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Staying on the cutting edge at Camden Yards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards was considered on the cutting edge of ballparks and heralded a new era of the baseball industry when it opened in 1992. But it’s now Major League Baseball’s 10th-oldest ballpark, and the state of the art has changed in those 19 years.

Maryland Stadium Authority officials and the Orioles are looking ahead to some of the necessary changes so that Camden Yards will continue to be seen as one of the best ballparks in baseball — even as it enters middle age.

Janet Marie Smith, vice president of development and planning for the Orioles, recently came back to the team after working on renovations for Boston’s Fenway Park.

“We’ve tried to tweak to change with the times,” Smith said, “while not losing the postcard view and overall aesthetic that made Camden Yards so popular to begin with.”

The past two decades have seen a wave of ballparks built that were similar to Camden Yards — all traditional, old-fashioned ballparks with modern amenities. Going in a different direction than the multipurpose ballparks of the 1970s, Camden Yards recalled the style of the jewel box ballpark. The aesthetics also shifted to an older, turn-of-the-century style, with softer colors, bricks, stone and exposed steel. While the style was more retro, Camden Yards was built with all the luxuries of the newer parks, such as luxury boxes, more restrooms and concession areas, as well as covered concourses that were open to the field.

Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston were among the older inspirations for Camden Yards, as was Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which former Orioles President Larry Lucchino had visited as a child and later envisioned as part of Camden’s design. Forbes Field, a three-tiered steel stadium, was home to the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1909 to 1970. It was Lucchino — now president of the Boston Red Sox — who fought for the old-fashioned style in Baltimore.

Camden Yards inspired the 18 ballparks that came after it: all were either built or renovated in a retro style.

The trend all but eliminated the concrete multipurpose stadiums of the 1960s and 1970s that made architects and baseball fans cringe. Those stadiums were circular structures, made entirely of concrete, and were built to house both baseball and football teams.

(Memorial Stadium, which was built in 1922 and renovated in 1950, housed both the Orioles and the Colts. Its columns, which supported the upper deck, obstructed the view from many lower-level seats.)

But now that the trend of retro ballparks has slowed, the next step in stadium innovation is to find another way to attract visitors for more than just a ballgame.

Increasing revenues

“How do we increase the revenues?” said Dan Meis, an architect for Populous, once known as Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum P.C. Sports Facilities Group Inc. HOK was the architectural firm that designed Camden Yards, though Meis did not work on the ballpark.

“There has to be another reason for visitors to come here rather than just stay at home and watch it on TV, or spend their dollars in other ways,” Meis said.

Staples Center in Los Angeles, home to the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, and Safeco Field in Seattle have been two of Meis’ recent projects. Safeco opened in 1999 and features a retractable roof as well as technology that enables spectators to order food for delivery to their seats from their cellphones or Nintendo DS devices.

Social media has also changed the way Meis looks at the experience of going to a ballpark: now, entertainment venues need to be more interactive for visitors. Technology that allows visitors to interact with the game — checking statistics at the touch of a button, for example — is a way Meis said fans can interact with a stadium.

Ballparks are evolving from the clean and modern simplification that marked Camden Yards’ design. Local culture and design are being incorporated into the style and architecture of newer parks.

Detroit’s Comerica Park includes a huge tiger statue outside the park. The new Yankee Stadium’s “Great Hall” concourse features banners of Yankee legends.

Those types of flourishes and tributes to team history are what Smith said she hopes to emulate in the coming years at Camden Yards, where decorating of the park in 1992 was never finished. Finishing the concourse by covering the floors and sprucing up the finish of the walls is another item on the wish list, she said.

“I think some of those things we’ll look at are just long-term maintenance issues that need to be addressed,” Smith said. “And instead of just doing a one-for-one fix, where we can upgrade, we will.”

Smaller parks

Ballparks have gotten smaller in the 19 years since Camden Yards opened, for greater intimacy. The current work at Camden Yards will reduce its capacity to 45,971, down from 48,290. But even so, 21 of out of the league’s 30 ballparks have fewer seats.

And many stadiums have amenities and elements that make fans more comfortable, like heated viewing areas, heated seats, more legroom, and variety in menu offerings beyond calorie-laden ballpark staples.

This year’s changes at Camden Yards are part of a $30 million, three-year renovation project taken on by the Maryland Stadium Authority, which oversaw and paid for construction of the park. The seats in the lower-level seating bowl have been replaced, new concessions and equipment were installed, and more open, bar-like seating areas were added to an expanded club level.

“It’s important for facilities to evolve like this,” said Ben Barnert, one of the architects from Populous who worked on the original construction of Camden Yards. “It’s not much more different than your restaurants — every four or five or six years, they close and reopen. You have to add or modify something different that keeps the fans’ attention.”

Giving the ballparks a more social, collective area has also become trendy. For example, Petco Park in San Diego, which opened in 2004, has a sand pit and a grass-covered knoll where seating is unassigned.

And at the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, which opened in 2006, and Petco, family-friendly spaces have been created so parents can take children who can’t sit through an entire game to play at batting cages or on video games, and enjoy other kids’ attractions.

Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, MLB’s largest and third-oldest ballpark (behind Wrigley and Fenway), underwent renovations before celebrating its 50th year since opening in 1962. The largest of the improvements was replacing nearly all of the seats in the stadium, which had been installed in the mid-1970s and helped give the stadium a “space age” look.

The seats installed in 2005 were in the original color scheme of yellow, light orange, turquoise and sky blue. Its video displays, entrance to the grand plaza and baseline- seating sections were all improved as well, keeping the stadium fresh.

Electronic options

“Stadiums will have more electronic options available to fans going forward,” said Andrew S. Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. “They’re going to be much more wired than Camden Yards is now.”

The new Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009, is filled with fiber-optic cable, and most ballparks have upgraded their scoreboards, deck-front ribbon displays and screens to high-definition models.

As for the next wave of stadium construction trends, Zimbalist said he’s not sure what will be the next Camden Yards, or when. With the price of stadiums soaring, it may become more difficult for teams to justify building even more expensive homes, he said.

“The typical stadium boom is said to last for about 30 years,” Zimbalist said. “But I’m not sure that sometime in the end of this decade that we’ll see another team come forward and do what Camden did.”