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Home Biz of Baseball - Interviews Earl Santee - Ballpark Development

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Earl Santee - Ballpark Development PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Maury Brown   
Sunday, 09 April 2006 12:00
Earl SanteeIn this interview, Santee of HOK talks the Twins and Marlins continued efforts for new facilities, and how HOK approaches projects that are not yet funded, how the stadium design process is launched, which designs have been the most challenging, the downsizing of seat capacity in current designs, how upper deck design is approached in the context of lower bowl seating, Busch III, the New Nationals design, how Value Engineering is approached, what options by the client allow for a moving away from the nostalgic, or retro design, and how HOK can approach further work without resting on their laurels.
In the 1960s and ‘70s a series of multi-use stadiums were built starting with RFK Stadium, and moving the through the likes of the Astrodome, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Busch Stadium II, and the Kingdome that has garnered a label within ballpark history as the Cookie-Cutter, or Cement Donut age of ballpark design.

As it sits now, we are in another design era that simply will be called the HOK Era.

Since the development of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, HOK has been the gold standard by which many clients looking for new facilities start, and nearly always end.

At the heart of many of these designs by HOK Sport, which is a division of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, is Earl Santee.

Santee has worked on more than 18 Major League Baseball parks and 40 minor league and spring training baseball projects, including the successful completions of PNC Park, Minute Maid Park and Angel Stadium of Anaheim. His responsibilities include design, project direction, interior architecture, cost estimating, feasibility studies and master planning.

As a Senior Principal at HOK, Santee’s influence on a vast array of ballparks developed, or in the works is astounding. A small sampling of his project experience includes:

  • Washington Nationals New Ballpark, Washington
  • New Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Missouri
  • PNC Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Angel Stadium of Anaheim, Anaheim, California
  • Minute Maid Park, Houston, Texas
  • Coors Field, Denver, Colorado
  • Wrigley Field Renovation, Chicago, Illinois
  • Portland MLB Site Analysis, Portland, Oregon
  • Northern Virginia MLB Site and Concept Design
  • Kauffman Stadium Improvements, Kansas City,
  • Busch Stadium Master Plan, St. Louis, Missouri
  • Minnesota Twins Site Study, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Shea Stadium Redevelopment Study, New York,
  • Florida Marlins New Ballpark, Miami, Florida
  • New Yankee Stadium, New York, New York
  • Las Vegas MLB Study, Las Vegas, Nevada

He recently received the top honor on Sports Business Journal’s list of Most Influential People in Sports Facility Design, Architecture and Development. He currently serves as principal in
charge of the New Yankees Stadium and the New Washington Nationals Ballpark designs.

Given the scope of Santee’s experience, it would have been impossible in one sitting to touch on every ballpark he has had a part in. Topics include the Twins and Marlins continued efforts, and how HOK approaches projects that are not yet funded, how the stadium design process is launched, which designs have been the most challenging, the downsizing of seat capacity in current designs, how upper deck design is approached in the context of lower bowl seating, Busch III, the New Nationals design, how Value Engineering is approached, what options by the client allow for a moving away from the nostalgic, or retro design, and how HOK can approach further work without resting on their laurels.

This extensive interview would have been far longer had Santee been able to talk in detail about both of the upcoming projects in New York in New Yankee Stadium, and the new Mets facility design.

Enjoy.Maury Brown

Selected Ballpark Design Renderings
Courtesy of HOK and the NY Mets

Click on images for Large view

Select links for hi-res versions

Nationals Renderings

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Hi-Res NE View (4.91 megs)

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Hi-Res NW View (2.02 megs)

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Hi-Res SE View (1.94 megs)

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Hi-Res SW View (1.94 megs)


Marlins Renderings
Courtesy HOK

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Hi-Res Aerial (4.87 megs)

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Yankees Renderings
Coming Soon

Twins Renderings
Courtesy HOK

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BizBall: Your bio mentions that you served as Principal on the first two major league ballpark design-build bridging projects: PNC Park and the New Busch Stadium. Can you explain what a design-build bridging project entails?

