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Pirates The new jewel on the Allegheny might be the best ballpark

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

We don't really know yet just how big a hit PNC Park will be with players and fans. But in many ways, it's everything a good old-fashioned, new-fangled ballpark should be. And it just may be what the Pirates claim it is -- the best ballpark in the country.

Stone fašade and retro signage along Mazeroski Way help give PNC Park its personality. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

First of all, it's urban, shaped by neighboring streets and fed by public transportation. Pittsburgh didn't plant its ballpark away from the heart of the city, as Atlanta and Seattle did, or in the suburbs, like the Texas Rangers did in Arlington.

While the Rangers created their own mini-city, surrounding the ballpark with a four-story office building, 12-acre lake and park land, seven years later it's still set within acres and acres of parking lots and open land awaiting spin-off development.

Framed by the Allegheny River and three city streets, PNC Park is part of the urban fabric. It was designed to accept retail storefronts on three sides, so it'll contribute to the North Shore's economic development and street life all year-round.

Along Federal Street, its retail area is fully leased, with four restaurants, a coffee shop, PNC Bank branch, sports art gallery and Pirates team store. On General Robinson Street, there's a newsstand near the home plate entrance and a baseball-cap store around the corner on Mazeroski Way.

Second, it's open. We may have wind and rain, even snow, but by God, we'll weather through them. There's something unnatural about playing (and watching) baseball under a lid.

Third, it's intimate. It may feel, at times, like you're at a Little League game, and I'm not talking about watching the Pirates' leaky infield.

PNC Park Timeline


The Pirates and PNC Bank announce that PNC will pay $30 million for the naming rights to the new North Shore ballpark for 20 years.


The first model of PNC Park unveiled.


Demolition begins at the site of the ballpark.


Ceremonial groundbreaking takes place.


Construction begins as 55-foot deep concrete piles are poured.


The first of many structural concrete columns rise from the ground behind PNC Park's home plate.


First major pouring of concrete .


The first shipment of approximately 6,500 tons of structural steel arrives.


Last piece of structural steel put into place.


First strips of sod are delivered and installed.


Warning track around field is installed.


Pirates open ballpark with exhibition game against the New York Mets.


Pirates scheduled to play first regular-season game against Cincinnati Reds.


PNC Park is the first two-deck ballpark built in the United States since 1953, when Milwaukee's County Stadium went up. And it's the smallest new park in major league baseball, with 38,300 seats -- about 10,000 fewer than Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which has 48,876 seats on three levels, and Arlington, which has 49,115 seats on five.

Of all the major league parks, only Boston's beloved Fenway, with 33,871 seats, is smaller, and it's living on borrowed time. When the new Red Sox park opens, seating 44,130, PNC Park will be the most intimate in the majors.

"I always remember from day one, intimacy was the first word that came out of everyone's mouth," said architect Earl Santee, principal in charge for HOK Sport of Kansas City, PNC Park's designer. "The only way to do that was to have a two-deck [design] and hide the suites. They're tucked in nicely under the upper deck; the challenge was to make a structure that would support it."

While the design was HOK's, its local affiliate, L.D. Astorino Companies, produced the construction drawings, put out the bids and oversaw construction.

The suite level, with 65 enclosed luxury suites, is cantilevered off the upper deck. Hanging the suites from the upper concourse meant the steel had to be large in scale, with big, beefy I-beams, three- and four-feet wide, fastened together with equally over-scaled connection plates and bolts, all exposed. It's a building that flexes its muscles -- and makes artful, dynamic compositions -- at every turn.

"We haven't done that before. This is clearly a new idea in how the building is organized," said Santee, whose firm designed four neo-traditional ballparks --Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Cleveland's Jacobs Field, Houston's Enron Field and San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park -- and converted Anaheim Stadium back to a baseball-only park, Edison Field.

It was, of course, Camden Yards that started the retro trend in major league ballparks, and it was a Pittsburgh native -- former Orioles president Larry Lucchino -- who insisted the Orioles' new home not be a giant concrete donut. Lucchino's memories of Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, along with several books about old-time ballparks, convinced him that modern ballparks could have all the charm, intimacy and quirkiness of their ancestors.

More important to the bottom line, the neo-traditional parks also could have the luxury suites, higher-priced club seats, sports bars, restaurants, retail shops, team museums, children's entertainment areas and other income-boosters that help keep franchises solvent -- or further enrich their owners.

Since Oriole Park opened in 1992 with the historic Baltimore & Ohio warehouse building for a backdrop, 11 other major league, neo-traditional ballparks have been built, all with asymmetrical, grass playing fields and site-specific features meant to give each a distinct sense of place.

Back in 1998, when the Pirates first floated the idea of a new riverfront ballpark, it was a buff brick-faced building strongly influenced by old-time parks like Forbes Field and Ebbets Field.

"That design was basic Plan B public relations, to get an image before Western Pennsylvania, to say look what you could have on the waterfront," said HOK architect David Greusel. "All it really was was a concept."

