Demolish SkyDome? No way!
I am old enough to remember when the then-SkyDome opened up in 1989. It was the eighth wonder of the world at the time, and the first stadium with a fully operational retractable roof. It took forever to open and close but it was a true marvel. What my 7-year-old self did not realize at the time was the sheer cost of the structure, but it was cool; it was the place to be for an up-and-coming team that was bound to win two World Series championships within the first five years of calling SkyDome home.
Back in December there were rumours circulating that Rogers wanted to demolish the stadium and build a new stadium in another part of the city. SkyDome (I still can’t call it by it’s “new” corporate name and don’t want to, frankly.) is only 30 years old. It seems premature to demolish it.
Anyone who has been at a Blue Jays game recognizes it falls behind modern stadiums and fan experiences. I’m not suggesting saving the stadium out of nostalgia, but the building is part of the fabric of the Toronto skyline and how we perceive Toronto. It is an iconic building whose demise is coming way too soon.
Even Maple Leafs Gardens managed to last 60+ years before the then-Air Canada Centre was built. SkyDome may be middle-aged, and the lure of a new, shiny stadium with new revenue streams may be too much for Rogers to ignore, but it is not done yet.
I recall several years ago being in the running for a job with the Blue Jays, and the writing assignment they gave me focused on communicating a rebuild within the current structure to season ticket holders and fans. I did not keep the exercise but it focused on having wider concourses to walk through, newer fan experiences and ways to commemorate the team.
I think this can be achieved within the existing structure, but I recognize it may cost more to complete than a new build, and because the land it sits on it owned by the federal government, it may make renovations a bit more difficult if the landlord does not approve or wants specific things. But, because this is my blog post, I will speculate what could be done to transform SkyDome in its current spot. With an unlimited budget (there is always a caveat) here is what I would suggest:
1. Close Bremner Blvd around the stadium permanently to create a car-free pedestrian zone.
For a very long time, there has always been a kind-of pedestrian zone around SkyDome but it is limited to the immediate concrete space around the stadium and it is shared with the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium. I would suggest closing down Bremner Boulevard in front of the stadium from Spadina Avenue to Lower Simcoe Street because it is easy to get to SkyDome via transit and walking. No one should drive or park nearby, even with the other main attractions nearby. Something would need to be worked out with the condos nearby for access but that can be accomplished in other ways and with new entrances.
If the City of Toronto ever builds the Rail Deck Park, I would permanently close Blue Jays Way from Front Street to Spadina Avenue and extend space out over the railroad tracks to tie in with the Rail Deck Park. If this never comes to pass, I would suggest the team do its part and extend space over the tracks regardless to create more useable space and land.
Having been to other baseball parks in the US, one of the things they do well is have a Main Street or party zone where people can walk and be entertained before getting into the park. Fenway Park was probably the best example of this that I have experienced so far.
This could offer an opportunity for the City of Toronto and the Blue Jays to create more park and open space with the closure of this part of Bremner Blvd, create a stand-alone Blue Jays shop in addition to the one in the stadium, create themed bars, beer gardens, etc., plus space for the next item on my list.
In opening up this space, I recognize there are opportunities to open up the bowels of the SkyDome to increase the size of dressing rooms, gyms and other training and workout facilities, and other offices and items that come with the day-to-day management of the team so they are not limited to the original design.
2. Build and place statues commemorating the past.
Rogers and the Blue Jays, rightfully, took flak for placing a statue of Ted Rogers in front of SkyDome sometime after taking ownership of the team. It was a ridiculous thing to do, and very on-brand for Rogers, by placing a statue of its founder ahead of any memories and players of the past. With all this new room created, I would add several statues around the park like most baseball parks have. The first collection of statues I would place would be of the following:
I would celebrate the 1985 season for a few reasons. This was the beginning of the ascension of the Blue Jays as a powerhouse. The iconic shot of MVP George Bell and Tony Fernandez – two players who should be celebrated in statue form – is a great shot for a statue to capture. It is also a nod to the past, the first third or quarter of the Blue Jays’ life as an organization. Not everyone can be celebrated with a statue but these two players are a good way to celebrate that part of the team’s history.
The 1992 ALCS home run from Roberto Alomar was a pivotal moment in the history of the organization. That home run exercised some bad playoff moments and propelled the team to their first World Series. That it was against the best reliever, Dennis Eckersley, was even sweeter.
The 1993 World Series home run from Joe Carter is an iconic moment, and only one of two times where a World Series was won by a home run. It is such a great moment that should be enshrined as a commemorative statue.
As part of a second batch, there are people who should be recognized as part of the narrative of the Blue Jays. The first is Cito Gaston – the first black manager to win a World Series. He was a trailblazer as a player and then again as a coach. He should be enshrined with a statue, preferably one that captures him on the bench as coach so it can be interactive. Paul Beeston and Pat Gillick should be captured in some capacity as well and celebrated for their influence and achievements.
