Building on History: From Alcatraz to Dodger Stadium

Dodger Stadium renovation centerfield pavilion derek ohara renovations

An in-depth look at Dodger Stadium renovations from Derek O’Hara, Dodgers Director of Planning & Development.

When Derek O’Hara was a very young child, his father took his two older brothers to a game at Dodger Stadium, leaving young Derek at home with his mom.  They came back toting blue souvenir bats and baseballs with Brett Butler’s and Mike Piazza’s faces on them.  “My first Dodger fan experience was complete envy,” says Derek, laughing.

Derek O’Hara doesn’t feel left out of the baseball excitement these days.  When I interview him for this article (via Zoom), he is sitting in his boss’s office overlooking the field at Dodger Stadium, wearing an official Dodgers polo.  He occasionally glances out over the view, looking at the stadium he has lovingly helped shape for the past few years.  In that time, there’s not many areas of the stadium his work hasn’t touched.

dodger stadium renovations pavilions bar, viewing area ada friendly centerfield renovations
Derek O’Hara stands in one of the new pavilion viewing areas.
Work has continued even after the breakout of COVID-19 with health precautions in place.

Derek’s official title with the Dodgers is Director, Planning & Development.  He works directly under Janet Marie Smith, the Senior VP of Planning & Development, a woman who has helped shape MLB ball parks since 1989.  Derek’s own influence is felt all over the stadium.  When he was brought on as a manager in November of 2017, his first major contribution was in the clubhouse weight room.  Before, players and staff who needed to use the restroom while working out would have to leave the weight room and go up a floor and down a hallway to use the facilities. Derek looked for a better way.

“I found this area, like a void space between two walls under neath the stairs that go down to our weight room.  And it was just big enough to have a fully compliant restroom with a toilet and sink and locking door.  That’s probably the most impact I’ve had on the baseball team.  Apparently Justin Turner was thrilled when they installed it. He was like, ‘This is great!’  Of all the things that I’ve done, that’s probably the most I felt like I actually helped the baseball team.”

It’s Derek’s job to think of these kind of things, small changes that can make a big impact on the way players, coaches, and staff go about their business.  An equipment room becomes a team meeting room, so a grounds crew room becomes the equipment room, and so on and so on, until everything slots in neatly – modern rooms trying to fit into a facility built before the idea of a video replay room or hydrotherapy room was even dreamt of.

More recently, he managed the Dodger Stadium renovations spearheaded by brilliant architect and planner Janet Marie Smith.  Every detail was put through a rigorous process of evaluation and comparison. Most people don’t spend much time thinking about paint samples.  The Dodger renovation team could discuss them in depth for hours.

Making His Way to Blue Heaven

Derek’s path to working for the Dodgers was an odd one.  His first formative fan experiences at a pro ball park were in NorCal, with the then Giants AAA affiliate, the Fresno Grizzlies.  When he moved to Berkeley for school, he, well, he was a Giants fan there, too.  But considering this was in the heydays of Bruce Bochy and the every other year World Series runs, he did get to see some pretty great baseball.

While at Berkley, Derek majored in Architecture with a minor in Sustainable Design.  He learned how to build efficiently – working around existing structures, using daylight, and incorporating other sustainable systems in buildings.  His first job was as an owner project manager, helping to finish up the 2013 move of San Francisco’s beloved Exploratorium from the Palace of Fine Arts to Piers 15 and 17.  The project was a massive undertaking, requiring both safety retrofits and creative thinking to make the century-old construction of the pier work for a modern and sustainable building.  From there, he moved to Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, working on facade and waterproofing designs, some of which were used in the renovations at Alcatraz and the Eames House in Los Angeles.

Despite his success in his chosen profession, Derek never forgot his love of baseball.  While working at his architectural day job, he kept his eye on Team Work, the site many MLB teams use to find new hires.  He originally applied for a player development coordinator job with the Dodgers.  He’d been running teams of people in the architecture world so he felt his skills at scheduling, budgeting, and resource management would translate.  Using the knowledge he acquired playing in a prospects fantasy league with his brothers, he banged out a resume and cover letter, gave his thoughts on a few up and coming Dodger hopefuls (Alex Verdugo’s work in low A was mentioned), and crossed his fingers.  An hour later, the job listing was down, so he thought he was out of luck.

The next day, he had an email from Alex Slater (then the Assistant Director of Scouting, now the Director of Baseball Development and Scouting), asking if he would be interested in a Pro Scouting Coordinator position instead.  Derek snuck out of his office to have a call with Slater and later Galen Carr (Director of Player Personnel at the time, now VP).  He remembers discussing what players he liked and who the Dodgers should look at after failing to sign Zack Greinke.  “I was saying how much I love a pitcher who can play good defense and hit.”

What he said must have impressed them, because two phone calls after that initial email, Derek was hired and on his way to Los Angeles, leaving both the Bay Area and the Giants in the process. 

“Heaven forbid, I first got into baseball as a Giants fan, but I promptly left that all behind.  I’m certainly a Dodger fan now,” says Derek with a grin.

Derek O'hara dodger stadium renovations loge level
Watching the game from the Loge section.

