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Architecture review: Big price tag but winningly low-key feel at Dodgers' Camelback Ranch

March 15, 2009 |  4:30 pm

Camelbackranchjuanpierre   

The new spring training complex in Glendale, Ariz., where the Dodgers have been working out their preseason kinks, getting an extended look at their top prospects and welcoming their dreadlocked pied piper of a superstar, Manny Ramirez, back into the fold, might easily have been a public relations disaster.

Camelbackranchscoreboard_3 The sprawling facility, which covers 141 acres and cost $100 million, is the largest and glitziest in the Cactus League -- by far. Known as Camelback Ranch, as if it were a high-end gated community instead of a baseball complex, it includes more than a dozen practice fields, including one that re-creates the dimensions of the Dodger Stadium outfield down to the inch. It has its own orange grove, a lake already stocked with carp and not one but three large and fully decked-out clubhouses.

The top ticket price at the main ballpark at the heart of Camelback Ranch, which is overlooked by a curving row of luxury suites lifted a safe distance from the sun-baked masses, is $100. You can spend $10 on a single bottle of beer.

In other words: Just in time for what's shaping up as the biggest economic crisis in at least a generation, and maybe since Babe Ruth hung up his pinstripes, owner Frank McCourt has unveiled a facility that boasts an intimidatingly large footprint, a nine-figure price tag for construction, three figures for the best seats and two figures for an Anchor Steam. All of that as a backdrop for games that don't even count.

Camelback Ranch seemed at risk of qualifying for a Cactus League variant of the bad press that is already hitting bling-encrusted stadiums opening later this year to house the New York Mets ($850-million construction cost), the New York Yankees ($1.5 billion) and the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys ($1.1 billion, including a $35-million, 160-foot-long high-def scoreboard).

That was the danger on paper, anyway: timing so monumentally bad that it begins to resemble tone-deafness -- or worse, hubris. Think Merrill Lynch’s John Thain and his $1.2-million bathroom renovation, spring training edition.

And yet in person, Camelback Ranch, designed by the Dallas-based architecture firm HKS, has a surprisingly, winningly low-key and entirely accessible personality. Those qualities bode well for the $500-million architectural upgrade McCourt is planning with HKS and the Los Angeles firms Johnson Fain and Rios Clementi Hale for Chavez Ravine. There, as in Arizona, the key to success will be figuring out how to balance newfangled amenity with informal charm.

Camelbackranchfield1_2 That replica of the Dodger Stadium field? It’s nearly as open and modest as a high-school diamond. When the Dodgers take morning batting practice there, fans can get within a few feet of home plate. The lake is more like a pond, not to mention filled, in an eco-friendly, drought-sensitive touch, with reclaimed water. The buildings scattered around the campus are all long and low, their simple geometries complemented by a series of gabion retaining walls that pile stones inside wire mesh.

And don’t forget that the team shares the new facility -- and shared its construction costs -- with the Chicago White Sox. That gesture alone, with all the co-branding and scheduling headaches that go with it, is a compromise that nicely complements the culture’s new frugality. It allows all the bells and whistles at half the price. Let’s see the Mets and Yankees try that!

To its credit, Camelback Ranch  offers many of the modest pleasures that make the average Cactus League game so much more relaxed than a visit to the typical big-league facility.

Camelback Ranch manages to pack its long list of features into a whole that is very clearly pitched to the experience, and the vantage point, of fans. It offers many of the modest pleasures that make the average Cactus League game so much more rewarding, dollar for dollar, than a visit to the typical big-league facility.

HKS, which happens also to be the firm responsible for the new Cowboys stadium, and the Dodgers have aimed to give fans the impression on game days that they are sharing most of the acreage of this extensive facility directly with the ballplayers, and to a surprising degree they've succeeded. The complex has the same rubbing-elbows-with-stars ambiance that marks the best of the older generation of spring training parks in and around Phoenix.

Camelbackgabion_2

There are some touches that don't work. The combination of the hulking industrial-chic structure behind home plate, which is covered in pre-rusted metal panels, and the mottled paint covering the clubhouses, which gives them a certain precious, faux-Tuscan feel, suggests a certain confusion about the reigning design aesthetic.

The sort of strange-bedfellows character of the complex as an architectural whole was summed up memorably by Dave Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times, who in reference to highly eccentric White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and even more eccentric architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent years in this valley running his Taliesin West fellowship, described Camelback Ranch as "Guillen-meets-Taliesin."

For the most part, though, there is an aesthetic attitude on display that stops well short of extravagance. Even the walkways that twist across the campus have been arranged with modesty in mind. They meander from the parking lots past a variety of practice fields to the stadium entrance, which is placed behind center field.

That surprising location of the main turnstiles -- at most baseball stadiums, the central entry is behind home plate -- says a good deal about the effect McCourt, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and the HKS architects were going for. Because of that decision, you have to walk from your car a bit longer than you expect, which is sure to produce some grumbles on hot late-March afternoons. But when you approach the stadium, the first thing you see is not a looming grandstand but the field itself, which sits 12 feet below ground level.

The orientation means that home plate faces southwest, instead of north or northeast, as is the case in most big-league ballparks. Fans have to put up with a bit more direct sun and glare in the stands as a result. But the trade-off seems more than worth it.

Throughout the new complex, which replaces a collection of broccoli fields and marks the Dodgers’ debut in Arizona after six decades in Florida, the prevailing theme is openness, not grandeur. And what you’re struck by after passing through that center-field gate is not architecture, or the evidence of a deep-pocketed construction budget, but simply a wide expanse of green grass. It’s as if you’ve stumbled onto an informal game that is about to start. If that’s clearly an illusion, given the games here are played by millionaires, whose personal assistants have personal assistants, it’s a compelling and rather reassuring one, a version of the process that has turned kids into baseball fans since the sport was new.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo credits: Juan Pierre takes the field: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images; stadium scoreboard: Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune; practice field: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times; retaining walls: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.

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