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Sunday, September 23, 2018

One option, “Stadium Lofts”

URI report offers options for future of McCoy

The Future of Pawtucket's McCoy StadiumWith the Pawtucket Red Sox’s decision in August to leave the city for Worcester at the start of the 2021 season, state and local officials are now turning their attention to the future of what has been the minor-league team’s home for nearly a half century.

Deciding what’s next for the 76-year-old, city-owned McCoy Stadium may take many months, but a public policy report written by two University of Rhode Island students could provide the necessary research to start the conversation.

Bridget Hall, then a URI sophomore, speaks to a gathering at the Rhode Island Statehouse in 2016 about a public policy report about possible future uses for Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium.

The Future of Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium” was written in 2016 by undergraduates Bridget Hall and Michael Steiner for an honors public policy course, under the guidance of Associate Professor of Political Science Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz. 

The 22-page report presents a full range of options that were the result of extensive research into how other municipalities have attempted to repurpose vacant stadiums, including an analysis of costs and of how those options would work in Pawtucket.

But in 2016, PawSox owners committed to remaining at McCoy through the 2020 season, so the impact of the report was not immediately obvious, said Pearson-Merkowitz, who this April was named director of URI’s Social Science Institute of Research, Education and Policy

Michael Steiner, then a URI junior, presents his research about repurposing McCoy Stadium at a 2016 Statehouse meeting.

“It’s certainly more valuable now,” said Hall, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. “Hopefully our research can help lawmakers see that there are innovative ideas for re-inventing McCoy Stadium that can carry Pawtucket into a new and bright future.”

Options include what the students’ research revealed to be the most common outcomes for ballparks left abandoned – demolishing the stadium; selling it “as is”; renovating it for use by a different team or sport; and converting it into a public park. The report’s final option highlights two inventive possibilities – repurposing the historic city landmark as much-needed housing or as a sports-focused public high school.

“The housing and high school ideas were the ones our team found the most innovative and exciting,” Hall said. “However, it’s not up to the policy brief to provide a solution or even a recommendation. The brief acts as a tool showing the relative merits and challenges of all the viable potential solutions.”

Adaptive reuse of the park, the report cites, can be costly because old buildings usually require extensive renovations, making options to demolish the stadium and start from scratch attractive. But the report notes, “a deep connection like the one between Pawtucket and McCoy Stadium may make repurposing a more palatable option than demolition.”

Indianapolis’ Bush Stadium is noted as a highly successful and innovative example of reuse. Bush Stadium, the home of the Double-A Indianapolis Indians until 1996, was turned into a 138-unit housing complex. 

In 2013, Stadium Lofts opened retaining many of the stadium’s historic character, such as the box office, the playing diamond and field lighting. The project cost $13 million, helped by $5.3 million in grants from the city and state, the report notes.

Redeveloping McCoy into housing could be “an exciting option,” the report states, noting a number of state and federal funding programs that support mixed-income housing developments.
“We’re so short on housing here and that would actually be an economic benefit to the city,” Pearson-Merkowitz said. “We have this example that would save the cultural icon of the stadium while bringing a needed good to the city.”

A sports-focused public high school is another innovative approach, but one that has never been tried. The school could “meet the academic and athletic needs of Rhode Island’s high school baseball and softball players,” the report says. The report cites several private sports academies, including the multi-sport IMG Academy in Florida that, at the time of the report, had 900 students from pre-kindergarten through high school.

“This conversion,” the report notes, “would be an exciting opportunity for Rhode Island to adapt an idea from the private sector to provide a unique environment for students while also repurposing a vacant cultural landmark.”

When the URI report was presented at a 2016 Statehouse gathering arranged by The Collaborative, an organization that connects higher-education researchers with public policymakers, a Pawtucket legislator was fascinated with the high school option, Pearson-Merkowitz said.

“We had a number of questions from representatives at the presentation,” added Hall. “A Pawtucket representative was fairly hopeless about the PawSox leaving, but after learning of all the options, he said he was more optimistic about what they could do with the stadium.”

Hall, who grew up in North Smithfield and frequently attended games at McCoy, said her familiarity with the state and Pawtucket helped her analyze the options for how they would fit with the city. A big part of the early work on the report for her and Steiner was getting to know the city’s economics – housing costs, income, employment – along with understanding the PawSox’s financial agreement with Pawtucket.

For her part, Hall focused on what other municipalities had done in similar cases, finding and researching 90 ballparks around the country that had been abandoned between 1999 and 2014. “It wasn’t as easy as a Google search,” said Hall. “You really have to think outside the box. It’s like being a detective. You have to be flexible and innovative in your research skills.”

Steiner concentrated on the financial aspects of each stadium example, along with researching funding and costs for different options. The pair then categorized the stadium case studies by outcome to come up with a list of options, and further analyzed how those options would work in Pawtucket.

Each of the first four options – demolition, selling the property as is, renovating for use as a different type of stadium, and converting it into a public park – carry their pros and cons, Hall said.

“It was important to address some of the most obvious options,” she said. “Aside from being valid solutions that might prove to be the best options for Pawtucket, they showed that we had seriously considered all options rather than a chosen few. I think the process of considering the status quo – leaving the stadium where it is – and justifying why the status quo was inadequate taught me a tremendous amount about the policy process.”