May 29, 2009

Seeing a new light

Latest proposal for renovating the Rose Bowl lowers costs by $100 million and bets on fans to pay more for luxury seats

By Dan Abendschein
Pasadena Star News
May 29, 2009

Looking down at the Rose Bowl from the premiere view of the stadium's press box, Manager Darryl Dunn is a happy man.

That's because the latest plan for renovating the stadium is estimated to cost about $150 million, $100 million less than the other plans, and in his view, will be much less disruptive to surrounding neighborhoods. “We're not going to have to blow anything up,” said Dunn, gleefully.

The plan, the latest in a series of ideas for renovation over the last seven years, makes some key changes to how the project will be done. The main one is to leave the tunnels that allow passage into the stadium intact; Previous plans involved expanding the width of the tunnels to allow more people to pass through safely. That would have caused more loud construction – not an ideal solution for area neighbors. “It's a bit of a turbulent community situation,” Dunn said. “But we've heard the input of the neighborhood and we think this plan fits it as well as we can.”

The local neighborhoods have always had a bit of a tense relationship with the Rose Bowl, said Sharon Yonashiro, the former head of the Linda Vista/Annandale Association. Despite the tension, she added, nobody wants to stop the Rose Bowl from doing the work it needs to survive as a stadium. “Everyone understands the Rose Bowl needs renovation,” Yonashiro said. “As long as they stay with the [environmental impact report] that has been approved, the association isn't going to object to it.”

But, said Yonashiro, the fact remains that the Rose Bowl's interests don't always square with the interests of the neighborhood. One of her biggest concerns as a resident, she said, is an increase in events at the stadium. “People always say I should have known what to expect when I moved into a neighborhood near the Rose Bowl,” she said. “But when I moved here in 1982, UCLA had barely just begun to play there, and there wasn't much else going on.”

These days, with a half-marathon, the Amgen bike race, and concerts and other paid events, the Rose Bowl is getting busier. And that is an important part of its future, Dunn said. Seven years ago, he said, the stadium brought in about $70,000 in non-football paid events. Today it is about $700,000. That is not enough to ensure the stadium's long-term finances, however.

The stadium has faced the need to come up with a new, more profitable design, as the possibility of having an NFL team play at the Rose Bowl has faded over the years. Voters put a nail in the coffin in 2006 when they overwhelmingly voted against the possibility of allowing a team to play there.

Keeping the stadium profitable is a priority for the city, which generates an estimated $58.6 million from the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game. But the city will have to sell the $150 million renovation plan to the community – the likely financing plan is to pay for it with a 30-year municipal bond. Dunn said he believes the changes will result in an extra annual revenue of $5 million.

New features

That extra annual revenue will mostly come from additional luxury box seating, a big feature in its new stadium design. To avoid raising prices all over the stadium, a small select group pays prices far above the average fan. Currently the stadium only has about 600 such seats, which are leased out to UCLA season-ticket holders. After the expansion, the stadium would have 3,000 under the current plan.

Aside from changing the luxury box, the current plan is more notable for all that it doesn't change. The idea behind the plan is to make small, incremental changes that most won't even notice, said Dunn.

In the case of the tunnels leading into the stadium, which all previous planners envisioned widening, it means they will be left alone. What will happen instead is that tunnels that lead directly onto the field will be expanded. Fans seated in the bottom rows of the stadium will file onto the field directly, separated from the players by a hedge wall that will be added. Making room for a fan entrance will require some of the lower seats to be torn out - but Dunn sees it as a case of losing lower-priced seating in exchange for more premium seats.

“We're betting that some people will be willing to pay a premium price for the experience of being able to walk right on to the field,” said Dunn. The removal of those seats, as well as a couple of new sets of stairs that will be built to improve seat access, will lower the seating capacity of the stadium. However, the stadium currently seats more than 92,000, a huge number for modern stadiums, and the reduction would only bring it to about 89,000, according to Dunn.

Previous plans also called for the destruction of several outlying buildings on the property to create more space for fans to walk on the concourse to get to food vendors and the restroom. But the current plan will instead introduce a cafeteria-style eating area, meant to reduce lines and improve foot traffic between the concourse and the stadium.

Following Fenway

The minimal-interference ideas behind the stadium design come from Janet Marie Smith, the Boston architect who oversaw the design for the groundbreaking Major League Baseball stadium Camden Yards, which hosts the Baltimore Orioles. That redesign put a new emphasis on designing stadiums to attract spectators who were as much interested in the feeling of just being at a ball park as they were in the game of baseball.

More recently, Smith worked on the renovation of Boston's Fenway Park, which hosts the Red Sox. Fenway, like the Rose Bowl, was an early 20th-century stadium considered a historical landmark in its own right. While other cities dynamited their older stadiums, Boston fans were deeply attached to Fenway and Red Sox management chose to go for a redesign that would involve subtle changes to the size of seats, tunnels and vendor areas.

Smith is currently wooing officials from the National Park Service on the possibility of getting Fenway listed as a historical landmark – she considers herself a historical preservationist, she said. That sort of thinking was entirely new from all the other plans that the Rose Bowl had been entertaining. “The focus was all on leveling parts of the stadium and rebuilding from scratch,” said Dunn.

The new design also will include a few other perks for the historical-minded: two retro scoreboards that will mimic the appearance of boards that used to inhabit the stadium. There will also be a visual history of the Rose Bowl circling the concourse, with bricks and plaques listing historical milestones.

But with just minimal changes overall, the Rose Bowl will maintain an unchanged historical purpose, a very unusual feat in America. “There are very few historical facilities that are still being used for the exact purpose they were built,” said Dunn. “We want a plan that ensures the long-term viability of the stadium and we think this is it.”