$uicide $queeze?

Water is flowing uphill. The sun is rising in the west. And the San Francisco Giants are preparing to build a $250 million ballpark on the bay with their own money.

The preliminary sketches of the China Basin proposal produced by Kansas City architects Helmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) aren't half-bad, either. Although the Giants' goal to finance their park privately is revolutionary -- almost insanely so -- the design falls short of miraculous. HOK Vice President Joe Spear concedes that the drawings released to the adoring press and public on Dec. 21 are "approximate."

"We're just scratching the surface at this point.There are a lot of questions not answered yet," he says. "We don't have final construction drawings down yet."

Spear isn't necessarily obfuscating: Any architectural project captured on paper four years from its completion date is subject to change. But the financial pressures the Giants have placed on themselves to pay for China Basin are certain to drive the evolving design. When Spear says the design is "approximate," that means that it could get better -- or worse. If the Giants find that they need more money, you can count on the ballpark getting worse.

The Giants' plan is the biggest financial swing for the fences taken by a Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise since the O'Malleys erected Dodger Stadium with their own money in 1960. The Giants expect to raise $140 million on the bond market; to collect about $90 million up front from the advance sale of advertising, seat licenses for 15,000 seats and 63 skybox rentals, and naming opportunities (à la 3Com) at the ballpark; and to collect $10 million in tax increment bonds from the city. (Tax increment financing is relatively painless for taxpayers because the bonds are paid off with the new property taxes generated by the new development.)

As roughed out by HOK draftsmen, the park continues the trend toward more "intimate" parks -- like the HOK-designed Camden Yards in Baltimore -- and away from 30 years' worth of concrete doughnuts.

But intimate compared to what? Most architects agree that the best benchmark of ballpark intimacy is not the amount of red brick on the walls but the diagonal distance from the first row of seats on the upper deck to home plate, representative of the territory occupied by fans who clap their hands at the action rather than rattle their jewelry. At Camden the tale of the tape from the upper deck to home plate is 152 feet. According to HOK, the distance at the proposed China Basin is 168 feet, inferior to Candlestick Park's 159 feet. (The good news at China Basin is that the first-row upper-deck seats are 16 feet closer to first base and third base than at Candlestick.)

Even Camden Yards' 152 feet is dismal compared to the parks of yore. At Chicago's old Comiskey Park, shuttered in 1990, the distance was a scant 100 feet, a glorious number we are not likely to see again for two reasons. The upper decks of old ballparks were constructed atop pillars and posts that thrust the upper deck forward toward the green, a design that is frowned upon today because it obstructs (a relatively few) lower-deck views. For the past three decades, architects have "solved" the obstructed-view problem by setting the upper decks away from the action on footings of their own. Some solution: It improves a thousand lower-deckers' view at the expense of the masses of upper-deckers.

Compared to Tiger Stadium, Fenway, and old Comiskey, parks like China Basin and Camden Yards are a step backward for every fan except those who like to take in a baseball game with their visit to the food court.

The second enemy of intimacy are the revenue-generating skyboxes and mezzanines, which catapult the upper decks into nosebleed altitudes. But revenue generation, not intimacy, is the reason behind the building of the new ballparks, which is why we should keep on eye on the HOK design as the Giants start counting their money. In Denver, HOK obeyed the dictates of Rockies management and added another 6,000 revenue-generating seats to Coors Field to bring the total to 50,200, cavernizing the place in the process. Intimacy was quickly sacrificed for dollars in the Ballpark in Arlington, where the Texas Rangers play, and the new Comiskey Park. Designed by David Schwarz, the Ballpark in Arlington places the first-row upper-deck seats an astonishing 176 feet from home. And at the HOK-designed Comiskey Park in Chicago, the skankiest of the new ballparks with two tiers of skyboxes, the distance between home and the first row is greater than it was from home to the last upper-deck seat in old Comiskey. Stadium architect Philip Bess calls these monstrosities "Mallparks."

If Giants President Peter Magowan wants to put the first-row upper deck on a barge, and can pay for it, let him. Just don't let him call China Basin intimate.

The $250 million question is, "Can the Giants afford the ballpark?" It's a question the boosterish Chronicle and Examiner have skirted. Apparently, the team believes it must afford the park in order to remain competitive. Financial World magazine's review of baseball revenues and expenses published last May asserted that the Giants earned average revenues in 1994 ($63.4 million) but lost more ($8.7 million) than all but five teams. (The magazine extrapolated the data from the strike-shortened 1994 season to create numbers representing an entire season.) In the fan-rebellion season of 1995, the Giants claimed losses of $22 million.

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