What would it take to develop a sports district in downtown San Antonio?
Rumors of building a new ballpark and arena downtown have been swirling for months with the owners of San Antonio’s baseball and basketball teams and city officials reportedly in talks to get the ball moving.
Where that sports district would go is the big question.
An expert who has been designing stadiums and arenas in cities around the world for over 30 years says it’s possible to put an arena and ballpark in San Antonio’s inner city.
In fact, despite limited available land with the right dimensions in the urban core, downtown offers some major advantages over suburban areas, said Bryan Trubey, a principal in the San Antonio architecture firm Overland Partners and an established expert in sports facility design.
The Dallas-based architect has been developing sports venues since early in his career, starting with Hong Kong Stadium. Among his many projects while with firms HOK, HKS and now Overland are Miller Park, now American Family Field, in Milwaukee; SoFi Stadium near Los Angeles; the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, and Victory Park in Dallas, which includes American Airlines Center, where the Dallas Mavericks play.
Nationally, there’s been a focus on putting sports venues near or within the city center, and it has to do with economics, Trubey said.
“If you can put a new asset that’s significant, like a sports entertainment venue, directly adjacent to long-term historical investment in the urban core, you get a multiplier effect,” he said. “That can be significant over time.”
New players, new venues?
Speculation over a new home court for the San Antonio Spurs expanded in June when the team scored Victor Wembanyama as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.
Also coming off the bench are relocation plans for the San Antonio Missions.
When the baseball team’s new ownership group announced late last year it will have to build a new larger ballpark to remain in compliance with Minor League rules, it set off a flurry of forecasting.
Most theories have the team moving from the Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium on the West Side into the urban core even after landowners spurned one attempt by investors to buy up land along West Martin Street.
A sports venue in the downtown area has been discussed since at least 2016 when city officials commissioned a feasibility study that found seven potential sites for a stadium, all of which were downtown.
Reports state those talks have resumed under the leadership of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh.
Professional sports as an economic sector has been on a growth curve since the mid-20th century, dropping only during the COVID pandemic, Trubey said.
“A lot of cities, for really the last 25 years, have come to a greater and deeper understanding that having sports and entertainment venues can contribute to quality of life, so they are a public benefit in a lot of ways,” he said.
But land costs have gone up, making such projects more costly and challenging in today’s market. Rising interest rates have put a damper on sports and entertainment venue development the past two years but the industry is still robust — and urban-focused.
Dewey Newton, the Dallas-based senior vice president of sports and public assembly for Turner Construction, said the company has been busy responding to three requests for proposals and doing two interviews.
Newton attributes it to pent-up demand after the pandemic, but also to the number of aging facilities across the country. “Every time we build a new stadium, you think there’s not going to be any more to build, but there are still a lot of them that are 25, 30, some 40 years old,” he said.
Turner recently won the bid to build a new, 60,000-seat stadium for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans in Nashville. The $2.1 billion project will be located directly across the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville in a fast-developing area known as East Bank.
While land may be harder to acquire and more expensive in any city’s urban core versus outlying areas, public infrastructure like parking and transportation along with private development, like hotels, restaurants and bars, is already in place.
In suburbia, it might cost less to purchase the wide open spaces needed for a sports district with surface parking lots, but significantly more expensive to install the infrastructure needed to support it.
A sports venue can have a “multiplier effect” on previous investments in the urban core, Trubey said, activating an area and contributing to creating an authentic live, work, play environment.
Former County Judge Nelson Wolff has said he would like to see a new ballpark in the urban core, especially if it’s located near the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, in which the county has invested millions to develop on the northwest side of downtown.
“That is one of the things sports and entertainment venues can help accomplish more effectively than really any other use,” he said. “It also lifts the existing mixed-use infrastructure in the urban core.”
At Victory Park, located in Uptown Dallas, Trubey said, the developers understood that “if we do certain things with the arena in this case, we can make it catalytic and that it can transform a multi-block area into a vibrant destination environment.”
That’s been the goal of his sports venue projects for many years, he said. “Integrations are really the key to creating value in this particular building type and opportunity.”
Concern about returns
Between 1970 and 2020, state and local governments devoted $33 billion in public funds to construct major-league sports venues in the United States and Canada, according to a 2022 study by several university researchers on the impact of sports franchises and venues on municipalities.
