Facing steep demands, arena rises to occasion

Sun Architecture Critic

The unusually steep wall of seats at one end of the new Comcast Center appears better suited to mountain goats than basketball fans.

But it's bound to intimidate visiting players, who will have to face that wall filled with screaming opponents every time they take a shot in the second half of a game.

The "Comcast Cliff" is just one of many features that promise to give the University of Maryland's basketball teams a competitive edge in their new home.

From a monumental stairway positioned to draw students in from the heart of campus, to a seating configuration that puts them on top of the action, to the latest sight-and-sound technology intended to whip them into a frenzy, the $108 million arena has been designed to give the Terps a home-court advantage in every possible way.

It should give Terps fans plenty to cheer about, too.

"We wanted to hit people over the head with 'Maryland Terrapins,' " said Brad Clark, design principal for Ellerbe Becket, the arena's lead architect. "It's not Duke. It's not North Carolina. It's Maryland. We really took their saying, 'Fear the turtle,' to heart."

With their decision to build Comcast Center, administrators at the University of Maryland, working with the Maryland Stadium Authority, bucked a trend in which many colleges have upgraded existing arenas rather than construct new ones.

Although Cole Field House had its admirers, administrators concluded that the 1955 building also had shortcomings that no amount of money could fix, from narrow corridors to inadequate restrooms. They also wanted to offer luxury suites, better food service and other amenities.

Besides Ellerbe Becket, one of the nation's leading designers of sports and entertainment facilities, the architectural team included Design Collective, an interdisciplinary firm based in Baltimore. Pat Clancy was the project manager for Ellerbe Becket. Gilbane Building Co. of Laurel was the construction manager.

Something for everyone

The architects responded with a building that combines the fan-friendly features of a professional arena with the festive collegiate atmosphere that appeals to alumni. They also created an arena that, though it can accommodate concerts and other gatherings, is first and foremost for basketball.

"I can't think of any other arena that goes this far to create a home-court advantage - architecturally and operationally," said Clark, who was also the lead designer for MCI Center in Washington. "This goes farther than any other arena I've seen."

Tucked into a former sledding slope on the northeast side of campus, Comcast Center helps define a new academic precinct. By excavating the hill, the designers were able to partially bury the arena, so it doesn't seem as tall as it might have. They designed the exterior as an assemblage of pieces, further reducing its apparent size. With a vaulted roof and other rounded forms, it fits comfortably into its hillside setting.

The architecture reflects the Georgian heritage of the College Park campus. The designers used the same red brick that's prevalent throughout campus. For the luxury suites level, they designed porches with white framed openings that hark back to entrances of older Georgian structures. Even the large windows have been divided into vertical panes that echo those on more traditional campus buildings. But it's all done in an abstract way that respects the past while looking to the future.

The effort to give the Terps a home-court advantage will be apparent to fans long before they reach their seats. On display at one entrance is the Sears Trophy, which identifies the men's basketball team as the defending NCAA champion. Off the club-level concourse are a large team store and both a Walk of Fame and a Hall of Fame celebrating Maryland athletes. With school colors used effectively on the walls and in the graphics, just about every square inch of circulation space works to make visitors aware they have entered the Terps' domain.

Inside the seating bowl - a sea of red - Comcast Center reserves many of its best seats for the Terps' most ardent fans, the students. The court is ringed by 10 rows of retractable seats, more than 2,000 in all, that are reserved for them. Above these seats on three sides are the lower bowl, with 18 rows, and the club level, providing access to 20 luxury suites lining the two long sides of the court, 10 suites per side. Above the luxury suites are 19 more rows of seating.

For an arena with 17,950 seats - 3,450 more than Cole Field House -sightlines are good and the space feels surprisingly intimate.

Fulfilling a tall order

The feature that sets Comcast Center apart from all the others is the cliff - the 1,850-seat western wall that will be visible behind the opponents' basket during the second half. With a slope of 34.3 degrees, it's only slightly steeper than the 33.7 degree upper deck of Ravens Stadium, and well within limits mandated by the local building code. But it stands out because it's different from the other three sides.

In most arenas, the lower bowl has a gentler pitch than the upper. That's the way it is at Comcast Center, too. The upper level has a pitch of 31 degrees, the lower bowl has a pitch of 21.5 degrees and the 10 retractable rows closest to the court have a 14.5 degree pitch. What makes the fourth side different - above the 10 retractable rows - is that it's essentially one sheer wall of seats, 21 rows at a 34.3 degree slope. That makes it more clifflike - and potentially more daunting.

Clark said the steep end was designed as a response to the sloping terrain. Because the arena was set into the hillside, he said, giving the seats on one end a steeper pitch required less excavation, and that reduced construction costs.

As they were determining the slope, the designers and their clients concluded that a steeper angle also could give the home team an advantage by turning the section into a menacing human backdrop. So the university reserved those seats for Maryland students, along with the retractable seats that ring the court, to put them where they could have the greatest impact in unnerving the competition.

During the second half of every game, the opposing team will get the basket that has the cliff behind it. Fans seated there will be encouraged to do their best to ruin the visiting players' concentration, especially during free throws. It's a diabolical idea that's cost-effective, too.

"It was an opportunity to use the hill to create a signature for the building as well as a home-court advantage for the team and a way to save money. There's a definite strategic advantage to having them there," Clark said of students on the steep end.

"But I also have to applaud the university for putting students all around the court," he added. "Most schools don't do that. So often the best seats are reserved for big donors, and students are put off to the side. That's not the case here."

At the Midnight Madness preview last month, the wall proved to be a focal point for the crowd.

"The section becomes a cheerleader," Clark said. "Whatever starts there in the way of chants goes around to the rest of the arena. It's like the Wave. It starts in one place and ripples out from there."

Opposite the steep end is one of the new arena's most attractive spaces. Heritage Hall, a multipurpose area that overlooks the court on the club level, is a spot that can accommodate up to 400 people during games or for events at other times.

Comcast Center also reflects a trend in which universities are consolidating large parts of their athletic programs. Besides the main court, there is a 1,500-seat practice gym, an academic support and career development center, wrestling and weight training facilities, and locker rooms for other intercollegiate sports. Men's basketball coach Gary Williams predicts that Comcast Center will help the university in its recruiting efforts - another way the design can assist its athletics program.

With the basketball season about to begin, Maryland's new arena is the architectural equivalent of a slam-dunk, and a fitting successor to Cole Field House. After 45 years, the Terps may have left their historic home. But they haven't lost their home-court edge.

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