Shadows of a Stadium
By Ralph Walker
This article was originally published in October 2010. I think the questions posed still linger.
On September 8th in the New York Times it was reported that the old Giants stadium continues to cost taxpayers millions of dollars in debt even after being demolished. The story dealt with the financial burdens of massive publically financed infrastructure projects, specifically stadia built around the country in the 1970, 80s and 90s and their legacies. I read every word of the article and was left thinking, if that is the financial burden of this mammoth coliseum what is the environmental shadow it leaves behind?
Giants Stadium was opened in 1972 as a part of the Meadowlands complex in New Jersey. The stadium seated 80,200 people at capacity. Its construction created a reason for thousands of people to travel to a single location for sporting events and concerts which in turn required the support of a massive parking system of over 20,000 spaces and expansion of adjacent roadways. All of this work is located in the Meadowlands, which true to its name is a large tidal wetlands unique to the region. Consider the thousands of cars and trucks that have sat idling in traffic on the way in or out of a game, spewing exhaust out into a region filled with plants, birds and fish.
The building itself was a massive open top stadium containing thousands of tons of concrete and steel. The design while simple and efficient, created a unique experience for visitors, especially NFL quarterbacks and kickers dealing with the notorious winds. The demolition of this building while completed using today’s industry standards is a disappointment. There were major elements of the building which may have been useful in future structures, or even in the stadium that was being built next door. Could they have saved the seats and reused them or donated them to a few local high schools? What about the concessions, or the lights, or the steel? There were many opportunities lost here.
Notice the surrounding green areas of wetlands.
The building only lasted 38 years, but its footprint will be indelible on the region for decades, if not centuries to come. We still see the remnants of other public buildings in Europe and South America, there is no reason to think that our mistakes from the past 50 years will fade away in the soft soil of the Meadowlands. Jimmy Hoffa will surely live on to tell the tale.
Throughout our country; states and municipalities are considering infrastructure projects both for economic gain and to shore up ailing roads, bridges and railroads. The Obama administration has put our country’s infrastructure in the political spotlight by providing federal funding to keep Americans working. All of these appear to be good things when viewed through the lens of finance, politics, and even urban planning, but we seem to be missing an opportunity to build more sustainably.
Perhaps we need to consider a new filter for viewing these types of projects, beyond just financial risk and reward. If we apply a sustainability filter to these types of projects can we still accomplish our goals but build something that is more in harmony with our needs and the needs of the ecosystems that are disturbed?
Looking back at Giant’s Stadium and the Meadowlands in general maybe we could consider some new ideas.
Building a massive parking system is certainly necessary for a destination like a stadium, could it be used in a different way? Parking lots are ideal locations to consider solar power. The wide open space allows for unobstructed sunlight to large arrays. The arrays can provide shading for the parking lot keeping it significantly cooler on sunny days. If done effectively the system can also be used to mark walkways and soften the image of the sea of cars parked at an event. Regardless of the design, folding in renewable energy for a building with the scale of a stadium should be a requirement.
Parking lots can also assist in dealing with water conservation and soil erosion. Drainage systems designed to slow the flow of runoff or clean out particulates are particularly important in locations adjacent to fragile ecosystems. Grey water could be used for toilets and urinals in the stadium or to assist in maintaining heartier plant life.
Public transportation is key for any destination type project. In the last ten years NJ Transit has supported the Meadowlands with the expansion of lines, improvements of stations and train services aligned to event schedules. This is a fantastic step, but only one of many that could impact both the stadium experience and the distribution of traffic. Distributed parking with adjacent services, expansion of luxury buses and even more train services will continue to improve the transportation situation.
The new Stadium was built at a tremendous cost of 1.8 Billion dollars. It is an impressive accomplishment, but for a building of this type and scale should we have more stringent sustainability requirements? I will refrain from commenting on the stadium design itself as I have yet to visit (anyone have an extra ticket?) but from what I have read its cost does not reflect a more sustainable approach to building. True, it is an open top style stadium which takes full advantage of the elements and reduces the necessary materials. True, it was built using local materials and labor to greatest extent possible.
True, there are elements with recycled content in the building, specifically the concrete and steel. Still, couldn’t we do more? Could a stadium be built that is off the grid, providing its own power? Could a stadium be built that only uses recycled or salvaged materials?
Or perhaps a stronger question, should a stadium be built for only one team or type of event? The Meadowlands stadium does well here having been designed for both the Giants and the Jets who will share the venue. There will surely be massive concerts, college football games, state championships and other public events like when the Pope comes to visit, which will make the building more useful. All of these are great things for any venue of this type making it financially more viable. At the same time in this region of the country a number of other venues have been built all at tremendous cost. Both the NY Yankees and NY Mets have built their own stadia. The NJ Devils, the local NHL team, and the even the Red Bulls MLS teams have built new venues each in spitting distance of each other.
We need to find ways to better align the needs of seasonal sporting events and other public events.
While there are 162 major league baseball games per season there are only 16 regular season NFL games per team and only 8 are played at home. Even with 2 teams sharing a venue it is only used for it primary purpose 16 times a year (hopefully more with the playoffs). What happens there the other 349 days a year? Did we need to build a new soccer arena just a few miles away?
They all have reasons to build new buildings related to the their leagues, financial requirements of the team, their owners and the towns they locate in, but ultimately aren’t these buildings essentially a public asset or liability? Projects of this nature are not just a part of our physical infrastructure, but are also a tax on our physical and natural infrastructure. Their requirements for raw material, electricity, water, and transportation impact cities, counties, aquifers, habitats and lives. We need to find ways to be more elegant in our designs of these structures.
Ultimately, with our cities growing, our population expanding and our needs changing the expansion of infrastructure is a good thing. If we can find new creative ways to align our aspirations with the needs of our ecosystem these projects will be a success.