Royal Athletic Park - The Often Overlooked City Jewel
When you visit cities around North America, you may see some massive sports complexes in a downtown like those in Vancouver. For the most part though, large sports fields sit outside of downtown cores with people driving to them. Even more rare than the downtown stadium is one that has been well woven into the urban fabric of the city. In Victoria, I think that we are halfway there, we have a sports field in the right location, but it needs some love to make it shine as the amazing city asset it is, and it needs some changes to make it more cohesive with the surrounding neighbourhood.
Royal Athletic Park has been in its current location since at least 1908, though its current set-up was completed in 1967 following a 1964 fire that destroyed the previous grandstands. For a time it was the home of the Victoria Athletics which for at least a couple of years after World War Two were an official affiliate team for the New York Yankees. Now most people think of Royal Athletic Park (RAP) as the home to our West Coast League Victoria HarbourCats. If you want to go to an intimate stadium to watch great baseball you really can’t do better than a visit to a HarbourCats game at RAP. There are two huge problems with the park and they are intimately related to each other. First, the stadium is only in use for a limited amount of the year and the whole place needs a massive redevelopment to make it an attractive place for people to go to watch a game and feel like it is more a part of the community.
As it is right now there are only two real things that I can think of that happen at RAP, the HarbourCats and the Great Canadian Beer Festival. Last year there was also the Rifflandia concert but that has been cancelled going forward. In previous years the stadium was home to the Victoria United Soccer team and the Victoria Rebels Football team. Both of those teams have been gone from the stadium for many years at this point.
To be clear, I think that the HarbourCats are a great tenant. They have done more to turn RAP around and improve upon it than any other team has in at least the last 25 years, but when it comes down to it they have about 30 home games a year from June to August. For the other nine months of the year the park sits empty. One of the best things about having a team like the HarbourCats is that they add colour to the community and strengthen social ties. Compared to a lot of things, the cost of going to a baseball game like this is cheap and it is great entertainment. So how do we make more of that happen throughout the year?
Compared to a lot of stadiums RAP has the benefit of being able to hold more then one kind of team. The place can be set-up to accommodate baseball, soccer, football, field hockey and pretty much any other field sport. But still, the stadium is now only home to one team that plays for just a few weeks in the summer. I think that a major reason for this is the state that the city has let the stadium get to. While the design may have been iconic at the time, the concrete is cracked, the seating is terrible, though some of the improvements that the HarbourCats have made have made it better for baseball. Despite its modernist look, I actually think that we should be planning a complete redo of the entire place. Any change this big should hopefully be done in conjunction with a new team making the stadium home. I also think that there is a unique opportunity to create some stunning urban spaces and make RAP actually a cohesive part of the North Park Village. So how would we do that?
As you know, I was recently down in San Diego which is home to the Petco Field, home of the Padres. Now just before everyone loses it, I am not suggesting anything at that scale, but one of the most amazing things about this park, especially as you approach it from the north through the Gaslamp Quarter is that the built form is cohesive pretty much right up to the field. One evening we went into a brewpub that felt like it was still part of the city, but at the same time you could clearly see the field. Imagine replacing the current large grandstand with a building that had grandstand seating on the side facing the field while incorporating ground floor commercial and potentially some community space along Caledonia or Cook. The great thing is that you could do this and not lose out on much seating for a baseball season. If you staged each part as a separate building, once the first one was done you could start on the second building and replace the baseball grandstand. As required you could add more buildings as the demand increased and of course for the games you would have seats actually pleasant to sit in.
I think that what we want to avoid is having any more sports teams setting down roots in the Westshore. I may be in the minority but while I would love to see the very new Pacific FC play, I will never drive out to Langford to do so. We need to ensure that teams like this choose to be where the largest population can easily access the game and not necessarily rely on driving to the game.
I think that there is an opportunity to have a fall football team or a spring soccer team play at RAP and this could really make this space work for everyone in the city. I also would really like to see some more community sports using the space on days that it would otherwise be vacant. What do you think? Would you like a new and improved RAP or would you rather see it moved elsewhere?