How Studio-MLA learned to embrace the potential of the sports stadium.
By Nate Berg
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Among Southern California landscape architecture firms, Los Angeles-based Studio-MLA (formerly Mia Lehrer + Associates) is arguably highbrow. Known for public spaces like the 1,300-acre Orange County Great Park and Vista Hermosa Park in an underserved section of Los Angeles, and transformative master plans for infrastructuralized landscapes like the Los Angeles River and the Silver Lake Reservoir, the firm has a serious approach to the needs of Southern California and the services landscape architecture can provide. It’s complex, civic-minded work built out of decades of engagement in the community.
So it’s somewhat unexpected to see some of Studio-MLA’s recent work diversify into the mass market world of professional sports. The firm is currently working on three separate sports stadium projects in the Los Angeles area, starting with a reimagining of Dodger Stadium in 2012, a stalled urban development turned National Football League stadium in 2014 in Inglewood, and the stadium for a Major League Soccer expansion team, the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC), in Exposition Park. Within five years, Studio-MLA has become the unofficial stadium landscape architect of Los Angeles.
Given sports stadiums’ tendency to end up as fortresses ringed by excessive parking lots, they may not seem the most adventurous project type for a conscientious landscape architect. But despite a long history of problematic and divisive development, the form is beginning to change, moving away from the suburban big box approach and toward a more urban, connected, parklike feel. That’s created new opportunities for inventive design and, according to Mia Lehrer, FASLA, the firm’s president, a chance to undo some of the mistakes of stadiums past.
“The way some of these stadiums are developing and the way they’re integrated and knit into the community, they actually bring a tremendous infusion of energy,” Lehrer says.
Though it would be a stretch to call any of these stadiums public spaces, given their private ownership, ticketed entry, and business operations, Lehrer says they can still serve a public purpose. In L.A., privately owned public spaces such as the faux-city mall complex The Grove and the pedestrianized Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica are some of the most visited, and arguably the most successful, of the city’s publicly accessible spaces. Like shopping, sports have a broad appeal, and they’re able to pull in big crowds. The new LAFC soccer stadium will be able to seat 22,000; Dodger Stadium sells out at 56,000; the NFL stadium in Inglewood—the design still under wraps—could accommodate up to 80,000. For Lehrer, those numbers made the potential impact of good landscape design outweigh any reservations about the troubling history of stadium projects.
“I had to allow myself to understand the typology of these projects to make sure we weren’t selling our soul,” she says.
At roughly 15 acres, the site of the LAFC’s 22,000-seat, Gensler-designed soccer stadium is a tight squeeze, and that’s partially on purpose. Located near the southeast corner of Exposition Park and scheduled to open in 2018, the stadium will add to an already packed 160-acre park space that includes facilities originally built for the 1932 Olympics, a string of museums, a school, a historic rose garden, the site of the future George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, as well as the Studio-MLA-designed gardens and learning environments outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. But even inside this heavily programmed complex of a park, the LAFC’s corner touches on an urban mix of residential and retail along a major north–south corridor. Among the firm’s stadium projects, Lehrer says this is “the most intensely nestled into the city fabric.”
As bulldozers grade and cranes lower the massive concrete supports for the grandstands, Studio-MLA principal Benjamin Feldmann, ASLA, walks to the northwest corner of the construction site and points out where the main public space of the stadium will sit, totaling about eight acres. An open and programmable plaza looks down on the field and links to ancillary buildings housing a team store, dining facilities, and a roughly half-acre roof terrace designed by Lehrer’s firm. It opens out to a preexisting tree-lined space in Exposition Park used by fans for tailgating before games at the adjacent Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the temporary home of Lehrer’s other type of football client, the Rams.
