Minnesota’s ballpark: urban yet not retro

By train, bus, bike, car, and foot, fans arrive at Target Field, a stadium shoehorned onto eight acres in the Minneapolis core.

Target Field, the $545 million new home of the Minnesota Twins, may just possibly be the death knell for retro-style ballparks.

Borrowings from architectural history are few in the 39,500-seat Minneapolis ballpark, which recently finished an inaugural season packed with sold-out games. The stadium, designed by Kansas City-based Populous (formerly known as HOK Sport + Venue + Event), has an exterior full of jutting angles, dramatic cantilevers, and contemporary flourishes.

Early in the design process, there was some thought that Populous might give the Twin Cities a ballpark with overt historical touches, like the facilities the firm has designed for the New York Yankees, the California Angels, the San Francisco Giants, the Cleveland Indians, and a slew of other teams since the first of the major leagues’ new-old ballparks — Oriole Park at Camden Yards — captured the hearts of Baltimoreans in 1992.

On the contrary, Target Field, with Earl Santee as its chief architect, ended up being decidedly, eagerly contemporary. Exterior walls are clad in large swaths of golden-toned Mankato limestone, from a famous stone-producing area 80 miles southwest of Minneapolis. The stadium’s style — energetic and bold — seems fitting for a city proud of its contemporary architecture.

Because the stadium’s take on contemporary design is exuberant and fresh without being harsh or weird, Target Field may make the nearly two-decade phenomenon of tradition-inspired stadiums (some of them very pleasing) seem passé. To those of us who admire well-executed traditional design, this is not necessarily a welcome change. But there’s no denying it: Target Field communicates a feeling that change is in the air.

On the crucial issues of fitting into the city and connecting with the transportation network, Target Field is stellar. Northstar commuter trains and the Hiawatha light-rail line deliver fans directly to the stadium. Trains and light-rail had been expected to carry 10 to 15 percent of the stadium’s visitors, based on patterns at the Twins’ former home, the loudly and justly maligned Metrodome.

“But [commuter rail and light rail ridership] has popped right up,” says Chuck Ballentine, a Hennepin County planner who played a key role in getting the project built. “About 30 percent of the people coming to a game are coming by those modes.”

The phrase repeatedly heard is that 12 acres of ballpark have been squeezed onto an eight-acre site. Two examples of the stadium’s use of already occupied space:  A public plaza has been cantilevered over part of Interstate 394, creating a welcome connection for pedestrians and a way of making the pre-existing highway network less intrusive. An expressway exit ramp winds beneath outfield grandstands.

Santee and his design team were handed a difficult site, hemmed in by parking garages, rail lines, and highway ramps. They coped by building up and over obstacles that could not be moved. There’s even a bike trail running through the site, and there are about 400 bike parking spaces at the stadium. (Bike parking won the stadium a point on the way to LEED Silver certification.)

A design critic’s perspective

Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design, says: “We can walk to the bus stop two blocks from my house [in neighboring St. Paul], and it takes us right to the bus depot next to the stadium, where we can take an escalator up to the plaza and come out to one of the great open spaces in the city, with ‘baseball bat’ light sculptures leading to the gates of the stadium ….

“When we enter the stadium, the wide galleries offer views of the field from almost every angle. … When we finally arrive at our seats many stories in the air, the city skyline and the arc of the stadium open in front of us …. [S]pending hours with so many people in the midst of that urban spectacle reminds us of why we live in cities: to remember that we are all a part of something much larger than ourselves.”

The story of the remarkable stadium, from contention over where it should be built and who should pay for it, to its design and construction, is told in fascinating detail in a profusely illustrated oversize book, Target Field (MVP Books, 224 pp. hardcover, $40). Author Steve Berg, a Minneapolis journalist with a vivid writing style and a feel for urban design, notes that Hennepin County put up $350 million of the ballpark’s costs, while the Twins paid $195 million.

Berg offers this observation: “One curiosity about Target Field is that the viewer can never catch a glimpse of the whole structure. … Like the ballparks built nearly a century ago, it is set so intimately into the grid of the city that you happen upon it only when turning a corner and — pow! There it is! …. Target Field is inseparable from the city that surrounds it. It’s a built-in ballpark.”

The stadium is only two blocks from the entertainment-oriented Warehouse District. Ballentine says that because of the walking connections, “there’s been a repopulation of the bars and restaurants on Sixth Street. The pedestrian environment is rather healthy.”

He also points out that “the Twins and the Minnesota Ballpark Authority are required to try to attract air-rights development over their surface parking lot,” approximately two square blocks. “It could be an office location,” he reports. There is also talk of possible condominium construction in the area. Says Ballentine: “I’d personally like to see a ‘Vancouver stack’: retail, office, and residential.”

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