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Giants Stadium, the Wrecking Ball, and Sustainable Structures

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Like many, many others, I got to see and hear Bruce Springsteen and his band at Giants Stadium too many years ago to count. For his most recent and final set of performances at Giants Stadium, he wrote "Wrecking Ball," a song about the demolition of the old stadium:

I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago. Through the mud and the beer, and the blood and the cheers, I've seen champions come and go. So if you got the guts mister, yeah if you've got the balls. If you think it's your time, then step to the line, and bring on your wrecking ball...

This past week, demolition began on the thirty four year old edifice, joining its slightly older cross-river sibling, Shea Stadium (1964-2008), in the dust. I guess around here only the Yankees can manage to build their homes "for the ages" -- the original stadium opened in 1923, was basically rebuilt in a gut renovation from 1973-1976 and then was abandoned in time for the 2009 season.

We seem to be unable to use these stadiums for more than three decades. While Wrigley Field in Chicago just finished its 96th year and Fenway Park in Boston dates back to 1912, here in New York it's the Stadium Demolition Derby. Why?

In some ways this cycle of construction, demolition then construction is just a symptom of the high throughput economy we currently live by. We don't restore and renovate, we reconstruct. This is partially a matter of economics; the modern stadium, with its luxury boxes and colossal television screens, generates more revenue than its more sedate predecessors ever could. But it is also about culture. Bigger, more comfortable seats are better to accommodate our now supersized bodies, and mall-like shops and restaurants provide that comfortable suburban-like environment so familiar to so many.

I live in an apartment building in New York City that was built in the first decade of the twentieth century. As a home, it is a beautiful and irreplaceable place, with wood inlay flooring and hand crafted molding and walls too thick for wireless internet connections to pass through. It has small closets, designed for a time when people got by with fewer sets of clothing, and a kitchen and maid's room designed for a time when people had live-in staff. The maid's room now serves as an office/laundry, and some day perhaps we will modernize the kitchen. But just like the seats placed on top of the Green Monster in Boston's Fenway Park, sentiment and aesthetics leads us to revise rather then re-write.

Accordingly, the demolition of Giants Stadium is a matter of values as well as economics. Assuming our economy recovers, the new stadium will probably make more money than the old. Despite Springsteen's lament, Giants Stadium lacked both the personality and character that was needed to generate the affection required to preserve it. Even Bruce has come to see the demolition as a metaphor for aging and ultimately does not question the need for its eventual demise.

In American culture it seems as if there is something inevitable about the march of time - this cycle of build, destroy then rebuild. It is the story of a nation that is forging ahead and constantly reinventing itself. But just as we used the destruction of New York's Penn Station to garner support for the preservation of Grand Central, we need to build for the duration and then learn to value what we build.

One of the reasons that environmental protection enjoys broad public support in the United States is that everyone has seen something they were attached to be destroyed by the "progress" of the modern economy. We all have a place where we hiked or camped as a kid that is now a strip mall or condominiums. The un-credited Associated Press piece on the demolition of Giant Stadium included an interview with a local guy who told a similar story:

The only person watching who was not a member of the media or a construction or demolition worker was Brian Moran, a 50-year sheet metal worker who was sidelined with a broken foot. The Carlstadt native who now lives in Hasbrouck Heights worked on the renovation of Giants Stadium, the building of the new stadium and the ski slope on the Xanadu project in the Meadowlands sports complex.

"I hunted here with my family when I was 10, 40 years ago," Moran said of the ground on which Giants Stadium was built. "It was all marsh. We used to launch our canoes from where Stiletto's go-go bar is located and had our blinds in here."

Sustainable construction is more than bricks-and-mortar, although obviously the structures we construct must be durable and easy to maintain. It also involves design, and providing the places we inhabit and use with character and experiences that we treasure and can connect to. It is true that sometimes it is cheaper to reconstruct than to renovate - but that only happens when structures are so undervalued that they are allowed to deteriorate. A case in point is the Prospect Plaza apartment buildings owned by the New York City Housing Authority. According to Manny Fernandez's excellent piece in the New York Times:

Ilene Popkin, the agency's assistant deputy general manager for development, said it would cost $481,000 to renovate each of the 269 apartments. Demolishing the structures and building 361 new units would cost $381,700 per unit. Ms. Popkin and other officials said the three buildings had deteriorated from vandalism and exposure to the elements...

The process that led to this deterioration was a combination of poor political decision-making, social dysfunction, uninspired architecture and mismanagement. As a result, we are now faced with only two costly options, and given the need for affordable housing in New York City, we will eventually see reconstruction.

The case of Giants Stadium is very different: A money-making facility was replaced by one that could make more money. However, in both cases, two structures built only around 35 years ago are being demolished. If we are to build a sustainable city around here, we are going to have to make sure our structures last longer than that.