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New Comiskey Park is not all that it could be

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- New Comiskey Park is big and brawny, like many of the highly paid players who play in it. But will this building ever be beloved?

Don't bet on it.

Sure, the Chicago White Sox are the second-best draw this year in the American League (the Toronto Blue Jays rank first). And, yes, Comiskey has an exploding scoreboard, handsome arches and other trappings designed to make it a new-age park with old-time charm.

But wait until the novelty wears off. And wait 'til next year, when the new Camden Yards ballpark opens in Baltimore.

Now under construction, the Baltimore park was shaped by the same architects who cranked out Comiskey. It's likely to become what Comiskey can only claim to be: a modern stadium that has the grace of an old ballpark, fits its neighborhood like a well-worn first baseman's mitt and is a great place to watch the great American game.

Make no mistake: Comiskey is a big improvement on the dreary, multipurpose stadiums that went up in the 1960s, kin to the steel-and-glass skyscrapers that make Houston indistinguishable from Hartford.

The new park has natural grass, wide concourses, tons of good food, spacious locker rooms, some tremendous lower-deck seats and a spot where children can get their picture taken for their very own baseball card.

And if it were in Miami or Denver, that might be good enough.

But this is Chicago, where mankind invented the skyscraper, Frank Lloyd Wright walked the streets and a trip to the ballpark isn't supposed to feel like a drive to the shopping mall.

Yet that's what the soul of this new baseball machine is all about. As if to prove the point, the White Sox are going to pave over paradise and put up a parking lot across 35th Street. That's where old Comiskey is unceremoniously being ripped apart.

The old ballpark wasn't pretty, but when you plopped down in one of its green, wooden seats, you felt close enough to the field that you could reach out and touch home plate, smell the turf and hear what was going on when the catcher, pitcher and manager conferred on the mound.

And you knew you couldn't be anywhere else.

Babe Ruth swatted home runs in old Comiskey after quaffing between-inning beers (legend has it) at McCuddy's bar on 35th. The Black Sox threw the World Series there. Baseball's first All-Star Game was played there. Greg Luzinski and Ron Kittle hit "roofers" there. The outfield arches of old Comiskey opened the inside of the park to the city around it, leaving no doubt you were watching a baseball game at 35th and Shields Avenue.

A Field of Dreams? Not quite.

Designed by Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis (whose credits include Wrigley Field) and opened in 1910, old Comiskey was as tough and tart as a Chicago cop. Sure, it had postage-stamp size locker rooms and columns that blocked the views of a couple of thousand seats. But those columns and the overhanging roof broke down the vast spaces of the park, giving it an intimacy shared today only by Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park.

That intimacy is one quality the architects -- the Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City -- sought to re-create in new Comiskey.

But before evaluating what they've done, it's worth recalling how Illinois taxpayers came to spend nearly $135 million on a new baseball park that's across the street from the old one and has only a few more seats (44,177 vs. 43,951 for old Comiskey).

With White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn threatening to move the team to St. Petersburg, Fla., the Illinois General Assembly passed a $150 million Save-Our-Sox bill as the clock struck midnight on June 30, 1988.

The new park opened on April 18, 1991 -- on time, more than $2 million below budget and with HOK architect Rick deFlon declaring he had followed this charge from the White Sox: "Don't turn your back on the old Comiskey."

At first glance, deFlon, who also is doing design work for the proposed new Chicago Stadium that is to house the Blackhawks and Bulls, seems to have succeeded.

The precast concrete arches of new Comiskey recall the arches of the old park and revive the original, reddish-brown color of the old park's brick facade (which was painted white before the 1960 season).

But most of new Comiskey's arches are hidden by clunky, switchback ramps that were slapped onto the facade with little regard for its architectural comeliness. Inexpensive? Yes. Efficient? Absolutely. Beautiful? No way. It's the rough equivalent of building a handsome, Post-Modern skyscraper in the Loop and gracing the entrance with a concrete parking deck.

That ungainliness is compounded by the sparse, almost unfinished appearance of the park's upper deck, where some carefully worked-out architectural details wound up on the drafting-room floor because of a tight budget.

Too bad, because those details would have gone a long way toward visually tying the upper deck with the lower portion of Comiskey, much as the ornamental cornice of a Victorian house links the roofline to the gingerbread below.

As it is, however, the facade of the new park is a whole that's less than the sum of its conflicting parts.

"We did the best we could with the money we had," says deFlon. "What you see is a real building that had the realities of budget and schedule play on it."

Comiskey's tightly constricted site and its immediate surroundings presented the architects with an even tougher challenge.

For unlike the friendly confines of Wrigleyville, the area around White Sox Park is a gash in the neighborhood fabric of Chicago, an urban demilitarized zone separating the wall of public housing on the east side of the Dan Ryan Expressway from working class Bridgeport to the west.

No architect can bridge that tragic gap. But it isn't asking too much for a taxpayer-financed, public works project to begin reknitting the urban fabric.

DeFlon was up to the challenge of Comiskey's tight site, cleverly putting a still-to-be-built pedestrian ramp across 35th Street from new Comiskey and linking the two with skybridges (also still to be completed) that will separate pedestrians from cars on the highly congested street.

But he, the White Sox, the city of Chicago and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority have done little to bring life back to the streets around New Comiskey. The park swims alone in a sea of parking lots, like the shopping malls of suburbia. Houses in the South Armour Square neighborhood are gone because Chicago officials didn't offer the White Sox a less disruptive site for Comiskey. And some of the streets in the neighborhood no longer exist.

South of 35th, Shields Avenue is buried under one of the new park's switchback ramps. North of 35th, street-level shops, including McCuddy's (demolished in 1989), should have been included in the plans for the pedestrian ramp. They weren't, deFlon says, because it would have gone beyond the General Assembly's mandate to the Sports Facilities Authority.

"Put yourself in the shoes of the guy who has been instructed by the legislature to get a stadium done on time and on budget," he says. "And then someone says, 'Put retail in the base [of the

ramp] and redevelop the neighborhood.' You're going to feel like you've got your hands full."

If there's a street that has some life here, it's inside Comiskey, on the 40-foot wide, main-level concourse that runs around the park and is surrounded by picnic tables, snack shops and souvenir stands. Even if it feels like a shopping mall, it's a lively update of the old park, where the smell changed magically as you walked by everything from tacos to kosher dogs.

But the real test of a ballpark is how well it lets fans taste the flavor of baseball.

At Comiskey, as at all modern ballparks, that flavor is determined by a series of trade-offs involving everything from the complexities of structural engineering to the need to maximize skybox revenue because of skyrocketing player salaries.

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