It's important for Hamilton to get it right, to learn the lessons from other cities and build a true neighbourhood stadium that will serve the community well for generations to come.
By Ben Bull
Published July 26, 2010
I've visited a number of stadiums around the world during my 42 years of seeking out the oohs and aahs - and Oskee Wee Wees - of life.
I remember catching the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour at Wembley, with Mick Jagger swatting a giant inflatable mutt with his mic; Madonna straddling her chair at the Stadio Olimpico di Torino (those pointy breasts!); Eric Cantona and Co. slipping the ball past the goalie for the mighty whites at Elland Road.
Some of these visits were eons ago alas, and my recollections muddled, haphazard, hazy. But most are etched into my mind: the stadium as much a part of the experience as the event itself.
As Hamilton teeters towards the development of a bland, 'could-be-anywhere' car-centric stadium, I thought it would be informative to take a look back at some of my stadium adventures, to see if we can learn anything new.
It wasn't The Who I was into as a kid, but Leeds United. I would keepy uppy for hours, pretending to be Billy Bremner, Leeds United's legendary, diminutive number 4. By the side of my bed were glossy posters, trinkets and picture books plastered with the smiling faces of my childhood ball hogging heroes.
By the time I reached my teens I was allowed to go to the games. Elland Road is about two miles from Leeds city center. It's next to an inner city motorway, not far from the ring road. Several buses get you there or thereabouts, many running along Beeston Hill a quarter mile away, spilling out their passengers at the top and sending them tumbling down - shoulder to shoulder, chip butty or pork pie in hand - to the hallowed turf below.
Brendan, Joe and myself would catch the 'football special' - one of the half dozen or so packed to the brim double decker buses which ran from the center of town and left a sticky scent of cigarettes and booze all the way to the ground.
Once at the stadium we would jostle off and squeeze our way through the myriad of tunnels and turnstiles before reaching the main stand.
I remember the less-than-amused mutterings of our fellow passengers as we funnelled into the ground. 'Baa!' was a common cry, as was 'Hey! Get of my f*g foot'.
After the game we'd hop straight back on the bus. Apart from a pub across the street and a shopping precinct on Beeston Road , there wasn't much to stick around for.
At the infamous Indianapolis Brickyard I had the misfortune of watching the only Formula 1 Grand Prix that wasn't. Right before the Go, all but six of the cars diverted into the pits to protest their puncture-plagued tyres and were never seen again. Michael Schumacher took the lead on turn 1 and never looked back (literally - there was nothing to see!).
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is in a seriously depressed part of town. The upside to this, I suppose, is that the drive was not too bad. Most of the locals clearly didn't own vehicles and there was precious little other reason to drive to the area. So we had the roads to ourselves.
One 'only in America ' aspect of the visit was the parking lot location. Imagine our amazement as we were shepherded closer and closer to the track, until - Hey! We're inside the stadium! Getting to our seats was as simple as slamming the car door and strolling over to the nearest bleacher...
Toronto's Varsity Stadium is surely the ultimate 'urban stadium'. Just up the road from Queens Park and the Toronto University campus, and opposite a subway stop - it doesn't get any more urban than this. My mates, Phil, Jon and myself would stop by once or twice a month to watch the Toronto Lynx play football.
Apart from the incessant hiss of the PA - 'The Lynx stay at the Sheraton Hotel!' 'Clothes for the Toronto Lynx are sponsored by blah blah blah...' - the game day experience was spot on. More importantly for me it allowed me another excuse to go for a pint, before, during and after the game.
One thing it did not allow me to do was drive because - hey! There's no parking! Hard to say how much this factored into the low attendances but I suspect the 1-2 thousand who bothered to turn up each week - and the several thousand who didn't - were not overly disaffected by the lack of easy driving. After all this is Toronto - it's not easy to drive anywhere.
Still in Toronto, these days I get my soccer fix at the town's newest soccer cathedral - BMO Field.
I don't know anyone who likes BMO. The hastily assembled metallic stands scream temporary structure!, the parking is plentiful and horrendous, and the stadium is stuck in the middle of Exhibition Place, an out on the limb location just far enough away from everything to be, well - close to nothing.
It's nice, of course, for us Toronto FC fans to have our 'own' stadium (at least we're not sharing the Sky Dome...). And it's not as if it's impossible to get there - there are several transit links available: streetcars, a GO train - there's even a bike path running all the way to my house! But a 'downtown' stadium this ain't.
The main problem with BMO field is the location. Exhibition Place is a special-event-only locale. Once the Ferris wheel stops spinning and the Indy cars screech off into the distance, the tumbleweed is never far behind.
What this means is that, after a game - just like Elland Road - there's nothing to do. You pile out of the gate and realize - you're in the middle of nowhere.
"What shall we do now, lads?" Bruce, or Phil or Greg will ask, looking around.
"Erm, I dunno." someone else will reply. "Go home?"
What this also means is that the stadium is not easy to get to. Like Elland Road on game day, the surrounding streets around BMO, and the local transit are easily overloaded.
True 'neighbourhood stadiums' don't have this problem. Varsity could have handled many more fans because the infrastructure is built to handle waves of people. Subways are hugely efficient at flushing people up and out. And quiet streets and foot friendly sidewalks encourage fans to bike or walk, and even stick around. Those who need to drive have a wealth of little lots to park in, and many ways to filter in and out.
Looking back it occurs to me how many things these stadiums did wrong. Driving to Elland Road and parking was a nightmare. Similarly at BMO Field, TFC fans routinely leave the ground five or ten minutes before the end - even during a one-goal game - to avoid the post-game gridlock.
And transit for these stadiums is sadly lacking. Leeds never jumped on the subway/streetcar bandwagon so it was always about the bus - not a pleasant way to travel at the best of times but on match days, with hoards of fellow fans and the roads already clogged with game goers, the trip was interminable. The Exhibition streetcar down Bathurst bursts at the seams as well - not a fun ride.
As for Indianapolis: well, if Bob Young wants a fully-car accessible locale then he should look no further than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After pulling out of the inside-the-track parking lot, cops closed the roads on the way out, two lanes turned into four and we were onto the highway and outta there before the champagne turned flat.
Die-hard supporters will always trek to the game. Crate up Old Trafford and clump it back together on top of the Gulf oil slick - the fans will still find their way there. But just because you can build a stadium anywhere and fill it, doesn't mean you should. A stadium, like the local team and the fans that fill it, is a part of the community.
Good neighbourhoods - like all Jane Jacobs aficionados know too well - serve multiple purposes. Stadiums and their associated events provide one huge, important purpose which, if integrated carefully into the community, can bring pride and prosperity - and life - to the surrounding neighbourhood.
The RTH vision of a Waterfront stadium spilling out after the final whistle into the surrounding parks, restaurants and lakeside promenades is, in essence, everything RTH is about: Creating healthy neighbourhoods, leveraging our existing infrastructure, getting people onto the sidewalks, making the town come alive.
It's something that has been done so poorly and so often, by so many stadiums all over the world.
Stadiums are not easily torn down or retrofitted. Most of the stadiums I've reflected on are old, dysfunctional - and here to stay. It's important for Hamilton to get it right. To learn the lessons from other cities and build something that will serve the community well for generations to come.
It's down to two options. Which way will we go?
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