Roy Halladay, arguably the best pitcher the Blue Jays have ever had, and now Hall-of-Famer, should be recognized by the team in some way to celebrate his life and career with the Jays.
There should be a statue of the infamous Jose Bautista bat flip and home run in 2015 against the Texas Rangers. That was epic.
3. Tear down the hotel and rebuild the north side of the stadium.
With all of this new space, an opportunity exists to completely rebuild the north side of the stadium and change how fans interact with the field and stadium. This is a space where a large concourse can be built, interactive spaces can be built where, for example, you can take photos with replica World Series trophies, celebrate baseball and the Jays, have spaces for kids to have fun and build their interest in baseball, etc. One great example I have seen is in Queens, New York at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, where they have the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. It is a great way to celebrate an important player and history.
In addition, this is an opportunity to open up the dreary stadium by allowing natural light to come in, and fresh air too. This new concourse space could also be a place where media gather for announcements and press conferences instead of in the bowels of the stadium. I am not an architect so someone more creative than I can rethink this space but the potential and opportunity is there if the hotel is removed and the north side of SkyDome is reimagined.
4. Replace and rebuild the roof.
What was once the marvel of the world has seen better days. In what seems like a simple process, the roof opens up using three panels. It is still a marvel to watch, as I got to years ago working nearby and seeing the roof open up and close periodically, but there are downsides. It takes 20 minutes for the roof to open and close. In the spring it is generally never opened unless there is a sustained period of warm weather. In the past, panels have fallen onto the field.
This is an opportunity to redevelop and rebuild the roof and, maybe, emulate some of the other examples that have come after the SkyDome roof. With a rebuilt north side that opens up space and light, the new roof can incorporate the same elements and find a way to let more light in so the stadium is not so dreary at night or when there is inclement weather.
5. Remove whole rows from each level and redesign the 500 level.
If the goal is to create wider spaces, every level below the 500 level needs to have rows removed to create wider spaces. I would aim to remove (where possible) several rows from the back of each level to achieve this. It would require a bit of a rebuild to incorporate new steps or ramps to access the concourse, but it is doable with an unlimited budget!
With the hotel removed and the north side of the stadium reimagined, this would also impact the 500 level. I am not sure how I would tie it in with the rest of the stadium redesign but some rows can be removed. An extremely wide concourse on this level can be recreated that allows fans to walk around the entire park, and that can tie in with the newly reclaimed space to the north.
Banners of players and team staff recognized on the Level of Excellence can be placed in the reclaimed space. The World Series and other banners that hang in the stadium can be moved to a new space when the time comes and more make their way up there.
I would also take this time to upgrade the lighting and bathrooms and other items that are still the original design. There could be a move to LED lights (if there has not been one already). Bigger bathrooms is always appreciated too, especially for families.
6. Improve the sightlines.
If you have sat in any of the seats on the side of the diamond, you know that your sightline requires you to try and adjust yourself in the seat so you can actually face the action before getting severe neck cramps. I would update the seat sightlines and adjust how they sit facing the action. This would require extensive upgrades on each level to angle the seats to face home plate, but where the greatest improvement would be found is in the 100 level as you leave the bases and get into the expansive outfield.
7. Replace the turf with real grass.
This one is impossible to do without a complete rebuild from scratch. That is unrealistic because the whole point is to reuse the building, and it would require work over several seasons or a temporary move offsite to another park. I left this to the end because it is not the most necessary item on the list but would be a bonus if completed.
The main issue is there is no drainage system underneath the concrete pad. This work would also impact what is below the stadium and does not appear to be as easy as it sounds. However, with an unlimited budget, a new roof that allows for light to enter, and rebuilt/reclaimed areas around the park, maybe this is not the pipe dream it appears to be and it becomes plausible.
Years ago, the Blue Jays announced a partnership with the University of Guelph to work on this exact upgrade and find grass that could grow inside the stadium. I think this has fizzled out but it is not impossible if this was contemplated.
Even though the appearance and smell of fresh grass is appealing, from a player safety perspective, the upgrade would be easier on players playing on the field. The turf now is much different than the carpet used years ago but there is something about watching a game on real grass that is better. It just looks right, it feels right, it is right…but only if it makes sense to do. The jury is out on this one.
So, there you have it. I do not know what is in store for this stadium and what Rogers and the Blue Jays have planned. But, if there is any consideration for staying on site and renovating the current stadium, these are just some of the suggestions I have.
What do you think? Which one of my suggestions do you like best? Let us know in the poll below. Also, let me know in the comments section below what you think and what changes you would like to see.
(featured image courtesy of Toronto Storeys)