The Coolest Ballpark in America

The Coolest Ballpark in America

Built in a cold climate on a scrap of ground that time forgot, Target Field seemed born with two strikes against it. But the designers hit a dinger.

Regardless of their feelings about whether public money should have been used to build a new stadium for the Minnesota Twins, much of the sporting public has long agreed with the team’s owners and management on one point: As a baseball venue, fond World Series memories notwithstanding, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome—how to put this delicately?—sucked like a Shop-Vac.

To this way of thinking, Target Field, where the team will begin play next month, was bound to be the Not-the-Dome, and the Not-the-Dome was bound to be an improvement. Beyond that, however, there seemed little reason to expect something that would make anyone’s heart soar. The new facility was not exactly conceived under a lucky star.

What’s Cool About Target Field

(It’s just not those early spring days and fall evenings.)

The Starting 9

The people that made Target Field possible.

Target Field sits on a fallback site that the Twins settled for after their earlier hopes to get public financing for a new stadium beside the Mississippi River were dashed. With a footprint of only 8.5 acres, the smallest in Major League Baseball, the patch of ground was barely big enough to make the project feasible. (Wrigley Field apparently is the second smallest, though there’s no agreement on how big the footprint of Chicago’s legendary ballyard actually is.)

The building is wedged, like a burger in a bun, between a parking ramp and a big municipal garbage burner. It is further sandwiched by two elevated roadways, North Fifth and North Seventh streets. One edge of the structure actually cantilevers out over Interstate 394 as the highway empties into downtown Minneapolis. Oh, and freight trains run beneath its northwest corner.

Target Field’s designer—Populous, formerly the sports facility practice for Kansas City–headquartered architectural firm HOK—has worked on a multitude of sports facilities, and calls Target Field the most “complex” site upon which a major league ballpark has ever been built. Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction, the general contractor, had to build it from the “inside out”: Cranes sat on the future playing field while they erected the walls. There was no place else to put them.

So not-the-Dome. But one would assume that one should not get one’s hopes up.

One would be mistaken.

Urban With a Vengeance

When the Twins take the field for the first time April 2 and 3 for exhibition games against the St. Louis Cardinals, and again April 12 for the regular-season home opener against the Boston Red Sox, Twins President Dave St. Peter figures he will need extra security people inside the gate behind home plate just to keep the crowd moving. He expects that when fans walk a few paces through the gate—and find themselves not in a narrow concession tunnel, as they would upon entering the Metrodome, but on the stadium’s 360-degree open concourse, looking down at the diamond and straight back up Sixth Street as it seems to spill downtown Minneapolis smack dab into right field—their jaws will drop. Their eyeballs will spin. They will stop in their tracks and stare in delighted awe.

Newer Populous/HOK-designed ballparks in several cities—Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland—offer views of urban skylines. So does the University of Minnesota’s new football stadium, also designed by Populous. But when the Twins call Target Field “the most urban ballpark in America,” they mean that fans aren’t just looking at downtown, they are downtown—and the design glories in the fact.

The writer to whom St. Peter makes his prediction about ticket buyers’ wowed reaction is in no position to argue. Five seconds into a late-September tour of the unfinished stadium (grass laid down, overhanging sun canopy up, many of the seats in place, but otherwise still a concrete shell), and despite having entered through a less dramatic Fifth Street gate overlooking center field, the writer’s journalistic objectivity got its butt kicked.

A further disclosure of bias: The writer’s only misgiving arises when St. Peter mentions the enormous scoreboard—57 feet high, 101 feet wide—as another element that will cause entering fans to stop and stare in joy. So enamored is the writer with the design and feeling of the structure that the idea of a huge screen belching up digital special effects seems repellent—a mere distraction from what is so very cool about this place. Same goes for the 625 LCD viewing screens that will show up in various locations in the stadium under a sponsorship deal with Richfield-based Best Buy Company.