Santee: Design build bridging is where we are the design architect and we take the drawings to a certain point in the project. At that point, the contractor hires an architect directly to complete the work and the architect works for the contractor.

We stay with the owner and act as his advocate for design of the project. So the bridging aspect is that we "bridge" the design through the owner and not the contractor—the design build job basically.

In traditional design build jobs, the design architect is the architect of record. In design build bridging all of the cost overruns are born by the design builder, which would include design errors adnomissions and so on. In traditional building that’s not necessarily the case.

BizBall: How big of a role does consensus play in stadium designs that involve public/private partnerships?

Santee: Well, quite a bit.

Obviously, it depends on how strong the team is about their design objectives and then how those design objectives may marry with a community’s objectives for themselves, as far as future planning purposes or master planning purposes…if they want to build more than just one project, and what the influence of the project design might be on that (planning). So building consensus on design is important so everybody has a common direction and common goal, and at the end of the day they feel like there is a broad sense of success that is borne not just by one group.

BizBall: In many cases, you and HOK have been working on some designs that are, for lack of a better word, in limbo. The Twins design and site, along with the Marlins are two of these as the clubs continue to work on funding. How do you approach these projects, and, if you could, explain the adaptability part of that process.

Santee: Those projects are a lot like all of our projects. The most difficult part of any project is getting them funded. That’s as simple as it gets—some projects can be done in a year or two, like in Pittsburgh. Some projects take 15 or 16 years, like San Francisco.

So adapting is not a term I would use; I would probably say that we learn to be patient and let the process take on its own life and let it go its own course.

When the time comes you deal with all the changing environment conditions. Our job at that point— like with both the Twins and Marlins—is to create a sense of excitement and interest in the project that helps support the interest in that project from a funding standpoint and a public acceptance standpoint.

Once funding happens, in most cases, you get into a much more serious design process because you’ve got a schedule, you’ve got money that supports construction and building, and you’ve got risk…risk in the project both from a budget and time standpoint. A lot of it is just being patient and letting the process take its course. It’s different in every State but there is always a process and 9 times out of 10 it’s lengthy and not something that happens in a year or two.

BizBall: Given the number of ballpark projects you are working on, is there a method by which you can take a previous design and use that as a jumping off point, or do you approach each design from scratch?

Santee: They are from scratch. What we do historically is with what we callBaseball 101, because a lot of times when we start a project we have people that don’t understand the design elements and why things are done the way they are, and how those things relate to the building—from a design standpoint, from a functional standpoint, and so on. So we’ll do that at the beginning and then we do a thing which is really just interviewing all the stakeholders and try to get as much input about what they want in the building.

It’s a very traditional kind of architectural process where you’re finding out the needs of the users and you’re finding out facts about the site and about the city. From that you develop a process that creates the building. That kind of gives you the functional side of it (the process).

The form side of it is narrowly driven by, in many cases, one or two people on the owner’s side who have a strong opinion about the form. On the public sector side many, many people have opinions about the form. So you try to take all that into consideration with what the design of the project is moving toward.

In a lot of ways it’s like baking a cake in that you know how many ingredients are there but where and when you put them, and how big the cake is, and how you decorate, is really distinct to each process.

BizBall: Of the 18 MLB ballpark projects that you’ve worked on, which one was the most challenging?

Santee: I think the jobs we have now are the most challenging. The shift from a design perspective is, we’ve done some really great projects and people are happy with them, and now everybody wants to do something different or better.

Understanding that "different" or "better" sometimes makes things more complicated; may take longer or cost more, so this is the challenge within any design process.

The expectations are quite a bit higher now than they had been. They always were high, but now they are higher than they were. I think a lot of times people use the past projects as “okay I know you did this but can you do this?” and they’re changing the paradigm of what these projects are and can be.

They’re challenging…the New York jobs, the DC job, what we had to go through in St. Louis, these are very challenging projects. They challenge us from a design standpoint and they challenge us from a process of how we deal with all the complexities—how many people want to have input into the project. Who we try to satisfy; that’s another key point. Trying to determine who we need to satisfy in the process is very challenging.

