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HOK Sports' dominant role in region's stadium raises questions

Sunday, March 17, 2002

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When HOK Sport architect Earl Santee emerged from the Fort Pitt Tunnel on July 12, 1994, the air was hot and muggy, and Three Rivers Stadium was aglow with lights. Santee, driving a rental car and on his way to the All-Star baseball game that night at Three Rivers, was experiencing Pittsburgh for the first time.

Patrick Lempka, associate principal, HOK, describes the proposed arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

"We came through the tunnel and saw the city," said Santee, who works in Kansas City, Mo. "It was one of those knock-you-out kind of views.

"It still is."

"Hopefully, we have enhanced it a little bit."

The same drive through the tunnel today shows just how much Santee and his firm have changed the look of Pittsburgh. HOK, the world's dominant sports architecture firm, designed what are now the two dominant buildings on the North Shore -- PNC Park and Heinz Field.

Also, it is competing for the design of a new $225 million Penguins arena, which the team unveiled at a press conference last week. Because of HOK's success at landing jobs here, Pittsburgh has become a lucrative market for the Kansas City-based firm. It received $11.5 million for its work on Heinz Field, and just over $7 million for its work on PNC Park, according to the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns both stadiums.

From 1994 to 1998, HOK also received about $500,000 for studies and renovations at Three Rivers Stadium, and more recently, shared responsibility for a $100,000 Penguins study that examined the feasibility of renovating the 41-year-old Mellon Arena. The team decided, after reviewing that study, that a new arena should be built because it would be too costly to renovate the old one.

"It would just be throwing good money after bad" -- that was the phrase used by Ken Sawyer, president of the Lemieux Group, the team of investors headed by Penguins star Mario Lemieux that owns the Penguins.

In Pittsburgh, HOK is playing all the positions.

Not only is it designing new stadiums and renovating old ones, it also is providing the teams with early advice about site locations, stadium revenues and costs. The teams, having relied on HOK for consulting, are then turning to the same firm for the multimillion-dollar design contract -- services that are being partially paid with public money.

There is nothing illegal or very unusual about building designers also serving as consultants. In fact, HOK competitors admit it's a smart business tactic.

But it does illustrate the hold HOK has on the stadium market in Pittsburgh. And for some people it raises questions about whether the selection of a stadium architect should be more of a public process and whether the opinions HOK provides to the teams can be unbiased.

Asking HOK for advice on a new stadium "is a little bit like asking a barber if you need a haircut," said Marty Powell, of The Design Alliance Architects.. "The answer is 'Yes,' even if you had one yesterday."

Playing to all fields

Pirates, Steelers and Pens officials insist there is no inherent conflict in having HOK provide both consulting and design work, arguing that the teams made their own decisions about whether to build new stadiums and that they turned to HOK because of the firm's expertise and track record around the country.

HOK, after all, is the designer of such ballparks as Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Jacobs Field in Cleveland and Coors Field in Denver. It has done work for 24 of the 30 professional baseball teams, and 28 professional football teams. Last year, it collected $36.4 million in sports-related fees, which is $14 million more than its closest U.S. competitor, according to figures published in Architecture World magazine. HOK said that number is inaccurate but would not supply a different figure.

"Our selection of HOK had more to do with their experience in this field and our concern that since we had the exposure of covering cost overruns (at Heinz Field), we couldn't afford to have somebody come in and learn on the job," said Art Rooney II, the Steelers vice president.

Sawyer, president of the Lemieux Group, agreed, saying HOK "is the logical group to go to because of its national reputation." If the Pens decide to ask HOK to design its new arena, which the team decided to build after reviewing the results of a HOK-led study, "I don't see that as a conflict at all," Sawyer said. "Obviously, they want to show you what you can do, and you can choose to use someone else later. It typically is the way it is done. It is not abnormal in any job to try to get your architect involved early."

HOK's Santee, a senior principal with the firm, said, "There really isn't an agenda on our part. All we can do is provide (the teams) with information about costs for renovation versus new construction, and ... a list of compromises."

"Usually," he added, "we are never in the position to say, 'We recommend renovation or new construction.' All we can do is give them the data. The teams and cities make their own decision based on their best interest."

Team owners, added HOK spokeswoman Carrie Plummer, "didn't get where they are by letting people tell them what to do. They take their responsibilities really seriously. Obviously, we provide them with the information. They need to make their own decisions."

But several local architects, while emphasizing that there is no evidence of any inappropriate decisions, acknowledged that HOK's dual role on publicly financed stadium projects raises some questions. "There is no evidence HOK doesn't do the best work in the marketplace and their recommendations are not anything but superb," said Powell, of The Design Alliance. But "the appearance of a conflict of interest in unavoidable.

