The future of the old Tiger Stadium site in Detroit has been in dispute since even before the Major League Baseball stadium closed in September 1999. But it’s now on the brink of its most radical transformation yet — and students from the University of Michigan are helping to shape it.
The Tigers began playing at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit’s Corktown in 1896. The modern blue-and-white ballpark opened in 1912, the same day as Boston’s Fenway Park. They long stood as the two oldest stadiums in professional baseball. The Detroit team moved downtown for the 2000 season, leaving behind a 10-acre field and the distinctive 125-foot flagpole that stands right in the middle of the outfield. After years of false starts, heated debate and protests from preservationists — it had been listed on the state and federal registers of historic sites — Tiger Stadium was demolished in 2009. That wasn’t the end of the story, however. For about six years, a feisty group of volunteers called the Navin Field Grounds Crew, after the ballpark’s original name, took it upon themselves to mow the grass, maintain the infield, and bring the space to life with pick-up games and historic re-enactments. They’ve also found striking ways of documenting the story of the ballpark online. While technically trespassing, the evident good of their loving attention to “the Corner” has made it a regular destination for families and tourists who want to pay respect to its extraordinary heritage. Weddings have happened there in the years since its demolition.
Tiger Stadium in 1998
But now, redevelopment is coming to the old ballpark. It’s a two-part formula, with a local real estate group building a $33 million mixed-use project that will include street-facing commercial and mixed-income residential space. The nonprofit Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL) is responsible for programming youth sports on the original footprint of the field. PAL also anticipates building a 10,000-square-foot headquarters on the western edge of the site. After raising about $12 million of its estimated $15.43 million cost, PAL will break ground in April, and it has said that it “will be up and running in a year.” The real estate group expects to put shovels in the ground late this year.
This winter, PAL consulted with student entrepreneurs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor through its Center for Social Impact, which each year hosts a team-based competition that tasks students with responding to business and urban planning challenges in Detroit. The idea is to generate cross-disciplinary opportunities for students to get out of the theoretical space of the classroom and into the complex, multi-partnered issues in the city, and to do so in real time. Teams are required to include students from different schools; an online team-finder tool and a couple of mixers for students interested in social impact help them find each other. (Ann Arbor is 45 minutes away from Detroit, but Rishi Moudgil, managing director of the Center for Social Impact, says the university “believes in regionalism.”)
Last year, the Social Impact Challenge focused on the redevelopment of Detroit’s old Fisher auto body plant. This year, the question put before the student teams focused on how PAL can sustain funding for the old Tiger Stadium site, long after initial financial support peters out, without neglecting its responsibility to the community, the youth it serves or the heritage of the site. It’s a time-sensitive question: They expect to break ground on the new project in about a month.
The challenge kicked off in January, and the center provided data, research and other information about the site to student teams. It also coordinated a day trip to the ballpark and discussions with community leaders, and representatives from PAL including kids and parents who participate in the program, as well as the developers of the other portion of the site, and the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, one of the early defenders of the site’s preservation. After vetting in the early rounds of competition, the four finalist teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges at the Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor on Feb. 9. The teams had to answer questions from a judging panel at an event that was free and open to the public. The winning team received $2,500 and the chance to have their ideas implemented in the real world.
Andrew Kelley, a first-year MBA student, was on this year’s winning team. The project caught his eye because he has a baseball background himself: In Boston, he played the game growing up and he developed his own youth sports league while working as a teacher. Through the Center for Social Impact’s online “team-finder” tool, he connected with his partners, two public policy graduate students and a third student who is getting a dual degree in public policy and urban planning. Their team name: Eye of the Tiger.
One of PAL’s priorities, according to Kelley, was wanting to stay connected with its growing alumni base. The winning proposal recommended putting an alum on the organization’s board of directors who would serve as a point person for building that network, engaging them as future coaches, and donors.
Another concern was how, after the initial grant dollars peter out, PAL will keep up with the significant operating costs of the site. Grants and donations are difficult to rely on, and so Kelley’s team developed ways it could generate revenue that not only meets expenses, but also creates a profit that can be put back into programming. Kelley drew from his experience working for a Minor League Baseball team and suggested selling naming rights to certain parts of the field, like the dugouts, and also renting out the field in later hours — say, 8 to 11 p.m. — when kids are less likely to need it. Adult rec leagues could bring their softball, soccer and ultimate Frisbee games there, while providing another revenue outlet to PAL. The proposal, Kelley says, was cognizant of making sure their revenue projections synced with operating costs in a realistic way.
The other big piece of the proposal, Kelley says, was “tying it in with the tradition and history of the stadium, to make sure that’s not getting lost in all of the development.” Their team suggested bringing that history forward into the space by, for example, using murals to chronicle the story of the Tigers, and another detailing the history of Corktown. A famous recording by legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell could be looped into the site. Foul poles and other famous spots in the park could be named after old-time players who wore the old English “D.”
And then there’s the issue with the grass. PAL and the Navin Field Grounds Crew have been in disagreement about this: PAL has favored shifting the field to artificial turf, with the intention of maximizing its durability beneath the feet of thousands of young athletes playing multiple sports, and making it usable even on days when it’s rained. But the Navin Field volunteers argue that this amounts to paving over the historic field. There’s not much at the field to preserve at the site anymore, making it all the more important to keep the natural grass, they say, to keep the spirit of the field alive. They also point out safety concerns with turf. One major PAL funder, the Lear Corporation, pulled its $25,000 annual sponsorship from the group over concerns about the use of turf.
The site of the old Tiger Stadium now (Credit: Navin Field Grounds Crew)
“We actually did focus on [the grass versus turf questions] pretty significantly, I think more so than any other finalist,” Kelley says. They proposed using a hybrid grass-turf option, similar to what the Pittsburgh Steelers installed in Heinz Field. The roots of real grass grab onto a grid underneath the soil that is mixed with synthetic fibers. Kelley says the expectation is that it “gets just as much utility as synthetic turf and maybe helps preserve more of that tradition.”
Moudgil says that the winning team “integrated a lot of the concerns [about the site] the best, while also keeping an eye on how the project will benefit Detroit youth. That’s the ultimate goal.” He admires how the team pushed to involve more kids not just in the use of the facility, but in the development of its plans, and how it discussed how the field could be used not just by “old or new baseball fans” but also girls’ sports. “I think the judges really liked that.” At the same time, “making sure that its financially sustainable” was key, something that “it might be easy to lose sight of.”
As for implementation, the projects that the center has participated in before have been slow-burn ones that may take years to see results. This one is putting shovels in the ground imminently. Moudgil says that PAL invited the student finalists to intern with them and work directly on activating their ideas.
While he’s still not quite finished with his first year of business school, Kelley says that “it was an honor” to be able to “take what I’ve learned and apply it in a real context, knowing some of the recommendations might actually make a difference. And the fact that it’s centered around baseball, a love and passion of mine, is icing on the cake.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.