BizBall: There seems to be more of a shift now towards revenue generating, such as total seat capacity coming down, there seems to be more emphasis being placed on other revenue streams, mostly in the form of suites. Is that a reasonable comment?

Santee: No. Since the early 1990s revenue was always a mainstay for the purpose of building a new building, along with the functional obsolescence of the buildings there were in. Nowadays suites have really come down.

What I will agree on though, is that looking at revenue in each market is distinct, and that drives the building design to be distinct.

It isn’t all about seats, it’s not all about suites.

In fact, I’d say if anything the baseball suite market has shrunk significantly over the last five years. I mean significantly. It is about providing distinct experiences for the premium seats just like you do with the everyday fan, and that makes the buildings different than what they were before. When we do suites now, there are not many of them and we do them in such a way that they have a position that causes the design to stay uniquely different. Like in Jacobs [Field], where you have three levels of suites along the third base line, but I don’t think you see the suite market driving the design of the projects anymore. In fact, it’s one of those ingredients but we’re definitely in a shrinking suite market and it has been for five years.

I think we’re at the smallest it’s been in a long time. The interesting part about that is that it gives us some more flexibility, because the numbers of suites in these buildings are not an enclosed building form like some football stadiums might be, so that we can put suites in different positions. We know how many suites we can put on one level and it allows us to make a much more intimate seating goal, and more interesting seating goal because we can split the decks up into four or five different organizations that make it interesting for that city or that team.

Revenues have always been there, and think that each team’s leadership really wants to add something to where they know their market really well and they want to work with us to design original and thoughtful forms for their markets. That’s good because it gives the community a much stronger connection to the building and hopefully that strong community connection means more revenue.

BizBall: On the proximity of (especially upper deck) seating to the field ... What's the acceptable distance compared to what it used to be, and where do you see those standards of acceptability going?

Santee: Well, we are designing much smaller upper decks like what you’ll see in St. Louis. There, you have only 9,500 seats in the upper deck, so I think what you’ll see in the future.

From a personal viewpoint, that is my preference: Build as many lower deck seats as I can.

Part of that is usually based on grade or access by the street. The experience of being in the lower deck is much different than being in the upper deck. I’m an advocate of large lower decks, starting with PNC Park and now St. Louis, which both have fairly significant lower deck capacity. So I’m an advocate of large lower decks and small upper decks, for a variety of reasons.

BizBall: Let’s go through a few of the ballparks that you have worked on…

Busch III has been interesting in that it has been developed in phases, and the footprint places it close to an Interstate freeway. How did you approach these aspects?

Santee: The phasing around Busch Stadium—I found out today (3/15/06) that they are finally laying sod. One of the ways to make phase one more function was to move the scoreboard so that it would not be impacted by the demolition of the old Busch Stadium.

I think it was more of a construction feat than a design feat. We put so much emphasis on stuff in the lower deck and things between the baselines, such as left field, which is where the old Busch sat wasn’t as critical for the construction process.

As far as the highway (I-64), we just had to be sensitive about it. We couldn’t push it any farther north because that’s where Busch Stadium was. It’s not unusual to have those kinds of constraints. They were difficult. The highway was something we had to think about from a noise standpoint. The architecture of that side of the building addressed the city and streets and so on, and I think we made reasonably good decisions about it.

We’ve got strong entry and seating points along first and third base and right field, and all of left field and center field are wide open to the city. Our design objective was to connect the building to the city itself and that was strongly related to how we positioned the building on that side, and coincidentally it was adjacent to the highway. But, at the same time it gave it the strongest connection to the city.

BizBall: In the case of some of the current designs you are working on, there is the use of a frieze. Can you go over how HOK decides whether or not to use one?

Santee: Some of our clients want to connect to the history and heritage of the franchise, and that may make for a fairly literal connection that manifests itself in some architecture.

Some of those issues are just logical design solutions to complete the design of the building. That’s one of the things that the Nationals project does, is that it allows a little more freedom for people to think in a broader sense about architecture as it relates to sports.

Historically that’s been (arena design) fairly modernistic in its approach. Football projects, while they started out to be more modernistic, have been both traditional styles and modern styles. Some are transitional, like the Chicago Bears stadium. That makes it interesting.

