More MS news articles for April 2000

SF's New Ballpark: Beautiful Access

By Gary Karp

It's the day before opening day at Pacific Bell Park, San Francisco's latest pride and joy, the new home of the Giants baseball team. Although two exhibition games have been played, the area is still a construction site, but clearly they are down to the final details.

Shining new seats are taken out of their boxes; it's a moment that feels particularly historical. Those seats have a long life ahead of them, as a perch for memorable experiences like catching a fly ball or witnessing a play that will go down in the record books.

These particular seats are making history in their own right. They are removable, to provide access for wheelchairs, and there will be as many as 800 of them dispersed throughout the 40,800-seat ballpark. More than any other ballpark in the world Pac Bell has done the most comprehensive job of accommodating fans with disabilities.

At least that's what Jack Bair thinks. Bair is the General Counsel for his lifelong hometown team, the Giants. Jack has agreed to show me around on an extremely busy day; he's a man caught in a potent blend of tension and joy.

Bair was active with the Disability Access Advisory Committee, formed early on by Pacific Bell to consider technology access issues for people with disabilities at the planned ballpark. It soon evolved into a full advisory group on all issues of access for the new park. There was no resistance from either Pac Bell or the Giants management. They already knew that there was a substantial base of fans with disabilities.

The Giants were also responsive to a spate of sports-related accessibility litigation in recent years. In 1996, CoreStates Center in Philadelphia -- home to professional hockey and basketball -- was sued over poor views when spectators stood up and blocked line of sight for wheelchair users. They were forced to make modifications to elevate disabled seating. In 1998, The New York Yankees were the objects of a suit charging that there were too few accessible seats, that their prices were higher than other seats, and also suffered from poor sight lines.

The San Francisco Giants did not escape this sort of advocacy. Just as Peter Magowan and investors bought The Giants to save them from leaving the Bay Area, they found themselves party to a suit led by Oakland's Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund (DREDF) to restore disability access. They were also required to offer disability awareness training to their staff.

Other teams in other cities have caught on, too, although there was early resistance from team owners and arena operators. They didn't mind adding accessible bathroom stalls or lowering some counters, but providing accessible seating means lost revenue.

"The owners want to fill as many seats as they can," says Mark Odum, big-time sports fan and director of the National Rehabilitation and Information Center in the Washington D.C.. "If you think of an arena that has eighty basketball games and 80 hockey games, it translates into a lot of money for these people to lose seats. It was the biggest contention at the MCI center in Washington. All the other stuff was taken care of, but the seats was the big issue."

Bair says that for every accessible seat, three paying seats are lost. You could imagine owners being unhappy about this, but the ADA says that a park is supposed to provide 1 percent of the seating for wheelchair users, and another 1 percent for companions. Pac Bell Park slightly exceeds that.

Before his injury, Odum's goal was to be a sports writer, but "in the early 70s you weren't going to get into any locker rooms or cover a beat from a wheelchair." He has worked closely with the Maryland Stadium Authority on the Baltimore Orioles' ballpark at Camden Yards. In 1992, Odum, a season ticket holder, could not see the field when the crowd stood up. In other sports, you can often see the replay on the large video screens, but a clause in the baseball umpires' contract restricted replays of "controversial" plays. If you couldn't stand, you were left out.

In Baltimore, the Department of Justice got involved, working directly with the architects. Says Odum, "We had this one architectural firm designing the arenas, and they were pretty much glossing over the ADA at best."

That firm was Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Their division, HOK Sports has demonstrated in the design of Pac Bell Park that they have taken their lessons to heart. They have since designed or upgraded as many as nine baseball parks, including Coors Field, Busch Stadium, Comiskey Park, and Wrigley Field.

Attorney Deborah Kaplan is the director of The World Institute on Disability, a research and advocacy organization in Oakland. She served as director of Pac Bell's Disability Access Advisory Committee. By the time they formed, HOK Sports already had the plans drawn up. "The plans for physical access were already done when the committee started, and they were good. I think the Giants wanted access to be good from the beginning."

The Access Committee was made up of people with a variety of disabilities, and according to Kaplan, ended up with more members at the end of the process. "Someone would call The Giants to complain about access," she says, "and they would put them on the committee!"

