I am a stadium agnostic.
I don’t mean I am for pro stadiums in general — like any good urbanist, I understand those are oversold and that they underdeliver — but rather, I am talking about an ongoing stadium controversy here in Philadelphia.
You see, my alma mater, Temple University, wants to build an on-campus football stadium. And most of the city’s urbanist community has had their own knee-jerk reaction against the proposal. But because the knee-jerk comes from the critique against pro stadiums, instead of looking at college stadiums, it misses the point and in so doing misses the opportunity urbanists have of instilling urbanist values on Temple’s campus.
The Problems with Pro Stadiums
We all know these by now. Pro stadiums are brought for with significant public money in sweetheart deals with the team owners. Some pro stadium contracts are so utterly ridiculous one wonders how they were agreed upon in the first place. And in exchange — nothing. There is little to no immediate economic benefit that stadiums spark. Philadelphia’s own stadium district remains a handful of colosseums in a sea of parking, a single strip mall breaking the monotony. Team owners say that their teams are good for the entire metro, and like the best of lies, that does have a spark of truth in it. So too the idea that an arena or a baseball field — much more heavily used — can be located convenient to downtown.
But the problem in all of this is that team owners have successfully convinced the public, time and again, to invest its own money in these white elephant facilities. Football stadiums get used maybe ten times in the year; baseball fields and arenas are more heavily booked. No matter how you look at it, a stadium is not a good public investment.
Temple, meanwhile, wants to build a 35k seat stadium at Broad and Norris, about a block north of the Liacouras Center and cater-corner to the Performing Arts Center. The rationale behind the move is manifold: first, they’re sick and tired of being junior partners to the Eagles in Lincoln Financial Field, whose dominant team is raising their rent as Temple gains increasing national recognition. Temple also wants to control all of the revenue streams, and finally, to their eyes, an on-campus stadium is vital to creating an on-campus gameday experience.
(It’s also important not to understate Temple’s meteoric rise as its football team has gotten good: Sports Illustrated — not Penn State, not Pitt — now rates Temple as Pennsylvania’s most popular team.)
Being on-campus, the stadium would be built on land Temple already owns — part of Geasy Field, in this case. (Another part is becoming part of the Student Health and Wellness Center.) And the school — and this is important — has pledged to raise the money to fund it from donations and bonding.
This is, however, North Philadelphia, and the political backlash is already brewing. Last February, students protested against it in what was, at the end of the day, an utterly predictable gesture. In the African-American community, the clergy is against it, and this has political implications: Councilman Darrell Clarke, who represents the area around Temple, dare not anger them lest he loses the key that keeps getting him elected in the face of increasingly adversarial demographics.
This makes sense. North Philadelphia’s African-American community has long resented Temple, and this resentment dates back to the urban renewal era, when Temple once proposed to take everything between Broad Street, Girard Avenue, and the Reading Railroad (now SEPTA) line for its burgeoning campus. The Liacouras Center itself, reports agree, was built with heavy-handed tactics, including unwelcome takings, decades after urban renewal’s end. Fifty years of resentment does not go away in a flash.
The Reason for Agnosticism
And here I explain my reasoning for being a stadium agnostic. In the end, the reason we oppose pro stadiums is because they expropriate public resources to line team owners’ pockets. They use land conveyed into public hands and public funding mechanisms. Public, public, public.
Temple’s stadium proposal does not. It only uses land Temple already owns, and has owned since at least the urban-renewal era, if not longer. (Most of Geasy Field was built on a defunct cemetery.) In using donations and university bonding, Temple is very specifically not proposing tapping into public resources.
Is this the highest and best use for Temple? Who knows. But, at the end of the day, it is the use Temple wants, on land they already own, with resources they intend to raise themselves. The public has fuck-all to do with it. And, as long as Temple does not seek public resources, then what right do urbanists — the same urbanists who want more relaxed zoning and less public input into private projects to begin with — have to impinge on Temple’s desire to do with their land and their resources as they please?