Baseball fields are baseball fields. It has the same physical dimensions. If you’re doing the job right you’re trying to get the fans to have the most intimate personal experience as you can. The shape of the stadium and its relationship to the field is something you can’t separate. Would we want to? I don’t know if anyone would want to.

I always remember that people said that Oriole Park and Jacobs Field look alike, and I said the only parts where they look alike is the grass field and that they share the same baseball configuration.

The architecture is that one is modern and one is a traditional building form.That’s always been a little bit of a challenge.

The same is true with football; because you’re designing to such a specific sport, and the sport has such a specific size that you try to make the best possible experience for the people who are going to use the building. You would think the seats would conform to the playing field. The only architecture is whatever else you put around the seats, whether it’s more development or inclusive development or exclusive development.

I think in 10 years you really will see a change in how buildings have provoke thought that is connecting the building to more than just the building form. I think you’re going to see more of the St. Louis Cardinals and PETCO analogy where people are trying to do more than just one building at a time, and try to create a district or neighborhood for the community. I think you’re going to see more of that in the future than you do now.

That’s part of the process with DC, is that they are trying to build community and the ballpark is one piece of it. So I think you’ll see more of that. Frankly it’s more fun for us. The more challenging the jobs are the more fun they are. I think that we’ve done quite a few, and having projects that challenge us is a good thing. It’s what motivates us to come to work everyday.

BizBall: On the Nationals design… The use of double decker suites has raised the overall height of the design. I have heard that the new facility will be 21 feet taller than RFK. Can you verify that, and how do you design a facility with this attribute to allow those in the upper deck the best visibility?

Santee: I’ve always stated this on DC, and it too has a large lower deck. Comparatively speaking it probably has half as many upper deck seats as RFK. So what that means is that this is where the whole evaluation analysis comes into play, which doesn’t actually work well, is that we could have added a lot more upper deck seats and gotten some seats a little bit closer. But, I think it’s better that you have a lot more lower deck seats and you have a lot more people closer. That’s really the shift and that is clearly a design shift.

I think they’ve got 23,000 or 24,000 seats in the lower deck, and let me tell you, that’s a great lower deck. If I didn’t do 23,000 or 24,000 seats down there and I put 3,000 or 4,000 more seats in the upper deck—and again this is where I think things are from a design point— I think lower deck seating is a much more valuable play for the fan.

I guess there are people who would rather sit in the upper deck seats than the lower deck seats, and I don’t know why, but I think we’ve had a preference in the last four or five years to create a stronger emphasis on the lower deck seating just because of its accessibility to the fan.

BizBall: There has been talk of trying to get the bouncing stands into the new stands that have become a signature at RFK. Is HOK working on this design aspect for the ballpark?

Santee: It’s been talked about. It’s still part of the design goal, and whether or not it gets executed is another question, but it’s still part of the design goal that was stated early on. That made RFK special to people and whether or not that will make its way to the new building, only time will tell.

BizBall: There has been a considerable amount of attention paid to the funding component of the new Nationals ballpark. The term Value Engineering has been repeated often. Is there a point when the overall aesthetic of the design could be impacted through value engineering, and how have you been so effective in addressing the value engineering component?

Santee: Historically, once we know how much money is being spent purely on construction and that’s been established, we really depend on the construction manager to identify what’s appropriate for that market. Whether that’s structural frame or concrete or steel or mechanical or electrical systems, we really try to work in with the construction manager to make better decisions.

That process went through a lot of VE (Value Engineering), but frankly, a lot of projects go through it because the construction market is as fluid from a pricing standpoint as anything I’ve seen in my career.

Because there is a lot of construction going on, you try to bid the work in a certain marketplace from a competition standpoint, so you get a lot of quality bidders. We just had a hurricane down south that had an impact in construction costs. We’re at kind of a dynamic time as far as how you look at cost. Fortunately for us, a lot of those issues are being dealt with early on. During the VE process you’re basically taking to subcontractors and saying “here’s what we’ve got so what do you think the number is going to be” so you’re actually getting early pricing from them that allows you to make a somewhat informed decision. It’s fairly fluid, so what happens is that after the early information you get some additional information and you have to make some modifications. Every job these days has a fairly extensive VE process.