"It is an emerging issue that all professionals need to talk about," he said

Mike Marcu, head of architectural firm IKM Inc. and the person who recently redesigned the Allegheny County Jail, said it's understandable that some people would think that, if an architectural firm does both the master planning and the actual project, "it is sort of like placing the wolf in the chicken coop."

But most architectural firms, he said, are sophisticated enough to reach the right conclusions, regardless of their interests. Also, architects typically have to seek help from a variety of other consultants involved in the project, preventing anyone from making a self-serving recommendation.

"So in most cases, it is not like putting the wolf in the chicken coop," Marcu said. Making the situation more complicated, though, is the use of taxpayer money in the stadium projects. The Pirates only provided $47.7 million of the total $260 million cost of PNC Park, or about 18 percent. The Steelers only provided $123 million toward the $281 million cost Heinz Field, or about 44 percent.

The Pens are seeking public money, too.

Jake Haulk, of the conservative think tank Allegheny Institute for Public Policy and a critic of using taxpayer money to fund stadiums, said that if the Pens want public money, the team should be required to put the architectural services out for bid, just as it would for the construction work. "It is a bit disturbing they are treating this like a private venture, but holding out their cup to the public to cover the costs," he said.

Also, if the Pens are going to ask for public money, the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns Mellon Arena, should have been part of the HOK feasibility study, Haulk said. "I don't think it is a scandal, but it does cause one to lift one's eyebrow. Is the public interest being served?"

Playing aggressively

HOK got all of the major stadium work in Pittsburgh the same way it landed jobs in other parts of the country -- by being aggressive, by getting in the door early and by showing owners how to wring more revenue from a stadium than they ever thought possible.

Founded in 1983 as an arm of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, the nation's largest architecture firm, HOK is in part responsible for the stadiums that combine an old-time, retro look with money-making luxury boxes and plush club seating. It is an aggressive marketer, too, showing up at NFL owners meetings, baseball's winter meetings, city manager national conventions, auditorium trade shows -- anyplace where the people who guide decisions about new stadiums gather.

Once HOK establishes a relationship with a team, "it is pretty hard to unseat them," said Dan Meis, sports group design partner for NBBJ, a Seattle-based architectural Firm that competes with HOK. "Of course it is frustrating."

In Pittsburgh, HOK started establishing relationships in the early 1990s.

One of its first jobs was to design luxury boxes for Three Rivers Stadium. Stadium Authority chairman Mark Schneider had met HOK's Santee at a U.S. Conference of Mayors event, and left impressed with the firm's work. Then Schneider met HOK's Camden Yards designer, Joe Spear, in July 1994, during the All-Star game in Pittsburgh.

That same year, Three Rivers Stadium officials turned to HOK for advice on how to update the old stadium. HOK then worked with the Stadium Authority on a variety of studies involving renovations to Three Rivers, a site for a new Pirates ballpark and a site for a new Steelers stadium.

The Rooney family, which owns the Steelers, asked HOK in 1996 to study the costs of renovating Three Rivers for football only, due in part to the HOK's familiarity with the facility.

HOK's estimate was $121.6 million. "The cost, we felt, didn't justify spending that kind of money on a 30-year-old building," Rooney said. So the Steelers hired HOK to study the cost and site for a new football stadium.

Did HOK influence the team's decision?

"I don't think we asked them for their opinion," Rooney said. "That was something we considered on our own."

Rooney also interviewed several architectural firms, including NBBJ and Kansas City-based Ellerbe Beckett, before picking HOK. "We went through a pretty thorough beauty contest," he said. "We had three other firms that made very serious proposals to us. It wasn't like we just handed the work to them after they did the first study."

The Pirates did not interview other firms before picking HOK as its lead architect for PNC Park. The Pirates did, however, call other baseball teams and ask how they selected an architect for their new stadiums. A few teams said they held design competitions, and opened up the selection process to the public.

"We, at the end of the day, decided not to go that route," said Dick Freeman, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Pirates. "I wouldn't want anybody to think we didn't talk to other people." But in the end, the Pirates felt comfortable with HOK, which was familiar to the team after helping identify an appropriate site for a new ballpark in 1996.

"They were the right choice for us," Freeman said.

The Pens also have a long-standing relationship with HOK, which did some renovation work for Mellon Arena in the late 1990s. Sawyer, the president of Lemieux Group, stressed that although the team is familiar with HOK, there is no guarantee the Kansas City firm will get the larger, multimillion-dollar design contract.

At a Penguins press conference last week, though, it became clear that HOK occupies a good position.

When he stood up to explain his firm's drawings of the proposed $225 million arena, HOK associate principal Patrick Lempka said: "We are really excited about the opportunity to get to work in Pittsburgh again. ... We have done a lot of building here, we think we know the city, and we think we know how to respond to special needs and special opportunities."

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