When Greusel came to Pittsburgh to get a feel for the city and how PNC Park could relate to it, he found what he was looking for in the city's bridges and civic buildings -- especially the nearby Three Sisters bridges, with their stone piers, and the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, with its great, granite arches -- the inspiration for the rhythmic arches and rugged materials of PNC Park.

Its base of Kasota stone, a warm, ochre Minnesota limestone, is the same stone used in two more recent buildings, Astorino's PNC Firstside Center and the O'Reilly Theater, designed by Michael Graves.

Painted blue steel is exposed throughout the ballpark, shown here in the Post-Gazette rotunda. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

PNC Park's vertical light towers, blue-painted steel and blue seats were drawn from Forbes Field, but the location of the press box -- tucked under the upper-deck roof behind home plate -- is straight out of Wrigley Field.

Such details -- even small, superficial ones -- give ballparks their personalities. Lone Stars decorate the concourses in Arlington, and at Coors Field in Denver, where most seats are green, the upper deck's 20th row is painted a bluish purple, signifying it's exactly one mile above sea level.

So while they're not interchangeable, cookie-cutters ballparks, the way, say, Three Rivers Stadium and Cincinnati's old Riverfront Stadium were, there is a neo-traditional ballpark aesthetic -- brick facades (red brick in eight of the 11 parks since Camden) and exposed steel structures -- that is bordering on the cliche.

"The concern with this trend is not so much one of quality -- since it represents an advance over the previous status quo -- as it is one of near ubiquity," wrote Seattle architect and ballpark critic John Pastier in the August 1999 issue of Architectural Record, a trade journal. A client's insistence on this style can limit the architect's creativity, argues Pastier, who urges architects to take a progressive and "less formulaic approach."

And when the old-timey facades are covered with modern retractable roofs, as in Milwaukee's Miller Park, also opening this spring, it's like topping off an Edith Wharton dress with a Jane Jetson hat.

With its limestone base and bands of smooth and rusticated artificial stone, PNC Park is the only ballpark bucking the brick trend. And while it feels at home in the context of the North Shore's 19th-century buildings, the design has modern elements -- like the steel-framed, aluminum canopy along Federal Street -- that look forward to the new buildings that will rise in the adjacent development zone.

Whether it's brick or stone, one of the key things that distinguishes a ballpark is its backdrop -- what you see when you're sitting in the stands. While some ballparks have good views from certain seats, PNC Park will show off Pittsburgh's bridges and Downtown skyline from almost every seat in the house. And from behind home plate, fans will enjoy one of the best urban panoramas in the country -- punctuated by the Clemente, Seventh and Ninth Street bridges, whose graceful, lyrical forms echo down the Allegheny.

PNC Park's blue-painted vertical light towers are a design element borrowed from Forbes Field. (John Beale, Post-Gazette

The walk over the Clemente span, designated a pedestrian-only, vendor-friendly bridge on game days, will become part of the ballpark experience, creating an entrance Lucchino calls "the most dramatic in baseball." With fewer parking spaces than in the Three Rivers Stadium era, the success of the ballpark depends on auto-dependent Pittsburghers taking public transportation (as they did to Forbes Field) or parking Downtown and walking to the park.

When they get to the end of the Clemente Bridge, they'll find a riverfront picnic and recreation area, an Outback Steakhouse restaurant and, on its roof, a party deck behind the scoreboard.

"We wanted to create a lot of outdoor activities to animate the area," Santee said, "because it's one of the signature things you see when you come across the bridge."

People who enter the ballpark through the center field gate at the end of the bridge can walk along the esplanade that is one of PNC Park's signature elements. But what was to have been an arcaded walkway beneath the esplanade was sacrificed to flood control. To strengthen the entire wall, some of the arcade's columns had to become short walls perpendicular to the long wall. So while it's impossible to walk the entire length of the arcade, the visual effect, especially from Downtown, is the same.

PNC Park also has field irregularities designed to make the game more interesting, inspired by the idiosyncrasies of old-time ballparks -- like Fenway's "Green Monster" left-field wall and the ivy-covered, ball-concealing outfield walls of Forbes Field. At PNC Park, batters will be challenged to hit one over the 21-foot-high right field wall that honors No. 21, Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente.

"There will be a lot of balls played off the out-of-town scoreboard" in right field, Santee said. Some also might hit the chain-link fence that encloses the tiered bullpen in center field, or land in the "batter's eye" -- the dark, center-field patch of mountain laurel and Indiana County pines that makes the white ball stand out as it leaves the pitcher's hand and heads toward home plate.

"Batter's eyes are one of the most critical things for us to deal with," Santee said. "No one can sit there; it's reserved entirely for the game."

Foul balls and wild pitches also will carom unpredictably off the rough limestone wall behind home plate.

PNC Park likely will become famous -- or infamous -- for the interaction between players and fans in left field.

"It's the lowest left-field wall we've put in," Santee said. In fact, the six-foot wall is the lowest left-field wall in any of the new ballparks. "There will be a lot of interaction between the fans and the player for the ball."

So heads up, left-field fans -- and bring your gloves.

Next: What are the odds of a homerun splashdown?

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