Out of the Park

Photo by Peter Brentlinger

Photo by Peter Brentlinger

By J. Michael Welton

A snazzy new Triple-A ballpark in uptown Charlotte, N.C. is proving that baseball is more than just a game.

Sure, BB&T Ballpark offers the standard three bases and a home plate. And yes, the Charlotte Knights do play with wooden bats and regulation baseballs, their seams bearing the requisite 108 double stitches. And absolutely, their mascot – a carrot-topped, lime-green dragon named Homer – takes the field for every game.

But this is a ballpark that’s also dedicated to creating a walkable community and a work/play environment in a brand new neighborhood. It was designed that way that from the get-go.

“It’s the long-term vision of the 1970s and ‘80s, plus a major shift in psychographics,” says Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, a private, non-profit that’s been around since the late’70s. “People have changed – it’s a cyclical shift.”

It didn’t happen overnight, nor was it without controversy. Odell, the hometown architecture firm responsible for the 1955 Charlotte Coliseum – a design that once graced the cover of LOOK magazine and that still stands today – began its ballpark visioning process a decade ago. The firm had already created the city’s master plan back in the 1960s, so its selection to do the same for the ballpark was a natural.

Odell worked hand-in-glove with the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, the Charlotte Center City Partners, and its client, the Charlotte Knights baseball team. A patient group, they were slowed first by seven lawsuits from a proponent of major league baseball for the city, and then by the Great Recession.

But they broke ground in September 2012, and by April 11, 2014, the ballpark was ready for opening night. Almost simultaneously, a 22-story apartment building was under construction, catty-corner from the main entry at Mint Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Now that it’s topped out, a hotel and offices are planned beyond left field, along with a midrise and another high-rise.

“It’s definitely stimulating that part of town,” says Michael Woollen, managing partner at Odell.

It’s happening on a site where not long ago, a series of gravel parking lots languished. “It was a two-block-wide no man’s land,” he says. “It was the only remaining undeveloped piece downtown – I thought it was perfect because we already had the football stadium and it was across from a new park.”

Directly opposite that park – named for Romare Bearden, the African-American artist and writer who was a Charlotte native – now lies an open-air plaza in front of the ballpark’s main entry. “It’s a good, strong connection to a signature public park, where the symphony performs on Saturday,” Woollen says.

The new neighborhood in Charlotte’s southwest quadrant started to come together in 2005, when a complex set of land swaps between the city, the county, the local school board, Wachovia Bank, and Mass Mutual jump-started development in Third Ward. “That gave us the two city blocks to build it,” Woollen says.

Charlotte City Partners had already conducted a public ballpark site selection study, and shared it with city and county officials, also in 2005. “We really set it all in motion with the five-acre signature park and 1,000 units of housing underway, creating that neighborhood,” Smith says.

But Third Ward’s beating heart is the ballpark’s spectacular view of Charlotte’s downtown, wrapped around the entire outfield. “The batters are oriented away from the sun, and yet the fans have this great backdrop behind the playing surface, looking up at the Charlotte skyline,” Smith says. “I think it’s one of the best in the world – and it’s as good a spot to sell our city as any.”

The ballpark’s bordered by Mint Street on the east, Graham Street on the west, Fourth Street on the north, and Martin Luther King Boulevard on the south. Also to the south is a strategic bonus: Duke Energy’s parking garage, which has long served patrons of Carolina Panthers games, and now, Charlotte Knights fans as well. “We built no parking, and there are no issues with parking,” Smith says. “And there are virtual sellouts to every game.”

Its people-moving capabilities are complaint-free, says Dan Rajkowski, the Knights’ general manager. Crowds are late-arriving, and begin filtering out starting in the seventh inning. Once the game’s over, the ballpark’s empty in 15 minutes.

Many of those fans, some arriving on the city’s light rail system, walk to and from the games. “During the week, it may be 20 to 25 percent,” Rajkowski says. “At quarter to seven, I can stand up on the home run porch in right field and see people walking from the park and the streets.”

Even with its 10,400-seat, standing-room-only sellouts, the sides of the ballpark are opened up via see through fences to life on the street, so action inside is clearly visible outside. An 18-foot by 32-foot video screen is mounted on Mint Street, offering pedestrians bigger views of the games. The idea is not to close the ballpark off, but to make it integral to Charlotte’s urban fabric.

“From Graham Street there are some knotholes to watch it, the way my father used to watch the Yankees,” Smith says. “And at some of the games, the uptown fire department pulls up and sits on top of their truck to watch.”

Inside, it’s intimate – only 21 rows of 8,400 fixed seats, with a second-tier club and suite level. There’s standing room on grass berm seating, and picnic tables as well. A series of covered concourses and open walkways – fans can walk the 1,700 feet around the entire ballpark in about ten minutes – offers concessions, food courts, drink rails, restaurants, a Home Run Court in right field, and a Home Plate Club with indoor terraces.

“Behind home plate there are two suites at the same level as the dugout, so your eyes are at same level as the catcher squatting down,” Woollen says. “You’re closer to the batter than the pitcher is – about 45 to 50 feet.” It yields a bird’s-eye view of the game – with left field at 330 feet, a power alley at 375 feet, center field at 400 feet, and right field at 315 feet. “The home runs are everywhere – I saw a couple last night at dead center,” says Rajkowski. “The ball does carry well here – the wind tends to carry it out.”

The Knights kicked up $38 million for the stadium, plus funding for food service equipment and a restaurant. Their organization holds the mortgage on the ballpark, paying $1 annually in rent to the county. The city contributed $8 million to construction, and the county another $8 million. By the time all was said and done, the project came in at about $60 million.

“For a Triple A ballpark, that’s about right,” Woollen says. “It’s $6,000 a seat, and most are in that range.”

Still, the team struggles to win its games, as most Triple A teams do when the majors call up their best players. “We lost ten to the Chicago White Sox; most have been pitchers,” says Rajkowski. “So there have been some tough losses – you win a few, and you lose a few.”

Life in Charlotte’s Third Ward, though, is the real winner here.

“It’s not about baseball, and it’s not about economics,” says Smith. “It’s about coming together downtown – our vision is not to just create a baseball stadium but a ballpark neighborhood.”

So for a city intent on packing its ranks with well-heeled millennials – those recent college grads who crave a walkable city – BB&T Ballpark is a magnet. And an out-of-the-park home run.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.

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