NEVER TRUST A STADIUM OVER 30 TAXPAYERS ARE FINDING THAT NOTHING LASTS FOREVER--NOT EVEN THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD

October 28, 1996

Houston, you have a problem. The Astrodome, which was proclaimed
the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened 31 years ago, did
not turn out to be another Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Or even
an ivied walls of Wrigley. The future of the once futuristic
playground will hang in the balance on Nov. 5 when citizens of
Harris County vote on a proposed $265 million retractable-roof
baseball stadium. The Astrodome, formerly a symbol of progress
and a source of pride for Houstonians, may now be renounced by
the citizenry that once acclaimed it.

An Astrodome contemporary, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, will
be a goner soon after the World Series. It was considered a
paradise by the Braves when they abandoned Milwaukee following
the 1965 season to take up residence in Atlanta, but it will be
razed in the off-season, its site to become a parking lot for
the adjacent Olympic Stadium--soon to be Ted Turner Field. The
replacement of old and not-so-old stadiums is either under way
or being given serious consideration in 13 other major league
cities.

Those stadiums were hailed as marvels when they opened, in most
cases barely more than a generation ago. Many came out of the
cookie-cutter school of architecture--Busch Stadium in St.
Louis, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Three Rivers Stadium in
Pittsburgh and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia--massive
circular arenas built to hold 55,000 fans and house both
baseball and football teams. At the time this made perfect
economic and engineering sense. They were designed in an era
when fans went to games and not "entertainment experiences,"
when no one was unduly fussy. The stadiums had to have enough
seats to anticipate the demand of growing baby boomers, one
stadium surely was cheaper to build than two, and artificial
turf was going to make these sporting palaces even more
efficient. Like shag carpets and that sickly avocado color that
was all the rage for kitchen appliances, they seemed like good
ideas at the time. Now plastic grass is the curse of
sore-jointed athletes, every team wants a single-use stadium,
and baseball has decided that cozy whips colossal any day of the
week. Those 1960s parks have turned out to be the structural
equivalent of the Nehru jacket.

Now we're in the era of economy-sized stadiums, 42,000-seat
faux-antique ballparks from the Iowa-cornfield school of
architecture, where premium seats are cushioned for the comfort
of those with premium seats. Baltimore's Camden Yards,
Cleveland's Jacobs Field, Denver's Coors Field and the other
ball yards replete with calculated kitsch have elicited the same
awe as the Eighth Wonder once did. They are now as
conventionally wise as Riverfront and Three Rivers were 25 years
ago, magic beans that will turn revenue streams into waterfalls
and dead downtowns into Disneylands--if you can look beyond the
public debt. Bill them (the taxpayers), and they will come. On
one level the optimism is impressive. Detroit hopes its new
ballpark will revive downtown in a way that a monorail and a
shining complex of buildings called the Renaissance Center, both
erected in the past 20 years, have failed to do. The Montreal
Expos lust for a charming downtown bandbox to replace their
antiseptic but more-than-adequate domed Olympic Stadium 12
minutes east of centre ville, as if a stadium alone will swell
attendance in a city where baseball apathy runs deep and the
owners' pockets run shallow.

But lurking beneath this Iowa-cornfield building boom is an
assumption that also is profoundly pessimistic: Baseball isn't
coming back. The game has become as dated as the avocado
Hotpoint, and you do not need 55,000 seats when 40,000 will be
plenty. Intimacy in a ballpark has its virtues, of course. If
you are an owner, small stadiums reduce the number of distant
(read: cheap) seats and create an artificial scarcity, lending a
sense of urgency to ticket buying. But if owners and politicians
figured the game was going to regain its grip on the fans'
souls, surely one of them would tell HOK Sports Facilities
Group, the company that came up with the designs for Camden
Yards and Coors Field, to cut the confectionery and put in
another 10,000 seats--even cheap ones.

Houstonians will be voting on the high-tech version of these
new-old parks. If the electorate refuses to pay for a
retractable-roof stadium, the Astros will surely beat it to a
city that will build them some sort of new park. But taxpayers
beware: Don't assume that an investment of hundreds of millions
is going to last your lifetime, let alone your children's
lifetimes. The flavors of the decade change. Architectural
revisionism rules. Lisa Marie and Michael's
till-death-do-us-part lasted 20 months, the thousand-year Reich
couldn't make a quarter of a century, and as Houstonians know,
the Dome, old before its time, might not see the millennium. The
Eighth Wonder was no Pyramids scheme.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of yard sale table with old telephone, baseball stadium, grammophone and shoes]

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