About 215 sycamore, ash, and sweet gum trees were removed for construction and will be replaced around the site’s perimeter, along with some seemingly obligatory palms. Studio-MLA’s design specifically worked around one existing tree, a 90-year-old sycamore on the street side of the stadium. Planters and hardscape are to be installed around the tree, which is designed to become a signature gathering space at the main entrance for those not arriving in cars—a group the firm hopes will be significant. This corner of the site was designed to open directly to the sidewalk, opening views of downtown from inside the stadium and, more important, views into the stadium from the corner of the street. Feldmann notes that the team’s owners—a group that includes the Basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and the actor Will Ferrell—wanted the stadium to feel connected to the city, so people could walk right up to it without passing through any gates, like an English soccer stadium woven into the urban fabric.
But South Los Angeles is far from urban England. Instead of dense streets of shops and housing, fast food restaurants and parking lots fill the space between the stadium and 16 lanes of Interstate 110 to the east, and state-owned land on two sides of the stadium will remain asphalt lots. To the south the area quickly becomes almost entirely residential, but it’s still linked to Figueroa Street, a major artery in the city and the focus of a wide-ranging streetscape improvement project, My Figueroa, that aims to improve the street for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. Studio-MLA’s design embraces that mission, with wide pedestrian walkways, shade trees, and plentiful bike parking on the street side of the stadium, purposely positioned in a prominent location, “not hidden behind some secret doorway,” Feldmann says. The stadium’s design also calls for a street-accessible restaurant space, adding more to the Figueroa corridor than just the wall of a stadium.
“It’s helping bring our community even better development, and development we’ve wanted for a long time,” says Adrienne Kuhre, president of the North Area Neighborhood Development Council, the local city-chartered neighborhood council. She says the new spaces integrated into the stadium’s design will give the area a more lively and civic atmosphere. Compared to the barren parking lots and dead space that have dominated this section of the park, particularly since the 2016 closure and demolition of the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, the public-focused design elements of the new stadium are welcomed. “It’s just been a plot of land sitting there for so long,” Kuhre says. “To finally have something significant there is great.”
The firm’s most established stadium work is the master planning and renovation of Dodger Stadium. Originally built in 1962, the stadium was given a $100 million makeover after the 2012 season, with new team-focused facilities, restored architectural features and signage, and upgrades to the spectator experience. Part of that budget was set aside for a new landscape plan for the 300-acre stadium site. The firm focused the master plan on improving circulation and visitor amenities.
Controversially constructed on Chavez Ravine, a Mexican American neighborhood cleared under the auspices of urban renewal and housing development, Dodger Stadium was an unconventional stadium in its time—a futuristic, almost sculptural marvel of concrete, car-oriented and disconnected from the city. Though that model of detachment would soon dominate stadium design, since the 1990s the pendulum has been swinging back toward a more connected and people-focused approach to siting and designing sports facilities. After more than 50 years, Dodger Stadium has become an example of what not to do. But as others like it were torn down and replaced, the stadium also gradually became one of the oldest ballparks in Major League Baseball. Now an icon of midcentury modern design, Dodger Stadium needed preservation, but it also needed to adapt.
The stadium’s renovation was headed by Janet Marie Smith, the senior vice president of planning and development for the Dodgers, who came to the organization after leading a string of innovative stadium makeovers that prioritized the fan experience, like Baltimore’s Camden Yards and the preservation and expansion of Fenway Park in Boston. “Today’s game experience is more than just nine innings of baseball,” Smith says.
At Dodger Stadium, Smith charged Studio-MLA with turning a stadium surrounded by a desert of asphalt into a pleasant place that could be easily accessed by multiple means of transportation. The firm focused on expanding the space surrounding the stadium gates, creating new plazas and themed gathering areas in spaces once given fully to car parking. New planters and trees were added throughout, replacing nearly 30,000 square feet of asphalt that wasn’t explicitly being driven over or parked on. More than 500 trees were added to the grounds or repositioned during construction, including 100 fruit trees. Clearly marked pedestrian walkways were added to connect the stadium to the city sidewalks beyond the parking lots, as were bike racks, drop-off and pickup zones for car-sharing services, and a well-used public transit shuttle. The ticket gates themselves were moved to create more active space within the stadium’s concourses, which included children’s playgrounds, vending zones, and seating areas. The work has been gradual and ongoing since 2012, with more development planned for the future.
