As Opening Day arrived at SunTrust Park, Braves fans were understandably anxious to get a look at their team's new ballpark. Three and a half hours before the game, fans packed the grassy plaza beyond the right-field gate, even though they weren't allowed into the park for another half hour. Others filled the restaurants lining the plaza and the walkways, while still more tested out their golf swings and watched baseball gloves made in the Mizuno store or walked across the street to buy shirts and hats at the Baseballism store.
The 41,149 fans that packed SunTrust Park that night was expected. But it was the come-early and stay-late behavior of the fans at "The Battery," the residential-retail development around the ballpark that created the scene Braves officials had dreamed of since before they first announced the plans for the new ballpark three years ago.
The most important plot of land on the 57 acres the Braves developed is the new ballpark. The Braves had to get the park right first, and they did. The nearly $700 million venue is as modern and appealing as expected. It was readied on time, with no significant cost overruns or delays.
SunTrust Park has excellent sight lines for pretty much every seat. The Wi-Fi works and it's very fast, even with a park full of smartphone users. The concourses are wide and shaded, with many spots having views of the field so fans can keep watching the game while they get their next hot dog or dumpling.
Like any new major league ballpark, there's plenty of club seating and various spots tailor-made for corporate schmoozing. And there are parts of SunTrust Park designed for fans who could care less about the score. Those areas offer play places for kids and adults.
There are some idiosyncratic features as well, the kind needed to give a ballpark some distinctiveness. Fans can sit next to the field behind the see-through right-field wall. The outfield wall varies in height at multiple spots around the field and allows for different caroms from different spots. There is a Zen garden in center field complete with trees under the batter's eye, and there are cutouts in the second and third decks to allow fans entering the gates an immediate clear view of the field.
And as expected, it's a nice view. The Braves designed the park with a non-traditional orientation, where the seats behind home plate look to the southeast. This provides a view of Atlanta's skyline and high rises, with the soon-to-open Omni Hotel and the Comcast office building looming just beyond the outfield stands.
But that's to be expected from a modern major league ballpark. Populous, the designers of SunTrust Park, has long ago cracked the code on how to make a modern ballpark with all the expected amenities, while giving it the feel of a lived-in stadium that harkens back to the baseball of the past.
What will make SunTrust Park the model for new ballparks over the next decade or more is what will take place outside the stadium's gates.
"When Camden Yards was built, it set a new standard. They took an old civil war-era warehouse and they incorporated it into the design," Braves vice chairman John Schuerholz said. "That was then. Now 25 or so years later, we come along, and with this grand notion that we will build a ballpark and a mixed-use development simultaneously."
In many ways, the same issues that prompted the Braves to leave their former home at Turner Field gave the Braves the idea to develop a new model for developing the area around the ballpark. The site of Fulton County Stadium and eventually Turner Field proved that building a stadium by itself does nothing to guarantee economic development around the ballpark.
As far back as 2003, Braves president for development Mike Plant began to plan out a multi-million square foot development around Turner Field that would make the area a place to spend time before or after a game. That idea never really got off the ground because it proved impossible to get approval to build Braves-owned development around the ballpark. By the time talks to extend the lease at Turner Field progressed, the lack of that development option prompted the Braves to look elsewhere.
Quietly and quickly, the Braves switched plans. They found a site in suburban Cobb County and announced their development plans for 57 acres that had been largely trees and grass. The Braves even paid to have three underground natural gas pipelines moved.
"We all collectively decided that it was important to redefine the experience of going to a Braves baseball game," Braves president of business Derek Schiller said. "It has to include more than just the time where you hand your ticket to go in through the gate."
It's not stretching the truth too far to say the Braves are a now a real-estate developer who also operate a baseball team. Almost anything a fan touches, sees or buys on their way into SunTrust Park is going to have a tie to the Braves.
The Braves will own 50 percent of that Omni Hotel beyond center field. The Comcast office building overlooking right field and all the restaurants and retail outlets near the ballpark are properties owned by the Braves. Rent one of the 550 apartments (prices range from $1,200 to more than $3,300 per month) at The Battery and you will be renting from the Braves.