They certainly got it right where sight lines are concerned. Kaplan, also a wheelchair user, attended the exhibition game where Giants star Willie Mays was presented an award. "When everyone stood up, I had no problem," she says.

The committee gave the team and designers feedback on seating, as did the city's ADA Compliance office. A key issue was distribution. "Now there are seats all over the place," says Kaplan. "Any place you can get to with level access, there are wheelchair seats. They're in every section, every price range, every area." According to Bair, there are more accessible seats down close than at any other baseball park.

The Giants worried that the field level seats might be dangerous, and asked the Access Committee whether they should provide additional screening. Kaplan laughs, "We said no. "If we want to be idiots and sit where we could get hit on the head, then we have the right!"

Ticket pricing took up more of the committee's time than any other single issue. They discussed a policy of price reductions, given that so many people with disabilities have low incomes. The fact that there was much more limited choice in seating also suggested some compensation in the price of a ticket.

Many of Pac Bell Park's accessible seats are on the concourse level that rings the park, and at first glance it seems a long way up from the field. The only closer options are the most expensive seats, in the very front -- fantastic locations, right at home plate, or first and third base. But most disabled fans will clearly not have the price of admission.

Odum has observed similar problems in other stadiums. "You'll find very few seats in the cheap ones," he says, "and more in the expensive. Cheaper seats are also farther from the field, so the access is tougher. They might be within the letter of the law, but not the spirit."

Kaplan is impressed with the comparison between old Candlestick Park and new Pac Bell. "It's a wonderful example of universal design," she says. "When you think about it from the beginning, there's no comparison -- [Pac Bell] makes the statement that they expect a lot of people with disabilities."

What about access for the hearing impaired? The access group and the Giants agreed that the official announcer isn't really saying that much of importance after all! So, why have someone doing real time captions when the information is all up on the scoreboard? Access Committee director Kaplan explains, "The deaf community said, 'OK, but you have to be sure you have captioning for emergencies or half-time ceremonies.' And they put most of that up on the scoreboard as well. There was just no need to pay the cost of full-time captioning."

Separate focus groups were held for deaf and blind fans. Blind participants were especially interested in the use of "talking signs," but this proved to be another unworkable solution. Advisory committee consultant Susan Walters explains: "The blind members of the group said that talking signs don't work in crowds. If you're on the concourse and it's jam packed, there's too much noise interference. Even if you hear it, does it make sense to you? It's better to have a tactile map, and it's rare that you go by yourself anyway." They made one exception and used talking signs at the ferry landing, where it's less noisy and more difficult to find your way up to the park entrance.

All concessions are built with low counters, and if anyone needs assistance, there are plenty of staff people and ushers around to ask. New Giants employees get disability awareness training as part of an eight-hour orientation session, and they get an annual refresher, too. Bair says, with regard to disability, that The Giants have been "aggressive with staff training."

The ballpark crowns the South of Market area, booming with Internet and design companies, many of its industrial buildings converted to "live/work" residential units. An area of dramatic growth -- and not without its controversy around housing costs -- Pac Bell Park adds that much more fuel to the fire. This is a happening part of town.

So how do you get there? San Francisco has a variety of public transit options, not all of them famous for good service. The city's MUNI bus service has been plagued with problems for years and is always a major issue in local elections. But thanks to a major renovation of The Embarcadero, there is now a MUNI train that passes the ballpark, with a ramped station at the main entrance.

The ferry terminal serves people coming from Marin County in the north (although it is mostly booked in advance for scheduled games), or Oakland to the east. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) feeds from various sectors of the city and the East Bay as well, traveling under the Bay Bridge. MUNI buses run from BART stations downtown to the park, including some dedicated coaches when there is a game. Golden Gate transit is another option for those north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Now that Pac Bell Park has done so much to design an accessible stadium, they need to spread the news to the local disability community. There is brief access information on their web site and "A-Z Guide," but the Access Committee pushed for a piece of directed marketing literature that would be sent out to 150 organizations in the Bay Area. It includes a map and details on transportation options.

Apparently, the word is already out there. Walters says. "They've already sold more disability tickets than they ever did at Candlestick."