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Interview - Janet Marie Smith - Planning & Development PDF Print E-mail
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The Biz of Baseball - Interviews
Written by Maury Brown   
Tuesday, 05 October 2004 12:00

Janet Marie SmithTurner Field. Camden Yards. Fenway Park. Janet Marie Smith has been involved in the planning and development of all three.

The interview covers views on how stadium development should be a synergy of the environments they reside in, the differences between the Braves, Orioles, and now the Red Sox has been, what makes a ballpark "classic", and renovating, yet not diminishing Fenway Park's historic value.


 
If there needed to be one word to describe Janet Marie Smith, maybe the word to use would be “versatile.”

The three major MLB facilities that she has played a part in planning and developing could not be more different or more visible.

She has served as President of Turner Sports and Entertainment Development, a division of Turner Broadcasting System, and was Vice President of Planning and Development for the Atlanta Braves baseball team. During her tenure there, she had the unique job of the design and conversion of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Stadium into Turner Field, the home of the Braves.

From 1989 – 1994, Ms. Smith was the Baltimore Orioles’ Vice President for Planning and Development of Oriole Park at Camden Yards – the gold standard to which all modern ballparks are compared.

And now, she takes on probably one of the most difficult planning and development jobs in MLB – changing a shrine.

Smith now serves as Vice President of Planning and Development for the Boston Red Sox, which began the 2002 baseball season under new ownership. She is charged with evaluating options to renovate the home of the Red Sox. The last series of renovations to the park came in the ‘80s. The task of expanding Fenway while retaining its historic charm must be daunting.

We last caught up with Ms. Smith just before the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. Given the win the team and facility will be more popular than ever. Rushing to catch a plane to St. Louis for Game 4 when we last talked, she was dealing with the request to expand Fenway seating by another 10% (see sidebar ) and was the only front office member not scheduled to be in St. Louis for a Game 3.

In this interview Smith touches on a variety of subjects ranging from the differences among the 3 major baseball facilities she has been involved in to what ballparks she thinks might become “classic”. She talks about how planning a ballpark has to be done hand-in-hand with the host community and why making ballparks odd for oddity sake is, “trying to be whimsical for the sake of the folly of it.” - Maury Brown


BizBall: Is ballpark design more a reflection of the club's wishes/specs/requirements or the architect's design/inspiration/creativity?

JMS: Well, that’s a tough question.

I think that baseball parks have historically been most interesting when they are architecturally done with a little "a", when they have been designed by their surroundings, when they are a product of the environment they’re in, and the region; less so then when they have been thought of as an architectural edifice that needs to make a statement.

Red Sox look to expand Fenway by 10%

Just before we went to publication for this interview, the Red Sox made a formal request to the Boston Landmarks Commission to make two changes to Fenway to try to maximize the venue in terms of seating capacity, and to allow the new World Series Champions some well deserved new space in the Clubhouse.

The expansion would add roughly 10% to Fenway's current capacity increasing from 36,298 to 39,928. As Janet Marie Smith explains, this would be done by removing the 4 rows of roof-box seating in the "406 Club", raising the roof line from 70' to 80' from street level, and replacing the 4 rows of roof-box seats that were removed, with 8 new rows. In addition, Fenway's well-worn roof will replaced.

To help with the congestion associated with the additional seating, the circulation area behind the seating will be expanded to allow for approx. 200 standing room patrons as well.

To view the proposed expansion designs, please access these 2 PDF documents provided by the Red Sox organization.

And, I’m not at all suggesting that architects aren’t important in ballpark design, just saying that I think that the more successful ones are the ones, where architects have created a setting for the games to be played and the fans to celebrate it, and not necessarily look to make their own statement about trends and designs, or their own mark on the building.

Bizball: You’ve worked for three different MLB organizations. What were some things that were different about the Orioles, Braves, and Red Sox that you had to take into consideration?


JMS: Well, they all couldn’t be more different in their own way, and yet there is some commonality. It’s interesting to me that they are more different than alike.

