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The 2013 Ballpark of the Year creates Magic in the Magic City
You've heard this story many times. A baseball team wants a new ballpark, and its owners tell this to their current city. Often, the threat of moving to a suburb or to an entirely different market is part of the dialog. The team ends up with a new ballpark, and it might be in its current city, or in a nearby community or in another part of the country.
|Award: Baseballparks.com's Ballpark Of The Year for 2013 (press release)|
|Team: Birmingham Barons of the Double-A Southern League|
|First regular-season game: April 10, 2013, a 9-5 win over the Mississippi Braves|
|Capacity: 8,500 (6,250 fixed seats plus 2,250 general admission and group areas)|
|Architect: HKS, assisted by local firm Hoskins Architecture|
|Construction: Joint venture of Robins & Morton and A.G. Gaston|
|Price: The cost of constructing the ballpark itself was $42 million. Total cost of project including land acquisition and site prep was $64 million.|
|Home dugout: 1B side|
|Field points: East|
|Playing surface: Tifway 419 grass|
|Betcha didn't know: The base of the backstop is brick, with no padding.|
We've seen this played out over and over again.
How often have you heard that a franchise is offered a new ballpark in its own market, even though the team's owners hadn't expressed an interest in leaving their current facility?
"That's exactly what happened here," explained Stan Logan, one of the owners of the Birmingham Barons. The team was fairly happy in Regions Park, where it had moved in 1988. They'd left Rickwood Field (zero suites, zero club seats, not the best part of town) in Birmingham to move south to the suburb of Hoover. Regions Park did have a few drawbacks (limited space for groups, the "sterile" atmosphere that came from playing in a multi-purpose facility), but the population and commercial possibilities in Hoover were exploding, and the Barons had a good relationship with the city.
It took awhile, but the City of Birmingham decided that it missed having the Barons around. The team "began their legacy in Birmingham in 1885 and spent the past 25 years in the suburbs," observed William A. Bell, Sr. , the Mayor of Birmingham. "It was time to bring them home."
Of course, part of the longing to have the team return from the suburbs was due to a feasibility study that concluded that a new sports facility would have a significant economic impact. Further, depending on the location of that facility, it would trigger much-needed commercial development.
In 2010, Mayor Bell proposed that the City move forward on the sports-facility project, to be partially funded by an increase to the tax imposed on hotel rooms. At about the same time, the City was putting the finishing touches on an impressive new municipal park southwest of downtown. This proved to be an important part of the ballpark story, as you'll see.
Railroad Park officially opened in September 2010 on a wide swath of land along active train tracks. It features bike and jogging paths, a lake, a man-made stream, impressive landscaping, playgrounds, multiple skateboarding wells and enough open space to hold several festivals or events at once. It quickly became a popular spot for families to play and groups to hold outdoor gatherings. "Railroad Park is truly one of the finest urban parks to open anywhere in the last 15 or 20 years," noted Byron Chambers, Director of Sports Design at the architecture firm HKS. "It is a true urban asset."
Meanwhile, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) was growing rapidly. The edge of their campus was about six blocks from Railroad Park, and the University had already acquired land in the immediate area. However, it had short-term expansion plans in some other areas on land that was owned by the City of Birmingham.
When a plan is meant to happen, things often fall into place in a relatively short period of time. The Mayor's lodging-tax proposal was approved by the City Council, and the owners of the Barons were convinced to make their team the tenant of the stadium that would be built. A "land swap" was negotiated where the city took possession of UAB's holdings in a four-block area adjacent to Railroad Park, and in return the University received the City-owned land that it desired for its expansion.
Leaving the southern suburbs
|In 1988, the Barons left Rickwood Field, a ballpark treasure built in 1910. They moved to the fast-growing suburb of Hoover, south of Birmingham. Hoover Metropolitan Stadium (above), dubbed "the Met," was the team's home through 2012. For its last six seasons, it was known as Regions Park.|
The City then had to negotiate with the business owners who had warehouses and commercial enterprises on those four blocks. According to the Mayor's office, 17 of the 18 owners agreed to relocate, and the one who refused was at the northern tip of the four-block parcel, and the City chose to work around that business. It is quite noteworthy that the City did not resort to using "eminent domain" to force those business owners from that land. "We had that tool if we needed it," Bell said, "but we were able to reach mutually beneficial agreements with the owners of the property needed for the ballpark."
On February 6, 2012, demolition of the buildings on the site took place. This was just four days after a ground-breaking ceremony was held there, and over 1,000 residents attended. It was at this event where it was announced that Regions Financial, the same banking firm that owned the naming rights of the Barons' home park in Hoover, had acquired the rights to name the new park. Hence the name Regions Field.
In order for the ballpark to open at the beginning of the 2013 season, the project had to be on the fast track. Therefore, the "design build" process was employed, where the architecture was being formulated even as construction had commenced. A joint effort of Robins & Morton and A.G. Gaston was named to do the construction, and they brought HKS on board to handle the design.
The approach worked well, and despite some unforeseen delays in the construction, Regions Field was almost completely finished when opening day arrived. The only aspects of the facility not finished in time for the opener were concession areas in center field. Otherwise, it was "Play Ball" on April 10, 2013. The Barons liked their new home so much that they swept their first series there, winning five times over the visiting Mississippi Braves.
As we take a closer look at Regions Field's site, exterior, interior design and fan amenities, it should become obvious why it was named the Baseballparks.com Ballpark of the Year for 2013.