Camden Yards has turned the stadium into a supposed economic savior, but it turns out they’re all false prophets.
Of all places, Baltimore was supposed to pioneer a new urban redevelopment age. Until the 1980’s, stadiums were places where sports were played, where crowds closer to six figures than four would amass in a multi-purpose concrete ring, watch a game (mostly from heights where oxygen tanks were optional) and then sit in traffic jams for hours when exiting.
Starting with designs from the HOK architecture firm in the late 1980’s, Baltimore decided to change this. Their idea was relatively simple. You know our original stadiums in the middle of the city that were too small and we demanded to replace? Let’s go back to that.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992 with that vision in mind. Meant as an homage to the past, it inadvertently became a vision of the future. Channeling the downtown parks from baseball’s earliest days, the grounds included the iconic B&O warehouse, Eutaw Street behind the right field wall, and an open view of the downtown skyline. Camden Yards was the first to bring these aspects of the ballpark back.
Every new ballpark since has a little Camden in it. Petco Park in San Diego modeled its vacated warehouse in left field after Camden. Fenway opened up Yawkey Way to foot traffic, like Camden with Eutaw. Camden was the first to reintroduce outfield fences comprised of straight segments, unlike the gradual arcs of the multi-purpose concrete behemoths. PNC Park, AT&T Park, Progressive Field, Target Field, Safeco Field, Nationals Ballpark, and Petco Park all got their waterfront model from Camden Yards.
By all accounts, Camden Yards is an unabashed tale of success in a city where there haven’t been many since the British shelled Fort McHenry. Camden Yards was the crowning achievement of the more general Inner Harbor redevelopment project, which was declared in 2009, “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the World” by the Urban Land Institute. Camden Yards made a sports stadium seem like the perfect remedy to any publicly-owned, derelict downtown land that no developer dared to touch.
This idealistic version of urban redevelopment misses several key facts. By 1984, the Inner Harbor was already declared “one of the supreme achievements of large-scale urban design and development in US history” by the American Institute of Architects. Undue credit was given to Camden Yards for the Inner Harbor’s success. Still, every city wanted an easy answer, not a 40-year investment project—mayors don’t stay in office for 40 years—they needed a quick answer, a campaign bill, a flyer-sized fix.
Stadiums became false prophets. Seventeen American cities used the Camden model in an attempt to revitalize broken downtown neighborhoods with promises of jobs, economic stimulus, businesses, and most of all, respect. Our city will regain its place in the storied, hard-nosed American towns from yesteryear. It was a great tale, but it was a myth.
Economists warned of the lies, of the “economic analysis studies,” which generate rosy forecasts by estimating 120 home baseball games a year, ignoring substitution effects or opportunity costs, and were likely calculated by a series of interns with four-function calculators.
These stadiums-as-economic-saviors almost always failed, but as recent as 2004, Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post tried to rally support behind the Nationals Park deal:
Sometimes, I can’t believe the stupid junk I read from academics who spin their silly obstructionist excuses on what stadiums don’t bring, when all you have to do is look at what they actually contribute in Cleveland and in Denver, or for that matter along 7th Street near MCI Center [now the Verizon Center], which around here ought to be Exhibit A.
Indeed, if we let these areas be exhibit A, the falsehoods would have been revealed long ago. Despite the urban redevelopment myth, stadiums are a cortisone shot. They are a device to disguise the damage, not the long, painful, arduous journey to the cure. They make things look better to a concentrated area where tourists and the wealthy visit, while directly removing tax funding to aid the underdeveloped and underprivileged areas that aren’t visible from the stadium’s perch.
Just look at Hamilton County in Cincinnati. After funding two stadiums (for the Bengals and Reds) based off of the Camden model, 16.4 percent of Hamilton County’s budget is used to pay off stadium debt. And yes, this is a county where one in seven people live below the poverty line.
Camden Yards is a beautiful stadium, but it’s just a stadium. It emerges gracefully from the Baltimore skyline, refusing to rise above the hotels and office buildings. It was built on the land where Babe Ruth was born, making it instantly a part of baseball lore. It pioneered the medium-sized, retro-fitted stadium structure, which is the best model for new ballparks to date. If you go to Camden Yards today, you might think it’s brand new, not 20 years old.
But this is where Camden Yards should have stopped. It was integrated into the city; it wasn’t the city itself. It was a place to watch a ballgame, not a stimulus package. In a sport fueled by legend and myth, there is none bigger than the Myth of Camden Yards. Unlike The Babe’s Called Shot or Micky Mantle’s one-handed home run, the Myth of Camden Yards has transcended the game.
The myth has resulted in billions of dollars of public hope that never became reality. Most cities aren’t as dire as Cincinnati, but they all share similar failures. Nationals Park could have saved $150 million by being built next to RFK Stadium and not the Anacostia River, but as Wilbon said, “The deal to bring the Expos here wasn’t to build a stadium anyplace, or someplace…[it was] to be built along a specific spot on the Anacostia waterfront.”
It had to be by the water, it had to be like Camden.
If you walk by most stadiums modeled after Camden, these pictures should have been buildings by now:
In 1998, even the mighty beacon of Camden was dimmed by reality. A study by economists Bruce Hamilton and Peter Kahn found that Camden Yards cost Baltimore taxpayers $11 million annually. Even Camden Yards wasn’t the city savior it was ascribed to be. Instead, it’s a pioneer of economic failure.