Knights say downtown site squeeze is OK

CHARLOTTE -- The Charlotte Knights will have to wedge their planned $35 million uptown ballpark into one of the tightest spaces in AAA baseball.

At 7.8 acres, it occupies two Third Ward blocks northeast of Bank of America Stadium and hosts only an vacant distribution center.

Under an ambitious plan by the Knights and local officials, the team would move from its stadium in suburban Fort Mill, where its attendance ranks low on the list of the nation's 30 AAA teams, to the new, 10,000-seat ballpark.

But the Knights, who want to begin play there in 2009, wouldn't have much wiggle room. Most AAA clubs, even those with ballparks in downtown business districts, have built on more land.

A few teams have made cozy stadiums work, such as the Durham Bulls and Toledo Mud Hens, who within the last decade have begun playing in ballparks on 8-acre sites. Experts say limited room is usually the price for playing downtown.

Team officials and the local leaders who support the Knights' move say they understand the site's limitations and will work around them. Or under them: The only feature the team is set on is a field below street level, designed to make use of the available space.

"Whenever you deal with urban sites, you're going to have the problem of not as much space as you'd like," said Knights Vice President and General Manager Dan Rajkowski.

"It's all a give-and-take."

Mecklenburg County commissioners gave the Knights' stadium plans a boost this week when they approved an $8 million grant to the team. The money will help the Knights prepare the site and area around it.

Neither the team nor the county, which plans an urban park nearby, expects to install buffers around the ballpark to help shield it from surrounding properties, said county General Manager Bobbie Shields said. He added that the county won't allow the stadium to take park land.

"They realize it's a tight site," he said. "But they can fit the (stadium) there."

The space is far from ideal. But it's possible, sometimes even good, to build on a small site, said Chris Dunlavey, president of a Washington, D.C.-based firm that's overseen ballpark design and construction for minor- and major-league teams.

The company, Brailsford & Dunlavey, has helped design stadiums for the major-league Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals, plus minor-league teams in Toledo, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn. Dunlavey said he generally advises clients not to build a stadium on a parcel smaller than 7 acres; at least 9 acres is ideal.

Still, he said, it's been done, and it's all in the execution. When they build ballparks downtown, clubs often find they need to spend more to extend the available space up or down -- on the same principle, though not appearance, as a skyscraper.

It also means they can forget about on-site parking, which Knights officials agree is out of the question. But that can be a good thing, Dunlavey said.

"Part of the purpose should be to help stimulate economic activity in the downtown," he said. "If you're creating a situation where people drive in, park, attend the game, then get in their cars and leave, there's not a lot of opportunity for a spillover effect into downtown."

Spillover is what local leaders envision for uptown Charlotte, and what their counterparts in baseball markets nationwide aim for, too. Charlotte isn't the only city planning a ballpark in close quarters.

The major-league Minnesota Twins, who have played in the cavernous Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis since 1982, expect to begin playing in a new, 40,000-seat downtown stadium in 2010. It's under construction -- on an 8-acre site.

The architectural firm that designed the Twins' stadium, HOK Sport of Kansas City, is designing the Knights' stadium as well. Martin DiNitto, the principal overseeing the Charlotte project, was on vacation and unavailable this week.

Rajkowski said he expects HOK to suggest two or three basic designs within the next month. The team will pick a design, and the firm will return with a detailed plan.

Even officials who chose bigger sites say design can matter more than size. The Louisville Bats, the Knights' rivals in the AAA International League, moved into their 13,600-seat stadium, on 18 acres near the Ohio River, in 2000.

But it's only technically a downtown stadium, sitting next to a park on the city center's eastern edge. Louisville's choice of a large site doesn't mean cities should reject smaller ones, said Patti Clare, director of development for a nonprofit that shepherded the project.

"I really think a small site is better," Clare said. "The trend in the minor leagues is to make it smaller, as intimate as possible. They're a lot more fun than major-league ballparks."

"You have to look at the plan, but obviously, it can work."

Greg Lacour: 704-358-5067; Victoria Cherrie: 704-358-5062

H6Snug Ballparks, Other Places

A few other downtown AAA ballparks and their sites:

Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham

Team: Durham Bulls.

Opened: 1995.

Capacity: 10,000.

Site size: 8 acres.

Details: It's in the center of a rapidly growing district downtown, surrounded by parking decks, restaurants, offices and a large mixed-use building attached to the ballpark along the third-base line.

Fifth Third Field, Toledo, Ohio

Team: Toledo Mud Hens.

Opened: 2002.

Capacity: 8,943 fixed seats, 10,300 expanded.

Site size: 8 acres.

Details: Surrounded by restaurants, office buildings and a concert venue. The field sits 14 feet below street level. Fans in northwest Ohio can, for $1, catch a shuttle that drops them off at the gate.

Chukchansi Park, Fresno, Calif.

Team: Fresno Grizzlies.

Opened: 2002.

Capacity: 12,500.

Site size: 9 acres.

Details: In the heart of downtown Fresno, which (like many Western cities) is less dense than in the East. Adjoins a mall and courthouse. A large concourse wraps around most of the ballpark. The ballpark is the hub of Fresno's downtown revitalization efforts, said team spokesman Jeff Benton.