All very state-of-the-art, no doubt, but this writer’s sentiment: Leave the multimedia glitz to the Yankees, or to the poor Dallas Cowboys, whose new football stadium looks like something Adolf Hitler would have built if it had occurred to him to enclose the venue for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. What we have at Target Field, by golly, is a ballpark.

The writer later will pick a fight with Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports, Inc., when Bell says he still wishes the field had a retractable roof so that out-of-towners could be ensured against rainouts. Target Field has no lid only because the county wouldn’t pay for one.

The writer’s contention is that putting a roof on this place, retractable or otherwise, would have been a crime against humanity. There will be cold days in spring and fall. That’s why Minnesotans own jackets, isn’t it?

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All right, Bell finally concedes, sounding as if he has been down this road before. He began lobbying for a new stadium in 1995 and now is confronted by people who have taken an instant proprietary, protective, and even belligerent interest in this one. He admits: “Once you see it, you say, ‘I don’t want a roof.’”

Populous Senior Principal Earl Santee, the chief designer for the project, has worked on at least 18 Major League Baseball stadiums. He says his goal always is to give a team’s fans “what they believe is the best ballpark in America.” In the case of Target Field, however, Populous actually heard that a lot as the structure took shape, often from the people working on it. “When the construction workers come up and say, ‘We love this building,’” that’s a good sign, Santee says.

Daniel Mehls, the Mortenson Construction executive in charge of the project, says that whenever he brought visitors into the partially finished building last fall, they behaved in line with St. Peter’s prediction: “They stop and bump into each other. They look up in awe. When you walk in there, it just blows you away.”

Mehls says he hasn’t yet bought season tickets because the park will have several of what he calls “neighborhoods of activity,” each offering a different experience, and he wants to try them all: the Metropolitan Club, a big bar and restaurant for season-ticket holders on the right field line; the smaller Champions Club behind home plate; the outfield bleachers; the Budweiser roof deck in left field, which looks like a prime blue-collar party venue waiting only for someone to tap a keg; the quirky Overlook, which extends eight feet over the playing surface in right field, 23 feet above the grass.

Home run balls that clear the overlook and a few rows of seats behind it will land in what now is Target Plaza, with nothing but inertia (or pedestrians) to keep them from rolling all the way across First Avenue and up Sixth Street.

To avail himself of these various neighborhoods, however, Mehls had to build the place. That wasn’t easy.

Most Complex Ever

Target Field sits on what Santee calls “a piece of property that time forgot.” It was occupied by a parking lot, 30 feet below any surrounding structures, in an ancient riverbed known as the Cut. The Cut is what the North Fifth Street overpass passes over.

For an idea of what the site originally looked like, stand on that overpass next to the stadium and look down in the other direction. The ballpark’s playing field is approximately at the level of the train tracks and the parking lot you see below.

No significant building ever stood on the site, partly because the subsoil conditions were too poor. “There was 100 feet of sediment,” Mehls says. “We knew it would be sloppy, but it was even worse than we thought. The dirt slumped right back into the holes when you dug.”

He’s talking about a lot of holes. Steel pipes, 10 inches in diameter, were driven 100 feet down to bedrock, then filled with concrete. This isn’t wildly unusual, Mehls says, except for the number of them, which was 3,300—more than 62 miles of pipe—and the fact that it took six months to drive them all. Target Field actually sits on those columns. You could dig out 100 feet of dirt from beneath the stadium, Mehls says, and it would just stand there. (While the soil doesn’t support any of the load, he adds, it does keep the piles from tipping over.)

Then there was the 20-foot underground culvert on the west side of the site that carries overflow from Bassett Creek (the stream, in some places pumped underground, that runs north and west of the Warehouse District) into the city sewer system. The culvert could not be disturbed. “So we had to drive piles on both sides, then span the culvert with large beams to carry the load,” Mehls says.

During construction, seven to 14 freight trains ran through the site every day on the Burlington Northern tracks that now also carry the Northstar commuter line to a platform at Target Field. One track had to be relocated further west to get it out from under the stadium—barely. It now runs beneath a promenade between Target Field and the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC), better known as the garbage burner.