The median public contribution covered 73 percent of construction costs, the researchers found, but sports teams and facilities resulted in “little to no tangible” economic impact on the local economy.
The Frost Bank Center, where the Spurs’ 2023-24 season opens this fall, was built in 2002 at a cost of $186 million and funded by tax-exempt municipal bonds, supported by a hotel occupancy and car rental tax. Almost $29 million came from the Spurs organization, which is said to have received $41 million in federal subsidies.
“The public is obviously very concerned about the returns” created by sports venues that their tax dollars helped to build, Trubey said.
Until a location is selected and a timeline created, it’s not possible to determine what the cost of a sports district could run, he said.
One sports venue consultant speaking on condition of anonymity said construction costs vary widely but arenas are generally just over $1 billion and baseball stadiums $1.5 billion.
Land size of about 8 to 10 acres is needed for an arena and for a Major League Baseball park, about 10 acres or more, he said, but the trend among most cities is to put them in a downtown location rather than the suburbs.
That’s especially true of venues built for basketball and baseball, which have more games in a season than football, making it more desirable to select a central and accessible location, the consultant added.
Building a sports venue takes about two to three years of actual construction and varies according to the facility’s complexity and scale, Trubey said.
“We’ve done things much more quickly and we’ve also had projects that took significantly longer because of approvals or financing or public support,” Trubey said. “It all has to do with how you are able to capitalize the project or get permission to build the project or both.”
With the Spurs’ home court on the East Side and the Missions on the West Side, the Alamodome downtown and a soccer pitch, Toyota Field, on the Northeast Side, San Antonio’s major sports venues are spread across the city.
From 1973-93, the Spurs played at the former Hemisfair Arena downtown and, until 1994, the Missions played at V.J. Keefe Memorial Stadium on the St. Mary’s University campus on the West Side.
Hemisfair, with its parks, apartments and ongoing development, and the site of the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, have been floated as a potential site for a new sports venue likely given its proximity to the city-owned Henry B. González Convention Center and other downtown amenities.
Trubey pointed to several cities that have managed to develop baseball stadiums in close proximity to football or basketball venues to create a sports district, including Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
“We just completed Globe Life Field for the Texas Rangers,” he said of the $1.1 billion ballpark for the Major League team. “It’s literally across the creek and a big greenbelt [from] AT&T Stadium that we did for … the [Dallas] Cowboys.”
Trubey declined to call out any part of San Antonio that he would consider a good place to build a new ballpark or arena, or whether his firm had been involved in the talks, saying that should come from the ownership of the teams.
But Newton, who has led Turner’s sports group for a decade, said he thinks San Antonio would benefit from a downtown sports district. It’s a city “where you can just go to a hotel, park and get your car three days later,” he said. “It’s a very easy city to have a district like that.”
‘Everything but the ball’
Both teams and various officials have said the city’s sports venues are no longer adequate, despite millions poured into renovations over the years. Can they be made better?
“A lot of that depends upon the age of the structural part of the venue,” Trubey said. The structural frame of venues built in the late ‘90s could last a century or two, but it also creates a “locked” geometry that doesn’t allow for adding seats or amenities, he added.
Many were not built to accommodate today’s fans, the teams and league requirements, and the business model of sports has changed over the years, he said.
“People want to buy, participate and sit in environments that didn’t exist in a lot of prior arenas and ballparks.”
About six years ago, Turner Construction completed improvements to the Atlanta Hawks’ stadium at a cost of $175 million, Newton said.
Today, “you could spend, all-in, $400 [million] or $500 million easily on an arena renovation,” mostly improving the fan experience, he said. But because the buildings are so large, “you have to touch all the spaces so, basically, it’s everything but the ball.”
Bill Mykins, vice president of the sports venue consultancy Brailsford & Dunlavey, said his firm has worked on renovating older stadiums, including the St. Louis Blues’ Enterprise Center and the Seattle Mariners’ T-Mobile Park.
In the case of Seattle, where the Mariners’ ballpark was built in 1999, the goal is to someday have a 100-year-old ballpark, like Fenway Park in Boston, Mykins said.
In the end, it comes down to, “What’s the owner’s vision?” he said.