neighborhood by asphalt, is a “walled fortress” that internalizes economic activity to maximize revenue for the team, at the expense of local economic development.

The entertainment businesses that spring up around Wrigley, including famous local bars such as Murphy’s Bleachers, grew organically, as opposed to the mall-like “entertainment complexes” seen at many new Major League parks. Fenway in Boston, another example of an idealized urban ballpark, became a catalyst for the same effect. Businesses on nearby Yawkey Way have been a “a participant rather than spectator to commercial activity.”

The size of Wrigley’s local impact is debatable. According to the team’s official figures, the Cubs generate $638 million in local economic activity, while a recent Chicago Tribune article looking at gains from last year’s playoff run suggested the economic boon from being near Wrigley isn’t as big as many may think, adding a mere 0.003 percent gain in income to the local economy for every playoff series.

Of course, the small things fans cherish about Wrigley also stand in the way of the Cubs making more money and modernizing the stadium. The Chicago stadium study found that the White Sox generate approximately 35 percent more in non-ticket revenue per fan in attendance than the Cubs.

A desire to make more money and keep up with the escalating costs of player salaries has led the Chicago Cubs, under owner Thomas Ricketts and the Ricketts family, to embark on a huge renovation and neighborhood expansion project, including updates to the ballpark and a new hotel and entertainment complexes near the stadium.

But it isn’t necessarily all about the money. For those who treasure the unique experience of seamlessly moving between the ballpark and the streetscape, there’s nothing that can replicate the effect of seeing a stadium spread beyond its walls.