DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The Dodger action has been fast and furious since Guggenheim Baseball Management purchased the team last May for $2 billion. First came the addition of high-profile and equally high-priced players.
Now, 51-year-old Dodger Stadium itself is getting an upgrade, with an estimated $100 million in work taking place in the 56,000-seat venue. The visionary behind these improvements, and potentially many more to come, is new Director of Planning Janet Marie Smith.
Smith has made her career as a stadium builder and master planner, most recently at Camden Yards with the Baltimore Orioles, but also with the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. She also has a history in Downtown, having taken a whack at redesigning Pershing Square three decades ago. She spoke with Los Angeles Downtown News about the Dodger Stadium vision, now and in the future, and why she keeps sticking with baseball.
Los Angeles Downtown News: Why did you take this job?
Janet Marie Smith: Why wouldn’t you? It’s such a wonderful opportunity. I’ve loved Dodger Stadium forever. It’s so unique. I’ve always thought as a baseball fan it’s one of the best places ever to watch baseball.
The second reason is I’ve worked for [Dodgers President] Stan Kasten before, who was president of the Atlanta Braves when we built Turner Stadium in 1996. It’s amazing to be a part of his team. He’s such a seasoned executive and has such a focus on fans and that’s clearly been my lifetime goal — looking at how the public uses the space.
Q: What was the most important task given to you on day one?
A: [Dodgers Chairman] Mark Walter and his partners had very immediate goals that were fan oriented. There were two central objectives. First, make it as commodious and nice for the fans as fast as you can make it; they saw this as very basic. It’s not dreamy schemey stuff. We didn’t have enough power in this building for fans to use their cellphones or get Wi-Fi once you had about 5,000 people here. Our scoreboards clearly were antiquated. So this collection of technology was one big focus.
The other piece was, [Walter] in particular didn’t want people wasting a half-inning waiting in line at concessions or restrooms. So we’re literally renovating every restroom on the Loge, Reserve and Top Deck levels and doubling the number of men’s fixtures that are required by code and putting 50% more women’s fixtures in.
Q: Dodger Stadium is a car-centric destination with no pedestrian life or activity outside of game hours. How would you change that, if at all?
A: We’d love to change that and change the perception of it. For years Dodger Stadium has offered daily tours, has the store open on the Top Deck and there are a number of things that happen here from the marathon to motocross. Certainly we’d like to see more of that happen and make it better known.
We’re especially excited about the conversations we’ve had with the city about doing a dedicated bus lane from Union Station, and using the Red Line and the stop over at Vermont to get mass transit from there to here. We see a lot of opportunities. We just haven’t delved into them yet.
Q: What’s the first difference fans will notice on opening day?
A: I think people will notice how much more spacious each particular area is. I think the Loge level in particular has always seemed very dark. It felt crowded even when it wasn’t, just because it’s so compact. In the Reserve area, the concourse has had such minimal services and yet Stan often says it is as big as Staples Center — why do we have these itty-bitty concessions and restrooms? We’re doing the big new team store there, three new big concession stands and new kids’ areas there, so I feel like our concourses will have the kinds of services that fans find at AT&T [in San Francisco] or Petco Park [in San Diego]. One of our goals is to make certain that just because we have the best views in all of baseball doesn’t mean that you have to suffer through not having the same kind of amenities.
Q: The new hexagonal HD video displays in the outfield have a retro look. Why not go modern?
A: Because that shape is so distinctive to Dodger Stadium and we didn’t want to lose what’s distinctive. This building has some wonderful ’60s designs, from the hexagonal scoreboards to the zigzag pavilion roofs to these inverted canopies on the Reserve and Top Deck. We didn’t want to destroy any of the iconic features of this park.
Q: What other upgrades, big and small, do you anticipate that didn’t make this first wave of improvements?
A: The most obvious thing is all of our work is between the foul poles this year with some very modest things beneath the Pavilion, but eventually we’d like to do a lot more with the outfield. You’ve got these beautiful views of the game overlooking the bullpen and it would be fun to do something more than just having asphalt and a drink well out there.
Q: Are the improvements more important for bringing in the casual fan? The diehard fans will come anyway.
A: You don’t want fans coming and saying, as they have for years, the jokes about the bathrooms. We’d like to be remembered for the Dodger Dog, but we don’t want to be remembered for the troughs in the men’s room. I think there’s just a certain standard that we as Americans have become accustomed to that is better than the one that we had in 1962 when the park opened.
Q: Frank McCourt had proposed mixed-use developments around the stadium, with housing and various retail uses. Is that part of the new owners’ vision, near or long term?
A: I don’t know. And that’s not avoiding the question. It’s just to say those are exciting ideas and they’re wonderful opportunities but they’re out on a much longer horizon. I think as new owners they were like, “You know what, we’re playing baseball in April and we don’t want to wait for an uncertain future for the things we can have now.” That’s improving the concourse, the restrooms, the concessions. None of those things are dependent on any other outside-the-park issue.
Q: Some have theorized that the stadium could be razed, the team could move Downtown and the land could be developed into housing. From a business perspective, is there any reason not to do that?
A: That’s an exciting idea too, but we’re still playing baseball here in April. We might want to do that, but our exhibition game is March 28. So do you freeze Dodger Stadium and sort of wait to see what the future looks like? Any of those ideas, even if you knew they were certain, are five to 10 years out and we’re still playing baseball here while those things happen. I think what’s admirable about their approach is [it’s] let’s invest in it now. If there’s some better future, we’ll absolutely get excited about that, we’ll listen to that. But this is now.
Q: In the 1980s, before you got into baseball stadiums, you were part of a group planning the future of Pershing Square. A different group ended up designing the park. How would you have done it differently?
A: It’s an almost impossible problem because, as a public park in a city that doesn’t use public parks the way you do in a city that’s densely populated, it has very few constituencies that care about it. I think over the decades it’s gotten worse, not better, with the Biltmore turning its lobby around [to Grand Avenue] and you still have big surface parking lots there. It’s hard to imagine a public space and all it can be when it doesn’t have a constituency that cares about it.
Q: This is your fourth MLB team and stadium. What fascinates you about ballparks?
A: The thing I love most professionally is working in the public realm of cities. That’s what I care about. How do you revitalize waterfronts when industry leaves? How do you change how people use cities? That’s what I really love. When I went to work with the Orioles what was interesting to me was it was the first time a baseball team moved into an inner city and said I want to be part of the urban environment. Who would have known that it would turn out as well as it did and have that staying power? Once I got into that niche, it was just a chance to keep going.
Q: Is the Dodger assignment a long-term one?
A: I have no idea how long it might be. I don’t know that we have a good feel yet on what we might want to do after these projects are done. None of my projects are ever forever. It’s like sending a child off to college. You finish them up and let them go be.
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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