With the opening of the SkyDome, Toronto became the 11th North American city to venture into the costly business of operating a domed stadium. Despite the economic risks involved, such structures have become a symbol of urban success and prestige—leading St. Petersburg, Fla., to build a dome even before city officials had secured a major-league sports franchise. As well, the technical challenges involved in building the roofs for the stadiums have resulted in imaginative solutions—and expensive failures. Among them:
OLYMPIC STADIUM, MONTREAL
Ever since construction began in 1973, Montreal’s bold attempt to build the world’s first sports stadium with a retractable roof has been fraught with problems. Known in Montreal as “the Big Owe”—a reference both to its shape and its outsized debt—the 59,723-seat stadium was originally constructed for the 1976 Olympic Games and later used for professional sports and other events. But because of cost overruns, which have pushed the price to $850 million to date from the $80 million that organizers had originally projected, as well as technical problems, the Big Owe has never had a functioning retractable roof. Still, that could change by the end of June.
Designed by French architect Roger Taillibert, the stadium’s roof, consisting of 25,000 square yards of Kevlar, a synthetic fibre five times as strong as steel, was intended to slope from a huge reinforced concrete mast over the playing field to the sides of the structure. But Taillibert’s design relied on hot-air cannons to melt the snow before it accumulated on the roof, and civic authorities decided that it would not be safe enough. As a result, for 10 years fans of the Montreal Expos baseball team—the stadium’s principal user—shivered in the spring and autumn and sweated under the summer sun, while the concrete stump of the roof mast loomed over the facility as a bleak symbol of civic failure. Then, in 1987, the Olympic Installations Board, a provincial government agency, finally equipped the stadium with the tarpaulin covering. Still, attempts to retract the roof resulted in rips and failure— and it has remained closed, forcing the Expos to play all of their home games under cover. At the same time, the stadium has earned a reputation as one of the least comfortable in major-league baseball, with players and fans expressing dislike for the dank atmosphere and cavernous dimensions of the Big Owe.
But the latest effort to give the stadium a functioning roof may succeed. Four years ago,
the Olympic Installations Board awarded the huge Montreal-based Lavalin Inc. engineering firm a $ 118-million contract to make the roof function. Last month, company technicians, after installing a complicated new pulley system, succeeded in opening and closing the roof in a 10-hour test run. Now company officials say that they will reduce the time to 90 minutes by July 15—or pay a $ 10-million penalty and install an air-conditioning system free of charge.
Meanwhile, recent renovations—including a new carpet of artificial turf, 650 additional seats at ground level and improved, belowground baseball dugouts—have enhanced the stadium’s interior. Said Expos president Claude Brochu: “Now it is a completely different place.” If Lavalin’s engineers succeed, the Big Owe could shake off its sad image of failure and start life anew.
THE ASTRODOME, HOUSTON
When the Astrodome opened on April 9, 1965—for the first major-league baseball
game ever played indoors—Americans hailed the massive $48.9-million concrete, steel and plastic structure as a historic engineering feat. With a rigid dome shielding its 150,000square-foot playing field of pampered natural grass from the Texas heat, wind and rain, the Astrodome was the world’s first permanently covered stadium.
The roof, 642 feet in diameter and constructed on the principles of American architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, contains 4,596 rectangular panes of Lucite, an acrylic material designed to allow the sun to shine through without casting shadows. Still, members of the Houston Astros baseball team soon complained that the resulting glare made it difficult for them to catch fly balls. As a result, stadium officials ordered the Lucite tinted grey over the diamond. But the tint was not good for the grass, which turned a sickly shade of brown. As a result, when baseball teams took to the field for the 1966 season opener, their spikes dug into another revolutionary baseball first—synthetic grass. Now,
Astroturf—as the material came to be called—blankets more than 500 sports arenas in 32 countries, including Toronto’s new SkyDome. Besides being home to the National League Astros, the Astrodome is used by two football teams—the Houston Oilers of the National Football League and the University of Houston Cougars. In fact, it is in play an average of 290 days a year for sports and other events ranging from rodeos and rock concerts to
religious revivals. The Astrodome is currently undergoing $120 million worth of renovations to increase its seating capacity by 10,000 seats to 55,000 for baseball and 65,000 for football.
B.C. PLACE, VANCOUVER The billowing white dome rises 200 feet above the heart of downtown Vancouver. Canada’s first domed stadium, B.C. Place was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on March 9, 1983, and officially opened three months later. The stadium’s imaginative and highly unusual engineering design contributed to its distinctive
appearance. The roof of B.C. Place consists of translucent Fiberglas-woven fabric that is puffed aloft by continuous streams of compressed air rising from any of 16 electric fans located around the perimeter of the 60,000-seat, 250,000square-foot stadium. Another unusual feature of Vancouver’s $126million stadium—which then-Premier William Bennett’s Social Credit government built in only 26 months and which was known to many Vancouverites as “the Bennett Bowl”—was that it did not acquire a name until months after the Queen’s visit. In 1987, B.C. Pavilion Corp., a
Crown corporation set up to manage the province’s Expo 86 pavilion, took over the stadium, which has since drawn record crowds for events ranging from tractor-pulling contests to rock concerts and trade shows. As well, the home of the Canadian Football League’s B.C. Lions—and the hub of Expo 86—has proved an efficient money-maker for the province. Last year, bookings for 216 days resulted in an operating profit of $2 million. At the same time, the stadium still lacks an
important asset—a major-league baseball franchise, which officials are endeavoring to attract within the next five years. THE FLORIDA SUNCOAST DOME, ST. PETERSBURG Against a sultry Florida sky, the Suncoast Dome, with its Teflon-coated cloth panels stretched across a supporting network of more than 180 miles of cable, looms like an overgrown mushroom cap. But the unfinished 43,000-seat stadium is more of a huge white elephant sitting on 8V2 acres of prime Florida
real estate—it is a multimillion-dollar home in search of an occupant. St. Petersburg city officials voted in the summer of 1986 to spend $60 million to construct the domed stadium. And they simultaneously launched efforts to entice the American League’s Chicago White Sox, then playing to dwindling crowds in a dilapidated ball park, to move to the area where 18 major-league baseball teams regularly conduct spring training. Supporters in the resort community of 250,000 residents printed
Florida White Sox T-shirts— and Chicago newspaper columnists responded by soliciting dirty white socks to send south. At the same time, businessmen across the bay in Tampa—who were considering building their own domed stadium—were attempting, unsuccessfully, to buy another baseball franchise, the American League’s Texas Rangers, to complement their professional football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At midnight last June 30, moments before the Illinois general assembly adjourned for its summer recess, state
legislators in a session televised live in the state of Florida passed a bill designed to guarantee a new stadium for the White Sox if they stayed in Chicago. Meanwhile, construction costs for St. Petersburg’s dome have risen to $132 million, and contractors estimated that it would take another $35 million to outfit the stadium for baseball—if the city ever finds a team to play there.
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