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Saving Fenway Park
By Randy Divinski

Historic Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox since 1912, is under siege. For close to a year now, Red Sox management has aggressively pursued a plan to build a new stadium directly across the street from the existing ballpark, hoping to abandon the tradition and intimacy of Fenway in favor of a glitzy, new "mallpark" This summer, aided by an extremely cooperative local media and high-paid lobbyists helping to broker a last-minute, backroom deal with key Massachusetts politicians, the team cleared its first hurdle in the quest for riches—legislative approval of $100 million earmarked for stadium-related "infrastructure improvements" and the establishment of a process by which the city of Boston may provide $212 million in additional public subsidies. With a current price tag of $664 million (and climbing), the proposed Red Sox stadium project—should it go forward—would become the most expensive on record.

Yet the battle for Fenway is far from over. Local community groups are working hard to persuade Boston city council members to block the proposal, and if necessary, these groups may take legal action to forestall the Red Sox' ambitions; other groups are urging ballpark renovation instead of an exorbitant replacement. Ultimately, the project may simply collapse under it's own weight: Red Sox officials have thus far been unable to secure the $352 million in private financing necessary to cover the team's portion of this potential boondoggle.


The Birth of Save Fenway Park!

Save Fenway Park! (SFP!) was formed in 1998 by baseball fans and preservationists "to preserve the unique character of Fenway Park while allowing its modernization and expansion to meet contemporary needs." The all-volunteer, Boston-based nonprofit group held ballpark rallies and events, circulated petitions, and created a Web site (www.SaveFenwayPark.com) to reach a wider audience. SFP! also published an informational pamphlet arguing that the intimacy and mystique of the existing ballpark (the so-called "Fenway Factor") was a team asset that should be preserved.

In May 1999, SFP! unveiled the "Hagenah Plan" (named for the lead architect)—a detailed analysis of renovation possibilities that showed the Red Sox' declared programmatic and revenue needs could be met with an expansion and renovation of the existing Fenway structure. By preserving the field configuration, bleacher section, slope and orientation of the grandstand, and the park's original facade and entry gates, the plan maintained Fenway Park's historic character and intimacy. One week later, the Sox hastily released their own proposal.

The "New Fenway Park" would be a retro-chic stadium with the same field dimensions as the original, include ten thousand additional seats, and feature one hundred luxury boxes (up from the present total of forty-four). Unlike the Hagenah plan, however, the Red Sox' proposal called for the demolition of Fenway Park—less the original infield that would remain in a small park-like area as a token gesture to the ballpark's history. The "new" baseball stadium project was also expected to come with a $552 million price tag—almost $200 million more than the Hagenah plan.

Nonetheless, the Red Sox quickly denounced the Hagenah plan and boldly declared that, for just another $52 million, the team could have a new stadium. Conveniently ignoring the $200 million in additional infrastructure and ancillary costs that the Red Sox' proposal would require, local sportswriters and sports talk radio personalities almost immediately endorsed the team's plan. They also began to parrot the exaggerated claims that the Red Sox "needed" a new stadium in order to "remain competitive." Coverage in the Boston Globe business section wasn't much better, often reading like recycled Red Sox press releases. (Thankfully, the Boston Herald and the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix showed a little more objectivity.) Thus, by summer's end, SFP! found itself largely ignored by the media—and unable to plead its case to the public.


The Coalition against Stadium Subsidies

While the Red Sox' initial tactics (aided by the pro-Sox media circus) bought them some time with the public, there were still unanswered questions as to how the team intended to pay for the cost of securing and clearing the expensive real estate needed for the new stadium—not to mention the cost of infrastructure improvements and the parking garage(s) the team coveted for its "revenue stream." Initially, the Sox were coy as to who would pay for these "extras," but as cost estimates zoomed from a challenging $193 million to a staggering $312 million, it quickly became apparent that the local and state government would be expected to foot the bill. In fact, the Sox looked for the city of Boston to use its extraordinary powers of eminent domain to seize from neighboring Fenway-area businesses enough land to assemble the fifteen-acre parcel required for the team's new stadium complex.

