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Detroit Visionary

August 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Last spring Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers’ new stadium, was dedicated to rave reviews. Right there, on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, is a gem of a baseball field, a gathering spot for thousands of people united in their joy of the game.
Carl Roehling, president of the design and engineering firm Smith Group, served as the principal architect and planner on the $300 million project. Raised in Royal Oak and educated at the University of Michigan, he is the father of two teenagers. We caught up with him soon after the park opened.

Q: How did New Urbanist design principles play a part in your vision for Comerica Park?
A: It was very important to the Tigers and our design team not to repeat the mistakes of other urban stadiums. We wanted to put it within the context of a human community so that people could walk to it. We wanted to make sure that everything around it wouldn’t be paved over. We wanted to make going to the ballpark fun.
You can see, if you’ve ever gone to a game at the Silverdome in Pontiac, what a terrible experience that is, and what a waste of land for parking. The experience is to spend hours in a long line of traffic to get to the parking lot. You go to the game and spend most of the time worrying about how quickly you can get back to your car to beat everybody else out of the parking lot.

Q: Is Comerica Park part of a trend in urban design and architecture?
A: In Baltimore and in Cleveland, people are going to new stadiums downtown. They arrive early and go to pubs and walk to the game. And businesses are benefiting as well.
The trend incorporates the conservation of property, and being pedestrian- not auto-oriented. The idea is to design buildings that have context and linkages to the rest of the city, rather than developing islands that seek to be architectural masterpieces but are unapproachable and sit by themselves.
Think of the Renaissance Center, which was supposed to revive downtown Detroit. But the Center is inwardly focused and very hard to reach. Comerica Park, on the other hand, is like having a party eighty-two times a year with the front door thrown wide open.

Q: I sense this project awakened the citizen activist in you.
A: I’ve been a lifelong resident here, worked downtown for years, and watched this city slowly crumble until three or four years ago. My partners and I came close to making a decision to move out of Detroit because there was nothing that would attract our staff.
The principles behind this were the reliance on the automobile and land use policies that promoted horizontal expansion out of the city and the abandonment of existing infrastructure.
But we decided this was our city. We didn’t want to abandon it. We wanted to be part of the solution. This project and several others are finally showing us our faith is paying off.

Q: How so?
A: Our firm is the architect of record for Ford Field, the new Detroit Lions stadium next to Comerica Park. We did the master planning for both together. Then we did streetscape and other design standards for the whole entertainment district along Woodward. There are old buildings in the district now where people are re-doing interiors for restaurants, lofts, and offices.
It’s part of a real shift going on in Detroit. GM bought the Renaissance Center and developed mass transit systems to bring in its staff. Here’s an auto company using outlying parking areas and promoting ways for people to leave their cars at home.
What’s happening, finally, is that people are beginning to understand that expanding roads out of the city and stretching the infrastructure farther and farther is causing much higher economic and social costs, which no longer are invisible.

Q: How does being involved with the Institute fit in with your life and goals?
A: I fundamentally believe we made huge mistakes in gobbling up property. It’s completely the wrong kind of thinking. Bigger and faster is not better. Just look at I-696 here, which was finished a few years ago. The traffic engineers said it would take thirty-five years to reach capacity. Wrong. It took about two years.
What the Institute is doing is raising awareness of the value of thinking about these issues differently. What is the true price and cost of how we develop and waste land the way we do?

– Keith Schneider

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