Their commonality is the distance between the baselines. The Orioles were looking to build an urban ballpark, one that had modern amenities but that was the first in an effort, I should say the first effort was the Royals Stadium in Kansas City is, I think, rightfully the first. But they were looking to build on this notion of a single stadium for baseball and a single stadium for football and design something that unlike Kansas City took in their surroundings and devoted to being a part of the city environment. I think the Oriole’s commitment to that, particularly Lucchino’s commitment to that is best evidenced by not only agreeing to a downtown location but saving the warehouse, working within the site that had very little parking and no parking at all a full 50% of the frontage. Those were actions that backed up the rhetoric very early on.

The Braves had a completely different set of circumstances. They had been wanting a new single purpose park for years and years and had assumed they would have to go outside of Atlanta to find the financial ability of a community to help fund one and then the Olympics came along and all of a sudden there was this window of opportunity to get a park that was completely debt free. No one owed any money on it when the games were over, as long as they were willing to design it as an Olympic Stadium first and then convert it to baseball. So the challenges there were a lot less about knitting it into the environment and rather time to work within the Olympic constraints and make it work for baseball afterwards. And the site was selected solely because it was already owned by the city and there were no constraints to moving forward. The construction of a deadline that the city and our nation couldn’t bear the thought of missing.

Fenway Park, of course, is a completely different animal in that it’s the first serious attempt to preserve one of the older ballparks. Tiger stadium and Comisky were torn down late enough in their lives that people had, historic preservation had developed a foothold in America. There was a lot of evidence that historic rehab could work and yet no one had ever been willing to apply it to a sports venue and so with only two ball parks left from that era and the club had been committed to Fenway for a long time and the Red Sox again under the direction of Larry Lucchino had been particularly interested in trying to make certain that their stewardship of Fenway Park includes a thoughtful renovation with the ability to have it work economically going forward.

BizBall: At this stage in history, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is viewed as the gold standard for new park development. If plagiarism is the highest form of flattery, then surely you must be flattered, as it’s been copied in one form or another since being built. When did you realize that Camden was going to be something more than just a new ballpark?

JMS: That’s nice to hear.

BizBall: If plagiarism is the highest form of flattery, then surely you must be flattered, as it’s been copied in one form or another since being built. When did you realize that Camden was going to be something more than just a new ballpark?

JMS: I think that as it was under construction, we began to realize that the national media was watching it. And initially that wasn’t a huge surprise being as close to Washington as Baltimore is; we’re celebrating the fact that we had so many fans from DC. It was as much as Camden Yards made the Orioles a stable franchise so that the commitment to regionalizing the fan base and so we were always thrilled when we got media that was beyond Baltimore; we’d stop in New York, Pennsylvania and down to Washington DC and Richmond.

I think it was probably along about ‘90 or ‘91 that we began to realize that the simple mantra that Larry Lucchino had us all hyped for so many years, an old fashion ballpark with modern amenities was one that had caught on, and perhaps new Comisky which had a similar sound bite but had not risen to anything that caused much celebration probably made us work harder to make certain that we were adhering to the standards that we had set for ourselves of capturing the spirit of an old ballpark. But it was probably, I think it was probably that, the national media focusing on it that made us realize that maybe we were onto something that would have a greater meaning through out the country than just the stadium, the ballpark we were looking to build.

BizBall: Which of the post-Camden Yard parks do you feel will become classic "destination" parks like Wrigley, Fenway, and now, Camden Yards?

JMS: I think Pac Bell in San Francisco, Petco in San Diego and Coors Field in Denver all had that potential and Jacob’s, I guess, in Cleveland I would put in that category.

