The first 10 years of Citizens Bank Park, I think we can all agree, have been pretty great. Five division titles. Eight winning seasons. One magical night in October 2008. Many fans will claim 11th and Pattison as hallowed ground long after global warming turns it into a beach.
But do you remember when the decision to build in South Philly seemed like not just a defeat — but a complete failure of civic imagination? In the early days of the debate on replacing Veterans Stadium, folks were hot for a Camden Yards-style retro park smack-dab in the middle of downtown. Fans whimsically debated putting a new park at the old Schmidt’s brewery, near 30th Street Station, even on the waterfront. Politicians talked more realistically about two locations: North Broad at Spring Garden, and in Chinatown at 12th and Vine.
But each proposed site was eventually sunk by some combination of community or political NIMBYism and logistical or infrastructural clusterfuckery. So the new stadium arose in the shadow of the old one, in the expanse of parking lots and nothingness we call, as if it were an affliction, the “sports complex.”
When the Phils were the best team in town, it didn’t much matter where their stadium was. But last year, attendance dropped by half a million fans. And we may face another dismal August in South Philly. It’s worth asking: Did we blow it?
“I think 10 years ago we would have seen a tremendous amount of activity on North Broad Street: entertainment, restaurants, etc.,” says Paul Levy, president of the Center City District. Levy figures a stadium at Broad and Spring Garden (a site derailed in part by former state senator Vince Fumo, who didn’t want a ballpark near his Fairmount mansion) could have provided a long-sought connector between Center City and Temple University.
“It’s a lost opportunity that would have been fantastic for Philly,” agrees developer Bart Blatstein. “You can just imagine the impact for the 275,000 people who work in Center City to leave work, have dinner, and go see a game.”
Still, Blatstein says the ideal site was actually 12th and Vine. That was then-mayor John Street’s preferred location, too. But opposition from the Chinatown community was intense. Helen Gym, known now as agitator-in-chief for Philly’s public schools, was then part of a group called the Stadium Out of Chinatown Coalition. “Arguably, it was not that nice 10 years ago,” she says of the site in question. Had city officials bothered to ask, though, she says, they’d have discovered that a coalition of groups hoped to expand Chinatown over the expressway. (Indeed, Chinatown has pushed north through a series of community-based initiatives.)
It could be the only true winners in the stadium deal are the Phillies themselves. Thanks to the revenues produced by the new stadium, they went from behaving like a small-market team to outspending just about everyone but the Yankees — a move that paid off in wins (as well as higher ticket prices).
But now that the Phillies appear to be on the downside of the success cycle, will they pay a price for playing their games in a part of town that’s just no fun? “Fans like to be able to go to a bar or a restaurant district, get loaded, and then go home,” says Kevin Quinn, a professor at Wisconsin’s St. Norbert College who studies the economics of sports. “Once you’re inside the stadium, all $9 hot dogs look the same. The experience [of a downtown stadium] can be a substitute for your team playing well.”
But so what? The stadium is where we put it, right?
Yes, it is. But as Levy notes wryly, it probably won’t be that long before we go through all of this again.
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First appeared in the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.