On Wednesday night, Mother Jones ran a piece on the cautionary tale that both the City and County of St. Louis are living out following the loss of their NFL franchise. Combined, they’re saddled with another $60 million or so in bond repayments for a mid-’90s stadium deal that bought them a two-decade tease from the Rams, who are now headed back to Proximate-L.A. after the NFL and their homebred owner decided a 20 year-old stadium qualifies as an antiquated, dilapidated piece of crap.
Commenting on the MoJo story, a colleague and I had the following exchange:
Plenty has been made of the social injustice and economic lunacy that propels the patently extortive practice of gifting public funds to billionaires for stadium projects — in fact, google the title phrase “stadium boondoggle” to find everyone from from Reason to John Oliver to Ron Paul to The Japan Times serving up the truth. But what gets less attention is the monumental immorality of forcing obsolescence onto perfectly functional facilities well in advance of their end of design life and especially to do so, as is often the case, under the pretense of going green.
As I mentioned in my comment above, the Rams situation is hardly anomalous. Time will tell what awaits St. Louis’s vacant dome, outside of some NCAA tourney games, Disney On Ice shows, a GnR reunion tour stop (speculative), and perhaps a future archaeological dig to unearth a buried time capsule, but its primary use has been stripped away after just 21 football seasons and replicated some 2,000 miles westward. A more certain fate awaits Atlanta’s two largest sports venues, which will both be leveled come 2017 when the Braves and Falcons abandon two stadia (h/t Stan Kroenke, Linguist) a combined 41 years old. Oh, the waste.
Owners of green buildings reported that their ROI improved by 19.2% on average for existing building green projects and 9.9% on average for new projects.
If I’m interpreting that right, it means that a retrofit or replacement on an old, energy-guzzling geezer of a building will lower energy costs by something like 20% while a new building built by LEED standards will be 10% more energy efficient than one built by standard building code. The former is probably more applicable because we’re considering replacing an oldish facility (at least by energy efficiency standards) with a new one, and it’s also the figure that skews against my bias. So 20% it is. Woo LEED!
But of course, lots of the energy use in a building’s life cycle is embodied in its construction and materials. How much? Well it’s varied and complicated, and it’s unclear how well estimates for typical buildings would scale up to a stadium. But, without knowing the material specifications for the Georgia Dome, a somewhat reasonable guess seems to be ten years worth of energy use embedded in the stadium’s coming of existence.
Simply put, if standard annual energy usage is x, the LEED-certified energy usage is 0.8x, and the embodied energy is 10x. That means (ignoring all other confounders for a minute), the net energy savings of new facility versus the old would be 0.2x per year. Assuming 10x worth of embedded energy to compensate for, the new facility would have to last 50 years to reach the break-even point on life-cycle energy use.
Of course, most pro sports venues aren’t LEED certified. Soldier Field, which already had a 79-year run before a LEED-certified alien spaceship touched down on it in 2003, is evidently the only other NFL stadium that is. But what about all the other eco-friendly measures employed by modern venues? Well here’s a characteristic hack-piece (originally from the Wall Street Journal, which I don’t have a subscription to) touting, for instance, how much the Vikings love the earth as evidenced by their low-flow shower heads in the practice facility. With 53 players at 2.3 gallons per minute, IT’S NOT EVEN WORTH DOING THIS CALCULATION. However, the greenest team according to the article (and not just their helmets hohoho!) is the Eagles, whose home stadium is 30% powered by wind and solar , but the obvious follow-up question remains: how much of this benefit is wiped away by energy-consuming amenities that never would have existed at old Veteran’s Stadium? Until I can provide answers, my conditional, very reserved kudos go out to the Eagles; that gentle thud you hear is Jeffrey Lurie patting himself on the back.
Let’s go back to picking on Atlanta, shall we?
While Turner Field was designed from the ground up with the Braves in mind, Plant said that it requires higher capital maintenance costs because it was value engineered for the 1996 Summer Olympics. This has led to higher capital maintenance costs in the long run. Plant estimates that capital maintenance costs at the new stadium will be no more than $80 million after 30 years – less than half of the $150 million in capital maintenance needed for Turner Field after 17 years. […] Turner Field is 0.75 miles (1.21 km) from the nearest Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train station. Although MARTA runs a shuttle service on game days, the Braves claim that fans have been unwilling to come to games in recent years due to metro Atlanta’s infamous congestion.
