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By: Cole Shoemaker
SunTrust Park sure looks familiar.
It’s often been said that the Braves’ new home is a pastiche of many other parks, reportedly taking elements from Coors Field, Miller Park, Busch Stadium, Citizens Bank Park, and Target Field.
That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if you have an inspiring architectural design or an original aesthetic vision. Parks should be encouraged to incorporate innovative functional elements and fan friendly amenities from other parks.
SunTrust Park does the latter to spectacular success, but doesn’t have any of the former, and in that sense it actually reminds me most of another park closer to home.
With red brick stripped of unique regional accents seen in other parks, a center field scoreboard with the picture of a baseball on the back, a Hank Aaron club space in left field, and the Chop House in right field, SunTrust Park most resembles Turner Field in its exterior and interior aesthetics. It also echoes Turner Field (for its time) in prioritizing groundbreaking amenities above all else.
You might note when you go to a team’s ballpark section on their mlb.com website, they all feature a short paragraph describing their stadium. The similarity between the blurb about Turner and the one about SunTrust perfectly encapsulates the underlying philosophy behind both parks:
Turner Field: “Turner Field combines the nostalgia and the atmosphere of old-time -baseball with a state-of-the-art environment unlike any other park.”
SunTrust Park: “SunTrust Park is the perfect marriage of classic ballpark feel, modern amenities and southern hospitality, which creates a fan experience unlike any other.”
Yes, SunTrust Park’s success largely hinges on the mixed-use development endeavor, but I want to focus mainly on the ballpark for now. The Braves’ intentions have always seemed clear regarding their stadiums: build a fairly generic “retro” structure that takes no chances architecturally and doesn’t offend anyone, while upping the ante for ballpark amenities.
When Turner Field opened in 1997 (for baseball), it was heralded as a baseball destination, replete with restaurants, museums, playgrounds, and a concert stage, all anchored by an expansive fan plaza. Called the “Disney World of Baseball,” it actually did outdo Camden Yards (Baltimore), Progressive Field (Cleveland), and Coors Field (Colorado) in this respect. But its aesthetic design paled in comparison to those. SunTrust Park is nearly identical, outdoing all other parks in baseball in terms of over the top amenities (which I get to specifically below), with little to no emphasis on timeless architecture and aesthetics.
Given Turner Field’s status as the most derided “retro cookie cutter” of its generation, this is an astonishing disappointment, given how rare a team gets a “do-over” within 20 years. Architecturally, this is a step backward for ballparks.
It is revealing that much of what I wrote about Turner Field could apply here. The review got more attention than others on ballparkratings.com due to the harsh tone, and I’ll pull some quotes from the piece for comparative purposes:
Of course, SunTrust Park is certainly not as bad as Turner Field aesthetically, but the similarities are striking. SunTrust Park does look more “like a ballpark,” and is more connected to its (artificial) environment, but it’s only slightly less disjointed, slightly less cluttered/busy, and slightly less gimmicky, all while having the same amount of aesthetic vision and regional architectural flare (none).
You’ll note I bash the city of Atlanta in the introduction of the Turner Field review because of the total lack of local architectural sensibility compared to nearly every other ballpark, and as I describe below, we have a similar situation at SunTrust Park. I won’t spend time talking about the city itself again, so I’ll genuinely ask: is there something about Atlanta? Do I bash the city too much? Or is this about the organization?
Fans, team officials, and “ballpark aficionados,” talk about SunTrust Park as a new model and a “game-changer” for future major league ballparks, so I’ll discuss the three large implications I see at the Braves’ new home. For this reason, this introduction is longer than usual. Two relate to what I’ve been discussing above, both of which haven’t been talked about enough in any forum, and one relates to what everyone has been clamoring about: The Battery Atlanta surrounding the park.
1) Architecture and aesthetics may no longer matter:
Whereas Turner Field turned out to be an aberration, I fear SunTrust Park will be the new norm.
When Turner Field opened in 1997, critics frequently pointed out what I have been saying. Camden Yards’ (1992) architecture mimicked the spirit of the B&O warehouse. Progressive Field’s (1994) industrial white steel recalled the nearby bridges of Cleveland. Coors Field’s (1995) red brick exterior fits with that of LoDo in Denver. Even Globe Life Park in Arlington (1994) has a fantastically attractive exterior design punctuated by local imagery featuring historical Texas bas-reliefs. Turner Field was just generic red brick, and everybody pointed this out.
Despite this criticism, Turner Field was still referred to as a “retro ballpark,” and people still felt the need to analyze its interior and exterior aesthetics.
SunTrust Park is the first park in recent memory where *not one word* was uttered in the media about its architecture and aesthetics. Use Google news and look at every review written about SunTrust Park. Also note how the word “retro,” either used in praise or as a pejorative, has not been used. It was designed to not offend anyone, and it has succeeded masterfully in that respect, because no one is calling it out.
If you think not discussing ballpark architecture and aesthetics isn’t new, you are mistaken. With every new ballpark, we have some review mentioning the exterior treatment, the interior lines, and especially the views. Marlins Park’s “neo-modern” design obviously got loads of attention. Citi Field’s Ebbets Field mimicry was scrutinized in New York. Target Field’s limestone and regional flare was praised in Minnesota.