The track moved about 23 feet, “and every foot was critical,” says Bruce Miller, who served as Populous’s onsite architect for the project. “Working with the track geometry and structural support was very complicated. We went through 15 different schemes for that.”

Due to safety requirements, Mehls adds, even after the track was moved, “we had to shut down operations along the tracks every time a train came through.” On some days, that meant more than once an hour.

The Seventh Street bridge on the site’s south side could not be closed during construction. Neither could I-394 on the east. Safety regulations forbade construction cranes from reaching over the operating roadways—or over the train tracks on the west.

The Fifth Street bridge on the north side was closed for several months, but during that period crews were building a platform for the Hiawatha Line light-rail extension on the street level, another platform for the Northstar commuter line below, and a vertical transfer station that lets passengers move between the two. Cranes could not reach over those working crews.

Hence, the three tower cranes and four mobile cranes used to move concrete, steel, and exterior limestone for the stadium had to be placed on the future playing field. (They were also used to build Target Plaza, which includes a pair of pedestrian bridges over I-394, connecting Target Center to the ballpark.) The walls had to be built not just up, but out. The stadium has a considerably larger “footprint” at the top than at the bottom. It sits on 8.5 acres, but if you looked down on it from a blimp, Mehls says, you would see a 10.5-acre structure.

One would think that the proximity of the HERC, which burns garbage to generate electricity, would add to the site’s drawbacks. According to the Twins, however, the burner will be a nonissue. St. Peter says that the plant emits no significant smoke, and that the only foul smells emanate from the garbage trucks that come and go. Hennepin County addressed that problem with a $2 million renovation to the HERC that moved the truck-entry doors away from the ballpark and added some air locks and deodorizing equipment. St. Peter says that the HERC’s most notable impact on Target Field will be to provide steam to heat water.

Target Field Site

A Boom in Waiting?

If you would like to stand on Fifth Street opposite the stadium and look down at the Cut, you’d better do it before the commercial real-estate market recovers from its paralyzing credit crunch. A number of planned developments in the North Loop area near Target Field—residential, office, and retail projects—have stalled for lack of financing. But nobody expects the north side of Fifth Street to remain untouched for long.

A seven-acre site opposite the stadium, now dominated by a parking lot, is controlled by Hines Interests of Houston, a major Minneapolis property owner. Before the economy went sour in 2008, Hines had intended to begin work in 2009 on parts of a development variously called North Loop Village or North Loop Green. At one time, plans called for more than 1,200 residential units, 120,000 square feet of office space, and 45,000 square feet of retail space.

North Loop Village had been described as a $500 million to $750 million project, though Hines regional vice president John McDermott, based in Chicago, calls those “figures that somebody pulled out of the air.”

The scale and timing of the development is on hold pending an economic recovery and a looser financial market for commercial real estate. At some point, McDermott says, “five or six significant buildings” will go up on the acreage in stages. “But we have no guess when the economy will recover,” he adds. “So we have no timetable for when the north side of Fifth Street will look significantly different that it does now.”

The new ballpark itself is expected to spur development in the North Loop. But a bigger driver, sources including the Twins agree, will be the stadium’s function as a transit hub. Since November, the Hiawatha light rail line and the Northstar heavy rail commuter line both have terminated at Target Field. The Central Corridor light rail line to St. Paul, scheduled for completion in 2014, is expected to terminate there as well.

That may be only a start, says Mary deLaittre, cofounder and principal of Minneapolis-based urban-planning consulting firm Groundwork and a consultant to 2010 Partners, a public-private organization attempting to coordinate development in the North Loop. If the proposed Southwest light rail line to Eden Prairie and the Bottineau light rail line to the northern suburbs are approved, they would bring additional passengers to Target station sometime after 2014. There’s also talk of high-speed rail to Chicago and Duluth.

