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Photo: Atlanta Braves
Photo: Atlanta Braves

Unique challenge of Braves stadium excites architect

The architects of Kansas City-based firm Populous are at work on their 20th Major League Baseball stadium. They view this one — the planned new Braves stadium — as a different challenge than all the others.

“It is unlike anything we have seen or done,” said Earl Santee, the Populous principal in charge of the project. “Man, that’s what we wake up for every day. … You live for the challenges.”

Santee discussed Populous’ vision for the Cobb County stadium in an interview this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the firm’s first public comments about the project since being chosen by the Braves as the ballpark’s lead architect two months ago.

Santee described a stadium that will be built in “a natural bowl” on the hilly, forested site, likely facing south toward Atlanta. He described a stadium that will have 41,500 seats “as close to the field as possible,” making for a “more intimate” experience than 50,000-seat Turner Field. He said the exterior appearance hasn’t been figured out yet, other than that it will be “transparent” in some way.

But what makes this a challenge unlike any of Populous’ previous projects, Santee said, is the Braves’ plan to build the stadium simultaneously with an adjacent mixed-use development of shops, restaurants, bars, residences, offices and hotels.

“Honestly, it hasn’t been done before,” Santee said. “It’s like designing a community at one time.

“It’s important that we understand the inside and outside experiences and the unified experiences. I think that is the great opportunity and the great challenge, and we can see it leading to a future of other projects happening the same way.”

Populous’ agreement with the Braves doesn’t include designing the mixed-use development, but the firm must create a ballpark that works in synergy with the rest of the project.

Braves officials have retained a Los Angeles-based firm, The Jerde Partnership, to serve as master planner on the 57-acre project. According to Braves executive vice president Derek Schiller, Jerde is working closely with Populous and real-estate project-management firm JLL on the overall plan for the site, including the exact location of the stadium, parking, streets and other structures within the development.

“Jerde has a tremendous depth of experience in doing significant mixed-use projects not only here in the U.S., but around the world,” Schiller said. “It was very important for us to find a master planner that could understand the scope of the project.”

According to Jerde’s website, architect Jon Jerde founded the firm in 1977 with a design philosophy called “placemaking” and has more than 100 projects open world-wide.

To design the stadium itself, Populous has assembled a large team, including two of the firm’s founders and senior principals, Santee and Joe Spear.

Santee said Populous is almost finished with the project’s programming phase, which he defined as “understanding the (team’s) needs and wants in the building.” The architects are now working on schematic design, which Santee said could be completed in six or seven weeks. At that point, preliminary architectural renderings could offer a glimpse of the future stadium.

Populous has designed other stadiums that later spurred entertainment districts. But the Braves have vowed to open both at the same time in 2017 — an unprecedented feat if they pull it off.

Largely because of the adjacent development, Santee said, the stadium will not closely resemble any of the others Populous (formerly named HOK Sport) designed. The firm is the most prolific designer of MLB stadiums, accounting for 13 of the past 14 to open and 19 of the 30 currently in use. Its work includes Baltimore’s trend-setting Oriole Park at Camden Yards, San Francisco’s AT&T Park, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park and both the New York Mets’ and Yankees’ stadiums.

“We are not looking at anything as a prototype (for the Braves stadium),” Santee said. “We want it to be completely authentic to the Braves, Georgia, Cobb County, Atlanta and the Southeast.”

The suburban location near Cumberland Mall bucks a long and strong trend of building MLB stadiums in city centers.

So far, design work has focused on the stadium’s footprint and seating bowl.

A priority for Braves officials, Schiller said, is to put the seating areas as close to the field as possible and to put a high percentage of seats in the lower bowl.

“We are trying to create smaller personal experiences for everyone within each section of the stadium,” Santee said.

The precise location of the stadium on the site hasn’t been finalized, but Santee said a consensus has emerged about the approximate spot.

“The site is forested, but it has a natural bowl or dish that occurs with the terrain that we are trying to take advantage of,” he said. “As we looked at it and had others look at it, I think we have come to the conclusion that’s where the stadium should go.

“It feels like it belongs there without affecting the terrains. We don’t want to cut the hills off. We want to take advantage of the terrain and make the setting interesting and natural.”

The tentative plan is for the stadium to have four main entrances, not all of which would be on the same level because of the changing topography, Santee said.

Current working plans have the stadium facing south with a view of the Galleria Center in the foreground and the lights of downtown Atlanta possibly in the background from higher levels, he said.

Outside the stadium, many of the existing trees should be preserved as “part of the experience,” he added.

Santee said it’s too early in the process to know whether the architectural style will lean toward classical or modern. All he knows about the exterior at this point, he said, is that it must be transparent enough to connect the adjacent development and the ballpark.

“You will know (from the development) there is a game going on,” he said.

Despite its many previous projects, Populous views this one as a turning point.

“We see this project as being the kickoff for us becoming more than just a sports practice,” Santee said. “We wanted the job. We threw everything at it. … We think this will change how we look at the sports-development and sports-building market and also how the world looks at it.”

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