Much of my admiration for them has to do with the neighborhoods they chose to be in, because Camden Yards wouldn’t be the same if it had been built out on the Beltway and it’s not Pac Bell anymore, it wouldn’t be the same if it had been inland. And I think Jacob’s Field which redefined downtown Cleveland. I think those are the parks that stand the chance to be most successful and I think the success is derived, back to your original question, sort of less from the ballpark itself; how many club seats and how many suites, is it painted white, is it painted green? It’s capturing the totality of what fans go to, I am a real believer that if fans were only interested in the outcome of the nine innings that there are a lot of other ways to stay tuned to your favorite team. It’s the experience of being at the ballpark the camaraderie of being with other people that make it an outing and much more than just a game.

BizBall: As an architect, what allows you to make decisions that create a stadium that becomes more than just a place where a ballgame occurs? What allows a stadium to take on a place of being within a given city?

JMS: Well I think one thing that for me personally helps is I don’t have to act as the architect. I’ve always worked with really good architects who could devote all the energy it took to the problem solving of putting a building together and devote my energies in trying to figure out what does it want to be. How do you go out and listen to the fans and come back with input from them? How do you absorb the city around it and try and pick up on the nuances of the neighborhood? How do you understand the traffic patterns and focus on what makes those work, so that no matter how cute, nostalgic or historic your ballpark, if you can’t get there, its not any fun to go.

So I think it is important, I guess, for my own role. I think of it as not… obviously I don’t think of myself as being the architect, but rather as sort of the, almost like a film director. How do you direct all these consultants and all of this input and try and put together and edit it in a way, movies are a great analogy, so that you are putting something out for people to enjoy because it becomes the setting for something really wonderful. Baseball is a wonderful game but it is the strategy and intrigue of the game that requires the setting that as equally as interesting.

BizBall: On the other side of the Camden Yards coin, is the comment by some stadium design critics that the retro ballpark, ala Camden Yards, is being emulated to the point of making the design blasé. Is there a point where the same design takes on too much of a good thing?

JMS: Well, I am not a fan of the term retro ballpark by any means and I could tell you when we were doing Camden Yards, I would bristle on the occasions when that term was used. Canden YardsWe never felt that Camden was a retro ballpark. We were trying to design a ballpark that like the older ballparks was a single purpose park with a playing field that wasn’t contorted to be perfectly symmetrical but was responsive to the surroundings. We were looking for, instead of building materials, a building construction type and the steel trusses that made sense for the Baltimore setting. We wanted that building to be contextual. We weren’t looking to do a retro ballpark. And I suspect that every team that came after us can honestly say something similar and so I completely disagree with that. I think making a ballpark contextual is a noble goal and then one can measure how well you succeeded.


BizBall: You now are in the midst of working on one of baseball’s most revered facilities in Fenway Park.

JMS: A job I take very seriously.

BizBall: As I imagine so.

The park has undeniable idiosyncrasies, such as the Green Monster, doorways on to the field, and the Devil’s Triangle in centerfield – all by-products of the cramped site location. Recently, ballpark design seems to have latched on to this type of quirkiness and tries to artificially incorporate it into  new ballparks. Is there a point where ballparks can become forcefully odd just for the sake of being odd?

JMS: Yeah, I do think so.

That’s where I do agree.

I think cute for the sake of cute is never a good thing. And there is a fine line between being contextual and being, trying to be whimsical for the sake of the folly of it. And I do think there’s a point where that’s not as meaningful.

BizBall: How difficult has it been to try and squeeze everything out of Fenway as you can, and still retain its historic qualities?

JMS: Well, it’s tough but I appreciate the constraints. Sometimes it’s easier to work within constraints than it is a clean slate. So I don’t know that it’s enormously difficult, particularly since the ownership values Fenway first and foremost. So one of the things I have a huge appreciation for John Henry and Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino on, they are not coming to Fenway and saying well, the perfect ballpark in the New England region should have 80 private suites and 5000 club seats and be a total capacity of 41,000.

How do we get that out of Fenway? They are coming from the opposite door and saying we have a ballpark that is the oldest in the major leagues, the most beloved, that has been threatened for 15 years, that we have a chance to say, and what can we do to save it? Try and recognize that we need to make more money in this ballpark in order to field a competitive team. But the last thing we want to do is layer so much onto it that it doesn’t feel like Fenway.