Just how much that increased revenue will pay off in increased spending for Atlanta's payroll is not fully fleshed out yet--the increased revenue is just starting to flow into club owner Liberty Media's balance sheets. But for an organization hamstrung by a well-below-market local television deal, the difference should be significant. The Braves have not been in the top half of the National League in payroll since 2009. That should change in the years to come.
Developers using the draw of sports to develop the area around a new stadium is nothing new. It's something teams have long sold as a key part of landing taxpayer funding to help pay for new ballparks. Sometimes it works, as has been seen in San Diego around Petco Park, and sometimes it doesn't, as evidenced by that absolute lack of development around Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field.
But the Braves weren't just speculating that developers could use the new park as an engine to drive growth in the area. The Braves were promising that the development around SunTrust Park would happen immediately because they would do the developing.
That ensured they had control over how the area around the ballpark would be developed (you won't find any other bank setting up shop close to SunTrust Park) and it also meant that they would take the risk (the land around the ballpark was purchased by the Braves and Liberty Media) and reap the potentially significant financial rewards.On Opening Day, the concert hall across the street from SunTrust Park was open for business. So were the restaurants, a number of the shops and some of the apartments.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has hailed the SunTrust Park-The Battery combination as the model for teams going forward. It's likely that the Rangers' new ballpark will incorporate similar touches around its new facility, set to open in 2020. Braves officials say they have spoken with representatives for multiple teams in different sports who are investigating similar ideas.
Braves officials do see it as a model for future development, noting that the 81 home dates every year ensures hefty amounts of foot traffic as a starting point for retail development. The 4,000-person capacity Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre across the street ensures there will be big draws another 40 or so dates, and the Braves plan to have some sort of event to draw people 275 dates a year.
Other teams are interested because it generates new revenue and also is a way to sell public funding at a time where taxpayers are increasingly reluctant to approve new stadiums.
The Braves landed more than $300 million in funding from Cobb County without ever having the funding come to a public vote. That allowed them to move very quickly, but it wasn't without casualties. Cobb County commission chairman Tim Lee was voted out of office in an election that seemed to largely revolve around his decision to spearhead bringing the Braves to town.
The reality is that getting publicly-funded parks passed in a referendum is getting harder and harder for teams, as economists provide plenty of evidence that many of the past projections for growth generated by stadiums was unrealistic.
But at the same time, developing a ballpark and a retail-residential development around it is not the same as just building a standalone park.
"This model is certainly more pro-development," said Dr. Andrews Zimbalist, an economist from Smith College who has studied sports economics for years. "In general, you have to be more sophisticated in looking at this. You can't be ideological and say, 'Oh, it's a ballpark, so it's bad for development.'
"You have to look at the details. How is the financing being arranged? What kind of fiscal subsidies or incentives are included in the packages? What is the neighborhood like? What are the alternate uses of the land in that neighborhood? What is it replacing?
"To have a knee-jerk reaction where 'it's a ballpark and they are all exploitative. Therefore, this is bad for development,' is just not sufficiently sophisticated or accurate to give a fair picture of what is happening."
The neighborhood around SunTrust Park appears to be benefitting from the new arrival. In addition to the Braves' development of The Battery, two additional significant real estate and mixed-used developments have sprung up a block away, advertising their proximity to the ballpark.
"There have been some bad public-private partnerships out there. No one is going to argue that," Schiller said. "This breaks the mold on that. This has created $4 billion of economic impact. Anyone who doesn't think a sports stadium can create an economic impact needs to take a walk around here."
The true test of any ballpark is its longevity. The best of the best have life spans that aren't measured in years or even decades but in half-centuries and centuries. Atlanta has gone 0-for-2 on its first two parks. The Braves are confident this new park will break that streak. Not only have they signed a 30-year lease, but as they point out, they have a whole lot of retail space around the ballpark that will suffer if either the team or the stadium fails to live up to expectations.
"We are guaranteed to be here for 30 years," Plant said. "We are highly motivated to ensure that our doorstep is always looked after. We have a financial motivation to do this."