Thursday, April 1, 2010

NBA and Urban Planning

Among other reasons to rejoice in each NBA city, we must note that many NBA arenas have been constructed with a judicious regard for land-use and planning concerns. Rather than occupying scarce real estate in a city center (and even more space with broad parking lots), many basketball buildings sit over commuter rail train hubs:

  • Boston's TD Garden (formerly "Fleet Center"), built over North Station, which serves commuter rail lines stretching into Massachusetts's North Shore;

  • New York's Madison Square Garden, sitting across the street from the above-ground Penn Station and directly over the rail tracks (A full accounting of MSG and Penn Station, however, must document how the former, more beautiful Penn Station structure was demolished in the 1960s, leaving many observers aghast, to allow the construction of the current MSG. See Mad Men Season 3 for a dramatization of this controversy);

  • Toronto's Air Canada Centre, sitting directly adjacent to downtown Union Station and over some of the rail lines;

  • In Brooklyn, the proposed Atlantic Yards development, which we previously discussed at length on this blog, would position a new NBA arena directly over (i) the largest MTA station in Brooklyn and (ii) a terminus of the Long Island Railroad;

  • In Sacramento, a proposed new NBA arena would sit directly above a new regional transit center, according to plans announced in January 2010.

  • However, many cities do not adhere to this model:

  • In Washington DC, Union Station sits on the northeast side of town, near the US Supreme Court building, presaging a transition from the political corridor of the city into more residential, and, unfortunately, more downtrodden neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the Verizon Center proudly gleams in Chinatown near many law firms and courthouses.

  • In Chicago, Union Station and Ogilvie Station are positioned approximately two blocks west of the "Loop" downtown district, and an arena would fit snugly there. (Soldier Field is only about ten blocks south of the Loop, immediately on the lakefront.) However, the Bulls' and Blackhawks' arena is about one further mile west of Union Station in the West Loop / Near West Side neighborhood. Perhaps the thought was that Chicagoans preternaturally must come by car, and an arena without several acres of parking lots could not thrive.

  • In Los Angeles, Union Station and Staples Center are both generally downtown, but a couple miles apart.

  • In Detroit, the Pistons' venerable, 22-year-old arena sits in the affluent Oakland County suburbs, laughingly eschewing anything like "public transit" or "ties to the city".

  • In Memphis... well, seriously? Commuter rail in Memphis Tennessee? As if pigs could fly! When I visited this town last year, there were barely enough people to fill up the downtown two-block Beale Street tourist district. Outside Beale, most retail storefronts I saw were empty, waiting to be leased. It is unfortunate.

  • In Milwaukee, the Bradley Center sits about 1 mile away from the Amtrak station. Both are roughly in the downtown core (in fact, the arena may be the city's greatest draw, making viable a surrounding ring of taverns), but without a car it is not realistic to sally from one to the other.

  • Throughout southern and western metropolises, actually, where population is less densely packed, commuter rail systems just aren't there.

  • I cannot say what the right model is. I note that, unlike baseball and football, "tailgating" is not a hoary tradition at basketball or hockey games. Additionally, basketball fans tend to be more urban in character, and we also know that teams make their money by selling courtside seats to suburban-residing business folk, who often take commuter rail into the city. I know little about the substantive urban planning issues here, so I would certainly appreciate feedback.

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