BizBall: The Nationals design breaks with nostalgic design that has been a large part of ballpark designs by HOK in the recent past. Was there much discussion as to whether to go this route, or was there an effort to have the urban design fit in with some of the other architecture in the Near SE area that is being developed?

Santee: I think the design that was shown yesterday (3/14/06) was really a fairly common design objective that was shown by the city and the sports commission, as well as, the planning commission. It was a fairly common position for what the design should be, and our job was to organize it in a way that gives it a rationale for its purpose and what it looks like.

From what I’ve seen so far the press clippings have been fairly complimentary and people have commented that it took a break, but I’m not certain that if you look at that area there aren’t some changes within four or five or six blocks where there are buildings that have historical value. When you look at DC it has its own history. It’s not like we need to re-create it within a ballpark.

BizBall: Was the placement of the parking structures toward centerfield a design concern in terms of the viewing aesthetics looking out of the ballpark?

Santee: Yes. As architects we thought over everything with those kinds of details. It’s a concern about how big the buildings are and what’s the view to the Capitol—can people see into the ballpark from that side of the city—so those are always concerns.

How they are going to be developed is another question, and those are future questions that I don’t know if they have answers to right now.

BizBall: How important is site selection to the overall astetics of the stadium design? Did that have any impacts to the Nationals design given the unique process that MLB and the District were under?

Santee: The one thing that's different about the DC job is that in most cases is that historically we do the site selection.

Site selection is one of the most crucial aspects of whether or not you create a great building. I think the site we have in Pittsburgh is incredible and immaculate. In DC, that process was an independent process. We were given a program and given a budget and given a site, and asked to design a building and that's where we are today.

BizBall: What type of designs do you feel we’ll see in the next 10 years? Is there the capacity for a radical departure from what we are now seeing?

Santee: I think it depends on the client and the design climate.

Some clients like the Marlins, we had an even more modern looking building than DC and with a roof, and that was because the owner of the team wanted a piece of sculpture.

It just depends on the client and how they see the branding of their franchise and the community and how that’s represented. So I think you’ll see more projects like this one. We’ve embraced the Nationals job and that’s important to us because it does allow us to spread our wings a little bit. We can design modern buildings and we do it all the time. It just happens to be that we have quite a few buildings that have red brick or limestone or something that looks like it has a more traditional feel to it. We can design modern buildings, so I think the Nationals project is an important project for us. It just changes how people perceive how the success of a different design might have on their franchise within their community.

BizBall: Finally, given the number of ballpark designs that HOK has, done as well as those in process, is there ever a worry that HOK might rest on its laurels?

Santee: That’s one of my personality flaws I guess! I want them to be unique and distinctive. Absolutely. It’s part of how you start the process. You have to look at the city first and then you look at the client and then you look at the site possibilities, and all those things kind of drive it. The fresh side of it is that we challenge ourselves to do bigger and better things. Because we’re not a factory; we’re trying to keep this as creative as we can.

Fortunately for us we’re an international company so we go overseas and look at international buildings and study the architecture as an idea to create more interesting things for our clients. I think it’s just the way we’re organized. People call us a corporation but we’re just a group of individuals that love doing what we do and we don’t want to repeat something that we did before. We want every project to be new and fresh because that’s what motivates us to continue.

Let me close on of the things we actually do is listen to peoples' feedback about our facilities. We read the press and we understand that we have a lot of design goals, and we're trying to do all we can do to make every building special to those communities.

In some cases we get opportunities like the Marlins job, which is a very interesting piece of sculpture, and a lot of that depends on how the client is. We have a great enthusiasm to try new and different things.

We have design studio that is full of young architects that we hire from all over the country to come work here and incubate ideas. I think that some of that manifests itself in our buildings as time goes on.

The following interview was originally published on the SABR Business of Baseball website, and can be read here: SABR Business of Baseball Interviews Page

Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 3/15/06
Transcribed by Galen Antle

Edited by Maury Brown
Graphics and layout by Maury Brown



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