Now how do you figure out how elastic it can actually be? And the answer is Fenway is pretty elastic.

You know, it went through a radical transformation between 1911 and 1934 and it went through another radical transformation when they added, what started out as a football press box and grew into all these suites on the top. They added, they made another radical change with the 406 Club, and yet it’s still Fenway.So I think what I’ve heard thus far in the three years that I worked for Larry and John and Tom is that nothing they do is going to be as radical as what’s gone on before. And if anything they tried to turn back the hands of time, where appropriate, in terms of restoring the facades, taking down that big green wall that caused you to completely lose the pyramid shape of the bleachers. They’ve respected Fenway for Fenway and have tried where they could to add things that didn’t seem to destroy its original character.

BizBall: You know there wasn’t a lot of changes that went on in the previous past before Tom Werner, John Henry, and Larry Lucchino -- before the current ownership came along. Couldn’t most of the changes that your making to Fenway have been done years ago if previous ownership understood what a treasure Fenway was and wasn’t so focused on getting a new ballpark?

JMS: Well, I think they could have but sometimes things need to happen in due course. You know, I imagine if you kind of weaved together the questions you’ve asked, that the goal to replace Fenway came at a point in time when every ballpark was aiming for 45-50,000 seats.

It came at a time before the nostalgia for the old ballparks was as keen as it is today.

It came before the bloom was off the rose for some of the new ballparks and we’ve seen even the most successful of them that, you can only have a sellout season so many years in a row.

And then you better field a competitive team, and you better keep your ballpark fresh, and you better reach out to fans and make certain you’re part of the menu of choices that they make. And so the answer is physically could they have done it, absolutely. But could you have seen that without the crystal ball that we have? Probably not.

BizBall: Camden Yards opened up with a capacity of about 48,000, which is somewhat larger than the parks opened in the past four years. What’s the practical maximum capacity for a ballpark, before adding more seats destroys the feeling of intimacy that fans seem to cherish?

JMS: Well, I guess it depends on where you start.

You fingered exactly the thing that we’ve been watching, which is the trend getting smaller and smaller and I think some of that has to do with intimacy and some of it has to do with just good selling practices. That it’s better to have people feel like they need to buy early and often then to feel like they can wait to see how the team does before they commit to their summer games.

I don’t know that there’s a magic answer.

I don’t think Coors or Camden feel excessively large, although there is just a magic to Fenway that can’t be replicated. Even the newer parks like Petco and Pittsburgh that have been built are closer to 40 than 50 [thousand] they still have incorporated all of the presumed rules of having wide tread width, wide seat width, cross aisles for venders to pass, without obstructing views.

Of course, all the rules that come with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), frequent number of aisles in order to be able to sell a certain number of box seats and not having fans stepping over 20 people. And a construction methodology that says lets not have any columns, lets pull the upper deck far enough back that you can see the trajectory of the ball. If you do all of those things, even if you only put in 30,000 seats, you’re 1½ times as large as Fenway is, because Fenway and Wrigley were built to completely different set of standards.

It does make me think sometimes that all of these wonderful things that we’ve done for our own personal creature comfort had had a net loss to the communal comfort of being in a ballpark.

I’ll use Yankee Stadium as an example because it was redone in the 70’s you know.

Their cross aisles are designed so that if you’re sitting behind a cross aisle you better be on your feet cause you can’t see what’s going on as a result. There is an energy to Yankee Stadium that you’re not going to find someplace that’s designed it for all these sort of wonderful things that allow you to stay there with your newspaper and never be disturbed.

BizBall: The Red Sox recently held a Jimmy Buffet concert in Fenway. In years past, that would have been deemed probably unthinkable, but modern turf and drainage systems now make it possible to use baseball fields for other events without killing the grass. How many more such events are likely to come in the future in Fenway? Are other baseball teams looking into staging summer concerts as well?

