Take it from Mike Sabatini, a senior architect for Populous, the design firm for Columbia’s new baseball stadium at the Bull Street development. Spirit Communications Park is going to be a home run.
Sabatini, the lead designer for the ballpark, has an impressive track record. Some of his more recent projects include Citi Field, home of the New York Mets that opened in 2009, and TD Ameritrade Park, home of the NCAA College World Series in Omaha that opened in 2011.
He said Columbia baseball fans will fall in love with their new ballpark.
“I think they'll be blown away when they step on the development and see the ballpark itself,” Sabatini said. “It'll be a massive improvement on what you see there now. It'll be a magnet.”
Covering 165 acres just past the heart of downtown on the site of the old State Hospital campus, Columbia Common is expected to add thousands of new homes as well as stores and offices. Greenville-based developer Bob Hughes has letters of intent from 41 retailers and restaurants for leases that represent about half of the 400,000 square feet of retail space on the Bull Street side of the property.
Team owner Jason Freier, whose Hardball Capital will bring an unnamed minor league club to the Columbia for the 2016 season, also worked with Populous to design $30.6-million Parkview Field for his Single-A team in Fort Wayne, Ind., which opened in 2009 and has been named the top minor league ballpark in the nation three of the past four years by Stadium Journey magazine.
“We set the bar high in Fort Wayne,” Freier said. “We told people they were going to be blown away, and I think even knowing that, people still didn't realize what we were going to be able to provide.”
Freier is confident that the $37 million Spirit Communications Park – funded with $29 million from the city $7 million by Hardball Capital and $1 million from Hughes Development Corp. – will bring a “wow” factor to Columbia, which lost its previous professional baseball team to Greenville after the 2004 season. Site work is slated to begin in late December, with a ceremonial groundbreaking to follow in early January.
The expertise of Populous, which also designed USC's top-notch Carolina Stadium that opened in 2009, is viewed by Freier as significant because of its reputation as the gold standard in venue design around the world.
“Every (club) operator has things they want to see in the ballpark and things that are important to them,” he said. “They do a tremendous job of responding to that and building a ballpark that will work for the way we operate.”
Sabatini looks at the Bull Street site and is reminded of what occurred in Omaha, where TD Ameritrade Park was built in the downtown area and spurred more development around it. Gamecock fans have a familiarity with Omaha because USC won a national championship in that ballpark's first season in the 2011 College World Series and finished as national runners-up the following season.
“People have seen how Omaha embraced their new ballpark and the development that has happened around it. The same thing is happening at Bull Street in Columbia,” Sabatini said. “This ballpark will be an anchor to part of that development. We're seeing that trend where ballparks are becoming part of the community, which benefits everybody.”
Populous also designed Riley Park in Charleston as well as Athletic Park in Durham, which has experienced its own downtown business boon.
Freier said the Populous architects are working closely with the Hughes architects so that everything will look like it's part of the same neighborhood. They're working to ensure all the new structures capture the original feel of the old campus.
“All of this will fit extremely well together,” Freier said. “It's not just a baseball stadium but an event center and a park. We're going to be integrated into a retail, office and residential neighborhood that will spring up around us.”
Freier wants the ballpark to be open to the public even when games aren't being played. He envisions office workers or residents sitting on a picnic table to eat lunch or taking a morning walk or jog around the concourse.
“It will function in many ways like a public park,” he added. “It's important because of the kind of development around us. We want to create a walkable, inviting urban neighborhood.”
And on game days, Freier and Sabatini want to see the energy and buzz that large, diverse crowds can bring – from families with young kids to college students to young professionals to church groups to diehard baseball fans.
Sabatini said modern ballparks must have amenities that appeal to fans of varying demographics. That can range from food and drink choices to seating options to optics of the playing field. He also hopes to create a few quirky playing conditions like porches and unique walls that can provide a home-field advantage.
The pair say the Columbia stadium is a go from a design standpoint's four phases: Concept, schematics, design development and construction documentation.
“The design is set, we're within budget, and that's when you move forward into construction. That's really where we are now,” Sabatini said.
Both are comfortable with the timetable of a groundbreaking within the next month. They said El Paso's new ballpark, which opened this past season, was completed in nine months after the design work was complete.
Freier has yet to reveal a team name and colors, something he expects to announce in the spring. That's also the timetable to announce which franchise will be relocated here. He also owns the Single-A Savannah team in the South Atlantic League, which remains a candidate to be moved. Hardball Capital recently reached a deal to purchase the Double-A Chattanooga team in the Southern League, although he told the local newspaper there that he has no plans to move it to Columbia.
Whichever team eventually lands in Columbia will find itself in a top-flight ballpark, one that Sabatini promises will reflect the area and the Bull Street surroundings.
“We'll make those accents that are unique to the city itself, and people will relate to it,” he said.