DeLaittre says that 2010 Partners envisions a “transportation interchange” adjacent to Target Field, serving trains and buses that would carry 12,000 passengers daily after 2016. “The ballpark will bring enormous numbers of people on game days and [will attract] national attention,” deLaittre says. “But the transportation interchange will bring in people 365 days a year.”

Thanks to its location on the edge of the Warehouse District, there already are more restaurants and bars near Target Field than in the area around the Metrodome. “Part of the problem with the Dome,” Jerry Bell says, “is that it’s downtown, but it’s not downtown.” The Dome’s developers hoped that bars and restaurants would open once the Dome did. Outside of Hubert’s—and perhaps some venues on Washington Avenue (though that may have been driven more by riverside condo development)—that never happened.

As it turns out, Bell says, “I got lucky. I thought the river site [next to the relocated Guthrie Theater] was good. But this is better.”


On the Money

Construction costs for the approximately 39,800-seat stadium came to $425 million. Infrastructure improvements added another $119 million to the total price tag. Hennepin County coughed up a contribution of $350 million ($90 million of it for infrastructure), funded primarily by a sales tax. The Twins’ final contribution was $185 million—a number the Twins say could increase.

Target Corporation paid the Twins an undisclosed sum for a 25-year naming rights agreement. Target also kicked in $4.5 million for improvements to Target Plaza. All told, the team expects to generate at least $40 million a year more in revenue than it did at the Metrodome. Part of that windfall will be offset by maintenance costs for the stadium, for which the Twins are now responsible.

Ticket prices will start at $10. A one-time payment of $1,000 or $2,000 (depending on the location), plus annual fees amounting to $48 or $55 per game, buys one of 3,000 extra-comfortable seats in the Legends Club section just above the open concourse. The seat belongs to the buyer, who can sell it if he chooses. Considering the early demand for those seats, “I think we underpriced them,” Bell says.

Fifty-four full suites, with hardwood floors and other amenities, range in price from $90,000 to $200,000 a year; 48 of them were spoken for by September. Eight “event suites,” accommodating about 30 people each, will be rented on a per-game basis. The suites also will be rented out for non-baseball events, as will the Metropolitan Club, Legends Club, and the Champions Club, which serves another prime, 400-seat season ticket section behind home plate. St. Peter says that the Twins expect to sell about 18,000 season tickets for 2010. “If we get to 20,000,” he says, “that would put us in the top 10 in Major League Baseball.”

The handful of seats in the right-field Overlook will be sold on a per-game basis, at least until the demand for them becomes clear. The Budweiser roof deck, with a capacity of about 150 seats and 100 standees, will be rented to private groups for some games. Otherwise, budget-conscious fans can buy terrace-level tickets for about $10.

After decades of indoor baseball, weather will again become a factor. Rainouts should be rare. Thanks to a sophisticated drainage system under the grass—a three-inch cloudburst in August drained in 20 minutes, according to Bell—only rain that falls during the game is likely to force a cancellation. He predicts three or four rainouts a year, on average.

Radiant heat in the main concourse and some other areas will offer warm retreats that still allow a view of the game. But some cold baseball will be played in spring and fall, no question. Bell expects the new park to operate like the Metrodome in reverse. In great weather, he says, fans tended to shun the Dome, no matter what giveaways and promotions the team offered. Nothing sold tickets like a lousy day. But under a blue sky, or on a warm summer night, Target Field will be an appealing place to go, regardless of how the team is doing.

Except for the narrow foul territory, a slight advantage to batters (more foul balls will fall into the stands, away from fielders’ gloves), the field is designed to be “neutral”—that is, neither a hitter’s nor a pitcher’s park. Bell and St. Peter insist that the move to an outdoor home will have no effect on the type of players the Twins select or the style of ball they play.

But a fan has to suspect that even right-handed batters will find it hard to resist the urge to try to hit everything out of the park (literally, onto Target Plaza), through that big, inviting gap in right field.

Unless, of course, like the writer, those righty batters are too dazzled by their surroundings to focus on the pitch.

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