JMS: I think a couple of things have happened.

The drainage on the playing field is better, the turf is, and we won’t have it, make it, almost like a, not a natural thing. The kind of covering they put on the playing field to protect from the chairs is more sophisticated. It now can breathe, so it doesn’t smother the grass during Fenway Parkthe time it’s down. So everything has advanced technologically. For Fenway, I believe that our fans were willing to allow us to have the Jimmy Buffet concert this year and Bruce Springsteen last year in part realizing that one of the trade offs of keeping Fenway, which only holds 36,000 people and is by far the smallest ballpark in the major leagues, that we needed to find other things that we could do there to help on the revenue side.

And this -- two concerts a year --seems I think fairly modest as long as we’re observing the neighborhood’s request for ending early, not having sound checks in the middle of the night, you know, doing things that simply are neighborly. And I suspect you’ll see more teams doing that if they can control it and I do think that there is a fear that in a municipal owned ballparks that if the teams weren’t able to control it I think teams are often fearful that something would be done, that no one couldn’t be as sensitive as they could, returning it to baseball ready conditions.

BizBall: What are the important differences between designing a football stadium versus a ballpark? When one drives by Ravens Stadium in Baltimore, one is struck by its enormous size and lack of grace compared to Camden Yards, which looks small and homey by comparison.

JMS: Well, I think that clearly the ownership made a big difference in Camden Yards. I don’t want to suggest that the Ravens didn’t care as much about their venue, but I suspect they cared, just by looking at it, I would suspect that they cared more about things that you could quantify that made it terrific as an experience being inside the park, the stadium and looking at the game.

I think baseball is a little more sensitive, even if there is not the tradition of tailgating and all those kinds of things that come with football. Baseball is a little more sensitive to just the total ambiance and the realization that in a game where you don’t have a fast pace necessarily and you have a long season, that with 81 games a year and nine inning games that can sometimes stretch to four hours that the setting is important. Just checking off the quantitative things aren’t going to make it a terrific experience.

Bizball: Tiger Stadium is sitting abandoned in Detroit and will probably be torn down as soon as there is a chance to use the property for commercial development. Many plans have been discussed to renovate the historic park. Is that really practical? Has any old ballpark ever been successfully renovated, and if not, why?

JMS: To my knowledge, there has never been a serious effort to renovate a stadium to an alternate use.

That is too bad because in recent years we have seen facilities torn down like Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and Atlanta Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Just because it’s reached the end of its presumed economic life I don’t think means it has reached the end of its structural life.

In Atlanta, there was a research done into making the 1960's stadium into parking, but the effort came to late to really develop any serious attention.

The same was true, even more sadly in Baltimore.

The vintage 1930's Memorial Stadium was kept for 10 years after the Orioles moved to Camden Yards as home to the eventual Ravens NFL team while their new stadium was under construction. During those years, several preservationists and developers put in proposals to reuse the structure for a range of uses including housing and university space.

Unfortunately, there was not the political will to try something new, and we lost one of the biggest monuments of that architectural era.

It would be so nice for Detroit to have a serious search into alternate uses for Tiger Stadium. And frankly, now that there are but few of the "cookie cutter, donut parks" it would be nice to see at least one spared the wreaking ball. While not great places to watch games, the architectural detail of St. Louis' Busch Stadium and San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium is beautiful and exemplary of its time. With increased emphasis on "green" architecture, one would certainly hope this kind of effort would be viewed as the ultimate environmentally correct gesture.

 That is something, it’s a challenge I’d love to see cities and teams and neighborhoods take up because I think they could be magically redone. I don’t think teams are in the business of doing that, I think that at the end of the day, most baseball teams want to stick with their knitting, not be in the development business but be in the baseball business. And so, it takes, whoever owns it at the end of the day, usually a municipality, to have the foresight, the guts, and the risk to try something new. And I was really sorry that there was such a ground swell of interest in Memorial Stadium at the end, but it was too little too late. And it would be nice, even Comiskey, it’s ok trying to keep a piece of Comiskey just for the nostalgia of it. It failed because of cost. So it’d be nice to see Tiger Stadium given that chance.