Meanwhile, SunTrust Park
will also include a 90-feet-wide canopy horseshoeing around the stadium’s top and air conditioning on every level to ensure that fans remain cool on hot summer days.
So there you have it — an MLB team is retiring a 19 year-old facility because of some traffic gridlock and lazy fans and maybe also because it was built too cheaply to begin with on account of the ultimate big city vanity project, hosting the Olympics, and is now promising large discretionary energy expenditures to spare fans from the distress of sitting in heat… AT A BASEBALL GAME.
And then there’s Milwaukee, a place dear to my heart. Deadspin had an excellent piece recently on the chicanery involved in their new arena deal to replace the Bradley Center, which, at just 28 years old, is incredibly the oldest NBA stadium still in use. Now I personally know a bit about the Bradley Center. I go there three or four times per year to see my beloved Marquette Golden Eagles née Warriors (though they’ll always be The Gold to me) play basketball and lose on Senior Day. The BC, to my mind, is a perfectly nice place. There are doors, working heat, even escalators! The concessions are plentiful; the stairs are structurally sound; and when you stand up from your seat, it recoils back into a folded-up position on its own — like magic! It doesn’t look or feel rundown; overall it’s a normal, modern-like facility that’s nowhere near ready for a major remodel, much less a wrecking ball.
When the new arena was under consideration, Marquette University was asked for its endorsement, which it dutifully provided. There was no financial contribution or commitment, and in exchange, the men’s basketball program will get to free-ride on the deal to further recruiting advantage and prestige once the arena is built. Go, Gold, go. But my naive hope had been that the school, founded as it was on Jesuit principles — stewardship in the community, urban values, solidarity with the poor, etc. — would take a stand for the greater good over private gain. So when Coach Wojo and the university president both came out with statements praising the arena proposal and regurgitating claptrap about the (phantom) spillover benefits to the community, I had no choice but to scream “this is what I think of your school!” as I fed my diploma to a wood chipper. Okay, I didn’t destroy my diploma, but I was (and still am) quite pissed and a bit ashamed of the school for its support, even if it was only symbolic and made no difference in the fate of the stadium deal.
Consider that the Montreal Forum and Boston Garden lasted over 70 years serving effectively the same purpose. Several college football stadiums date back to the post-Great War boom, and on the baseball side, Wrigley and Fenway have eclipsed the century mark. Whenever these old stadiums finally do meet the wrecking ball, fans protest, and then they cry, and then they scramble to buy up every last brick, chair, hardwood panel, and chunk of sod auctionable, and then start living out their remaining years in a state of unrelenting nostalgia for the old digs because attachment is stronger than the allure of modernness, despite the fleeting new-stadium attendance bump and the counter-claims of stadium pushers, and for some people, the indignity of urinating in a steel trough is just part of what makes the game day experience unique. (It’s also space efficient, okay?)
If the Bucks had started this season 24-0, Milwaukeeans would come watch them play in a vacant warehouse with pullout bleachers. But as with every stadium proposal in the last decade, Milwaukee is selling theirs with the old “not just an arena but an entertainment mecca!” trope as though the one-block radius around the new facility will be a nightly Mardi Gras and not just a couple open memorabilia shops and shlocky theme restaurants during the offseason and as if Milwaukee doesn’t already have a thriving downtown. In the end, it’s just another transparent oversell trying to quash the reality that the city has no need for the new arena, even if inaction would have ultimately led to the Bucks’ relocation.
What’s surprising to me, given how rotten we know these stadium deals are, is the lack of civil disobedience. Why don’t we see massive public protests disrupting the demolition and construction of these venues? After all, almost everyone living in these cities has something to lose. Stadium subsidies rob public money from social services, infrastructure, and all sorts of other potential beneficial uses like, say, actual energy efficiency initiatives and green streetscapes. They’re entirely that much more galling when slapped with an eco-conscious veneer, as though the whole scam is just a way of doing Mother Earth a solid.
Every time a TV broadcast flaunts the shiny, greenwashed amenities of some team’s new facility during its first nationally televised game, I want to vomit and never watch sports again. But of course I know I’ll never have that kind of will power. Nobody does, and every billionaire-friendly Big City Boss is gleefully aware of that fact because, no matter how much we may try to fight it, professional sports are and will continue to be the Major American City’s ultimate smokescreen for pillaging the wow, did you see that catch?!?