“We tried to make it much more a place for the fans, for pedestrians, for cyclists, who actually filter into the park through a human-scale space,” Lehrer says. A buffer of between 40 and 50 feet now exists around the stadium, replacing parking spaces with plazas, plantings, and areas for fans to gather. “For a stadium to be willing to give up hundreds of spaces to end up with plazas so people can have a more pleasant, interesting arrival is pretty amazing,” she says.
The new spaces are being used. Before a game on a recent spring weeknight, fans were milling around the new plaza spaces, waiting to meet people, carrying movable seats to shady areas, and taking photos next to a recently installed statue of the baseball legend Jackie Robinson. At Top of the Park, the plaza near the stadium’s uppermost entrance with straight-on views of downtown L.A., families paused for pictures next to a cluster of palm trees and orange and red Euphorbia. A small boy leaned over a bright blue planter and poked at the spiny stem of a crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii).
Smith says Studio-MLA’s approach is the continuation of the stadium’s original landscape design, noting that the original owner spent $1.5 million on the landscape around stadium entrances and on the hillsides surrounding the park—the equivalent of roughly $12 million today. Outside the stadium gates, a bronze plaque installed in 1963 honors the original landscape team, led by the landscape architect John T. Ratekin.
Plans for the future aren’t yet public, but Lehrer says the ongoing intervention is intended to embrace people’s connection with the stadium by making it easier for them to come and enjoy the space. This approach to Dodger Stadium has ended up guiding the firm’s thinking about its other stadium projects and how they can create better spaces for people to gather. Lehrer, admittedly not a sports person, says she has come to appreciate the role sports and sports stadiums can play. “I think they are an opportunity to revitalize cities and really bring an infusion of economic, environmental, and cultural benefits,” she says.
It’s surprising territory for Lehrer and her firm—“I didn’t go looking for stadiums, to be honest,” she says—but it’s turned out to be fertile ground for innovative landscape architecture. The populist magnetism of sports stadiums has made them into almost a new type of public space. “They are becoming parks; they have that allure,” Lehrer says. “People do go and will go to these places.” And that’s a clear mandate to make them better spaces for the people who use them.
Nate Berg is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.
DODGER STADIUM: Owner Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles. Landscape Architect Studio-MLA, Los Angeles. Architect DAIQ Architects, Boston. Associate Architect Levin & Associates Architects, Los Angeles. AV Design WJHW, Carrollton, Texas. Structural Nabih Youssef Associates, Los Angeles. MEP ME Engineers, Culver City, California. Graphics Ashton Design, Baltimore. Civil Mollenhauer Group, Glendale, California. Geotech URS Corporation, Los Angeles. General Contractor Hunt Construction, Orlando, Florida. Landscape Contractor ValleyCrest Landscape [now BrightView], Calabasas, California. Concrete Contractor Bomel Construction, Anaheim Hills, California.
BANC OF CALIFORNIA (LAFC) STADIUM: Owner Los Angeles Football Club, Los Angeles. Landscape Architect Studio-MLA, Los Angeles. Architect Gensler, Los Angeles. AV Design Idibri, Addison, Texas. Structural Thornton Tomasetti, Los Angeles. MEP ME Engineers, Inc., Culver City, California. Civil KPFF, Los Angeles. Lighting First Circle Design, Costa Mesa, California. Field Consultant Millennium Sports Technologies, Littleton, Colorado. Roof Engineer Nous Engineering, Los Angeles. General Contractor PCL Construction Services, Glendale, California. Landscape Contractor American Landscape, Canoga Park, California. Concrete Contractor Bomel Construction, Anaheim Hills, California.