Opposition to this potential abuse of government resources and land-taking powers (to benefit a private corporation) led to the emergence early this year of a new coalition of local and state groups—Citizens Against Stadium Subsidies (CASS). In addition to SFP!, coalition members include the influential, Ralph Nader-spawned MassPIRG (a liberal, public interest organization), Citizen's for Limited Taxation, the neighborhood groups Fenway Action Coalition and Fenway Community Development Corporation (CDC), and others. Initial efforts by CASS led to the distribution of the book Field of Schemes (an exposÈ on the 1990s stadium scandals throughout professional sports) to each member of the Massachusetts state legislature, and the release of "Major League Steal," a report which thoroughly debunked a Boston Chamber of Commerce/Massachusetts Tourist and Convention Bureau promotional "study" that grossly inflated the potential economic benefits that a new Sox stadium would generate. Nader, the Green Party presidential nominee and outspoken critic of the Red Sox' stadium efforts (and perhaps the only presidential candidate to ever treat public subsidies for pro teams as a campaign issue), endorsed the CASS position during a visit to Boston in the spring.

By summer, CASS members had become skilled at issuing press releases, holding press conferences, meeting with legislators, and cultivating outside experts to counter team propaganda. The group also released a four-page color supplement ("Fenway Pork") in the Boston Phoenix, and staged a two-hour briefing for legislative aides in the weeks prior to the presentation of the Red Sox' stadium bill to lawmakers. Most importantly, CASS has cultivated opposition to the stadium proposal among members of the Boston City Council. During a June hearing, some three hundred stadium opponents packed the Council chamber, with most member organizations giving testimony. (A majority of the council members asked the state legislature not to consider a stadium bill this session.)


Foul Play in the Legislature

For a while it appeared that opposition efforts might be enough to blunt the Red Sox steamroller. The mayor, state legislative leaders, and team representatives all wanted a new stadium, but they could not agree on who should pay for what. Predictably, with just a week left in the legislative session, key business leaders met behind closed doors with the politicians and the Red Sox and hammered out a deal. Exhibiting trademark contempt for due government process, legislative leaders then forced the bill onto the end-of-session agenda, holding the required public hearing less than twenty-four hours after the stadium bill was submitted.

The day-long session was primarily a "tribute" to the Red Sox' efforts, with five hours of exclusively pro-stadium testimony filling the agenda. (Governor Paul Cellucci explained that the new stadium was needed to ward off "future blight" in one of the hottest development areas in the city.) Opposition voices, pushed to the end of the hearing, were heard by only a handful of legislators—most other lawmakers having departed to address other pressing matters. Given little time to evaluate the stadium issues, and with literally hundreds of bills (some filed years earlier) still to be introduced, legislators were herded the next day into a special Saturday session to approve funding for the project—resulting in an apparent bottom-of-the-ninth victory for the Red Sox.

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

But the team's drive for an extravagant new stadium is more like a season-long pennant race than just a matter of winning a single game. Already the Red Sox brass may have overextended their "pitching" staff (an entirely appropriate metaphor for the team's stadium lobbyists): Key consultants John Sasso and developer Robert Walsh both quietly walked away from the project in August. And currently, seven (of thirteen) Boston city councilors are strongly—and publicly—opposed to funding the project or allowing the desired land-takings, both of which require a two-thirds council majority vote to be approved.

CASS is working to shore up the opposition against intense pressure from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and to warn council members about potential loopholes that the Sox may try to exploit for additional subsidies. CASS is also preparing lawsuits on behalf of taxpayers and/or land owners should the city exercise its eminent domain powers to seize private property on behalf of the Red Sox.

Even if the Red Sox were to win these battles, however, the stadium project may still come undone. The $352 million the team claims it will provide as its "share" of the project is far more than any team has ever brought to a stadium deal, and even in baseball-crazy Boston the numbers seem unrealistic. Several public and private financiers have cast doubt on the project's feasibility, and already the team is talking about reducing the stadium's size to cut costs. With rising land prices, possible site contamination (from buried hazardous wastes), lawsuits, higher interest rates, and increased construction / labor expenses sure to produce huge cost overruns, scaling back the project may still not be enough to keep the political deal from falling apart.

Sensing a new opportunity to perhaps finally increase public awareness of the superior benefits realized from saving—rather than trashing—Boston's historic ballpark, Save Fenway Park! and the Fenway CDC pulled together a team of national ballpark experts (led by architecture professor Philip Bess) to stage the "Future Fenway" design symposium. As Bess aptly puts it, "When the Red Sox are denied the funds to build their enormously over-scaled, over-priced, and neighborhood-damaging proposal, they will in time discover that the economic advantages of our proposal are in fact much greater than what they have been led by their advisors to believe."


© 2000 Randy Davinski


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