Go down the ballpark list, and you’ll see that SunTrust Park is an outlier. It doubles down on being the ultimate retro cookie cutter with no regional mention. The Braves’ new home has uniquely uninspired architecture, but what is problematic is that no one is noticing. With broad praise heaped on SunTrust Park, no one seems to care.
This was noticed at Turner Field, and the park was followed by wonderfully attractive and/or unique ballparks in Seattle, Houston, Detroit, and San Francisco. New Rangers’ Globe Life Field will open in 2020, and appears to be SunTrust Park with a roof. A new park in Arizona will almost certainly be similar. I think there will be less pressure on every new park to do something unique.
Rob Neyer wrote a memorable article in 2013 declaring that the “retro era” ended and the “commercial era” began in 2009 with Citi Field. Parks stopped recalling the grand architectural traditions of their cities and began to be solely about revenue. I’m very hard on Citi Field overall, much more so than SunTrust Park when looking at each category cumulatively, but its design at least attempted to recall Ebbets Field. SunTrust Park’s design is solely functional and built for amenities. We see shades of it in the post-2008 parks, but the “commercial era” may have started here in full force.
2) SunTrust Park’s amenities are the best of all-time, bursting our ratings scale:
Building a new ballpark doesn’t mean it will have the best amenities. The more recent Marlins Park and Target Field didn’t outdo Yankee Stadium. SunTrust Park outdoes every ballpark on earth, and by a considerable margin in some categories.
I feared that The Battery Atlanta would mean that the Braves would feel they had license to incorporate fewer features inside the park. That is certainly not the case.
Everything is nearly perfect. The concessions have the variety and quality of the best parks in baseball, serving local Asian food, BBQ, Mexican, sandwiches, and some of the best burgers on the planet. For all the lack of local architectural flare, we do have a local flare provided by the food.
SunTrust Park features full-service restaurants from The Battery Atlanta connected to the outfield concourse, along with the three-level Chophouse and the Xfinity Lounge in the upper deck. We have “social spaces” galore and a “selfie spot” in every corner.
I never discuss premium seating in the introduction (people get annoyed), but this is right up there with Yankee Stadium, but without the unneeded exclusiveness, ridiculous prices, or snobbery (for the most part). Whether you like it or not, this premium seating model is the future of baseball. Monument Garden should be the new model of integrating team history into the park, bringing the past to fans on the main concourse in a beautiful exhibition as opposed to stashing monuments in a dark museum. And we even have something original in the entertainment category: a zip line and rock-climbing wall!
All of this just touches the surface. New parks will look here for inspiration for their fan-friendly features. This is a park where you can have a great time without seeing a single pitch.
It’s worth remembering that Turner Field was clearly an elite ballpark when it opened due to its amenities, and SunTrust Park is now in a similar boat. This, along with the SunTrust Park’s signature accomplishment discussed below, puts it in the upper echelon of ballparks. At least for now.
3) SunTrust Park’s mixed-use development scene, The Battery Atlanta, is the new model:
Serving as the impetus behind the creation of the new Braves’ ballpark, The Battery Atlanta exceeded my high expectations. It’s also more essential to SunTrust Park as an experience than I would have imagined.
I’ll get to the specifics in the “Setting” category, but people come before and stay after the game at a level I haven’t seen anywhere else. People gather around the central plaza for postgame shows. Restaurants and bars are filled to the gills. Thousands of fans just come to experience the environment at The Battery without tickets to the game. This is baseball city.
Most notably: it’s central to the game day experience in ways other great local scenes like LoDo in Denver and Gaslamp in San Diego aren’t. In the middle of the game, long lines of fans are looking to get out of the park and enjoy a few innings in The Battery. It’s very common for fans to watch the game for three innings, go to a bar in The Battery for another four innings or so, then come back into the ballpark for the last couple of innings. Now that certainly is a paradigm shift. Look for both new and old parks to emulate this.
Overall, I noted SunTrust Park is the best in baseball when looking only at “objective” categories (i.e. everything but architecture and aesthetics). It’s not flawless, as the concourses are too narrow in many areas, which strikes me as totally unacceptable for a new ballpark. But SunTrust Park was designed in a functionally exceptional manner.
The problem is it looks like it was designed by people in a boardroom looking to maximize revenue, with no input from thoughtful architects or creative urban planners. It looks like John Schuerholz and company sat in a meeting where different parties fought to please everyone. Looking at the renderings and the final product, it looks like they focused on spaces to add the next amenities, not spaces to add the next aesthetic flare or to cultivate any overall sense of aesthetic attractiveness.
The term “mallpark,” is extremely overused, but this certainly fits the bill. It’s been said that our new ballparks have been lacking in originality, but that’s been overstated in the past. It’s absolutely true of SunTrust Park. The most generic and derivative ballpark built since, well, Turner Field, SunTrust Park is the ultimate assembly line baseball stadium.
However, superior functionality, The Battery Atlanta, and the best amenities in all of baseball place SunTrust Park squarely in the top 10. I said “at least for now” above because amenities age (as we saw at Turner Field); only a timeless architectural design endures. Everything is new until it’s no longer new. Luckily, SunTrust Park may have staying power due to the ballpark’s surroundings, unlike its predecessor. To some degree, SunTrust Park is successful if The Battery Atlanta is successful, and it certainly looks like the latter is firing on all cylinders.NEXT - Setting