BizBall: Just out of curiosity, how many upper bleacher seats are there in Fenway now, and how they can be sold out for rest of year if they are only supposedly only available day-of-game?

JMS: Well, I should probably direct you to someone who can give you a better answer than I, but I’ll give you a couple pieces of the answer.

The Red Sox did their best all year long to keep some tickets available for day-of-game sales, and that happened in part because we set some aside, and in part because we made an effort anytime tickets weren’t being used either by the military or corporate sponsors or house seats, or for whatever reason we might set them aside to begin with, and they got out in front of the fans. And because we had a huge advance sale it suited us fine to be able to put those out game day.

One of the reasons why the numbers don’t always add up if you’re sitting around with a pocket calculator is that we have a capacity of 36,298, but we are, we have only 35,000 positions, seated positions, so the rest are standing room. We often, like every other team in baseball are not permitted to count comp seats. So if the seat has not been sold, but there is a warm body in it, it doesn’t count for the posted attendance. So any military seats, and we have a several hundred of those, don’t count toward the total.

For instance, any house seats don’t count toward the total. So that’s the reason the capacity or occupancy numbers in most ballparks and the sellout numbers in most ballparks don’t match. Now this year the Red Sox seeing what a frenzy there was and seeing with some dismay what was happening on the scalping front, about ten days ago went ahead and released all of their tickets for the rest of the season. It meant that we were able to announce early that we had 81 sold out games, that we had sold out April all the way through October which is the first time that’s ever happened at Fenway and I think only two other teams have done that, Cleveland and Denver.

So it was also a wake up call to us that since we done we hope a fairly decent job of adding a few hundred seats a year in a way that doesn’t destroy Fenway, that the city may well give permission to increase the occupancy so that we can pick up more seats, although, as I said earlier, I think that John [Henry], Tom [Werner], and Larry [Lucchino] are all quite enamored with and committed, to continuing to continuing to be the smallest ballpark in the major leagues and aren’t looking to anything so radical as to destroy that.

BizBall: The new Comiskey Park opened only a year earlier than Camden Yards, yet their designs couldn’t have been more different. If Comiskey were to have become a big hit because Frank Thomas and the Sox had won a couple of World Series in the early 1990s and, if Camden Yards had been less successful because the Orioles played like the Devil Rays for their first couple of years there, would MLB teams would have built 10 clones of Comiskey by now instead of emulating Oriole Park?

JMS: I think that’s a great question. That’s a fascinating question.

I doubt it.

I think that the public is discerning enough to see the difference in the atmosphere and the setting, that that wouldn’t have happened. And while the Orioles had contending teams, they didn’t go nearly as far as they might have.

I love the question, but I don’t know the answer.

BizBall: What do see for the future for ballpark design, and what do you see are some trends that might break that the trend lately that tends to be more skewed toward brick and mortar? I hate to use the word, “radical” but do we see the possibility of designs that may involve more steel and glass?

JMS: Sure, I do happen to be a fan of the idea that a ballpark should fit with its surroundings, but that doesn’t mean it has to mimic its surroundings. And I don’t there’s anything about brick that suggests that it’s the only building material for baseball out there. It is a traditional one for those parks that are built in older urban settings, it’s often an appropriate material because so many buildings around them are also masonry.

 But, I don’t think that means that modern design isn’t a good thing by any stretch of the imagination. And, it would be terrific to see something done that was of modern vocabulary.

I don’t think that’s what makes or breaks a wonderful ballpark. I think it’s the spirit – the energy of the fans inside it that will make or break a ballpark’s ability to be perceived as something that has longevity.

 The following interview was originally published on the SABR Business of Baseball website, and can be read here: SABR Business of Baseball Interviews Page 

Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 9/22//04.

 
 
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