For the 2016 season, Derek was the Pro Scouting Coordinator, working with 15 scouts across the country.  He kept tabs on their movement, what players they saw, which games they went to.  He workshopped new software programs with Dodgers R&D team to do this more efficiently, so the work that usually took a coordinator up to Opening Day, Derek finished before Spring Training.  Because of this, the Dodgers sent him to watch Cactus League games at Camelback Ranch with the team scouts.

He spent three weeks sitting in the stands with the likes of Aaron Sele (along with being apart of the 2006 Dodger NL Wild Card Champion team, was a long time scout for the Dodgers at the time) and Will Rhymes (drafted by the Tigers in 2005, now the Director of Player Development for the Dodgers).  Derek learned so much that the Dodgers then sent him on assignment to cover the Colorado Rockies AAA affiliate.  He went on to cover five other teams as well that season, which meant he got to spend a lot of time in minor league parks, where his love of baseball first bloomed.

Derek’s contract lasted a year, and the Dodgers already had someone else lined up for the job, so in 2017 he returned to architecture. But his baseball obsession was in full swing.  He started a now dormant minor league scouting website, going out on weekends to scout in San Jose and Modesto.  He was going full bore trying to get work as a scout, even had interviews with a few teams.  Then the Dodgers called again.

“Galen, my original boss at the Dodgers, reached out to me, said ‘Hey, I don’t know if this is something you’d be interested in, but I’ve been talking to Janet Marie Smith and she mentioned it was something you might be interested in.’”

He was.  And a few weeks later, he was back at Dodger Stadium, this time as the Manager of Development and Planning.

“It made a lot of sense that I actually had the background in it, too. I got to work with baseball people and kind of combine all of the things I had done before.  So it’s kind of the best of both worlds. I still get to find a way to think creatively.  A lot of the people on the baseball side of things are the same people that I worked with before, so it came in handy when we did clubhouse renovations my first year and I’m across the table from the same people I was before, just now I’m figuring out what kind of training room they want.”

“It’s helped a lot on the tech side of things, too,” he adds.

The Other Side of Baseball

The batter’s eye, the dark area behind the pitcher in centerfield meant to help a batter see a baseball as it flies towards them, is an undertaking that’s been many hours of dialog between those who are building it and those who are working with it.  “There is so much technology in the batter’s eye now.  MLB cameras, umpire review cameras, the pace of play clock, and then there’s Hawkeye for all of the radar stuff.”  Fitting all of that into a space that was once just scaffolding with tarps over it has been a big challenge.  

In some of the original design plans, Dodger Stadium’s centerfield was, except for the back wall, completely open. But before the park even opened in 1962, a structure was erected to make it easier for players to see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. Players later complained that the lights from the cars in the parking lot were making it difficult to see the ball so trees were planted to aid in the coverage, and eventually a lower seating section of each pavilion was also covered over to make it wider.  This new modern iteration includes all of the above mentioned tech, plus a new viewing platform and a bar.

This area of the renovation also included an upgrade to the stadium sound system, of which Derek is particularly proud.  If Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser together are the mouth of Dodger Stadium, then DJ Severe’s sweet jams and Dieter Ruehle’s beautiful organ music are its heartbeat.  Derek spent three months interviewing everyone involved on the project, from the acoustical designer to the speaker manufacturers, until he could assemble a crew that was up for the challenge.  The end result is something truly phenomenal that reaches every one of the 56,000 seats in the stadium.

dodger stadium centerfield dodger stadium renovations, centerfield gate, derek o'hara
O’Hara opens up the gate between the new play area and centerfield.

Another centerfield addition is the much-vamped Home Run Seats, located in the formerly open gap between the bench seats and the back wall of the field.  These will feature a drink rail almost exactly like the ones on the Baseline Club and stool seating in two rows.  Fans standing in the Home Run Seats will be low enough so that they won’t be blocking any views.  They also set up camera angles along the rail, so umpires and officials can get a closer look at any close calls on the wall.

Time for a Mobility Upgrade

The most obvious changes during Derek’s tenure has been to the outer areas of the park. “Basically, every edge of our stadium is being built up somehow.  There’s isn’t a single part of the building this project doesn’t have some impact on.” 

One of their top priorities?  Getting fans in and out of the stadium in volume quickly.

“There’s that stereotype that fans get to the game late, but we know from looking at our parking lot, a lot of these fans thought they got here on time, but then it’s first pitch and you’re still walking to your gate.  We’re not able to build a bigger freeway or do a massive overpass project or anything like that, so it’s about feet on the ground for us.  How can we get pedestrians in here sooner?”

At any given ball game, there are forty to fifty thousand people at Dodger Stadium.  On Fireworks Night or Kids Run The Bases, getting those thousands of people on to the field is an enormous challenge.  Not to mention that in the offseason, the stadium often becomes a music venue, with big-name acts packing people in.  There needed to be a way to update the way fans and concert-goers alike moved around the stadium.

To figure this out, the Planning and Development team started with talking to Fan Services and Security.  They took data from ticket scanners – looking at where a certain ticketed seat enters and when – and did simulations based on that info.  They wanted to make sure the new amenities at centerfield were something a fan could visit before, during, and after the game with ease.  Part of that work was to expand the ticketed perimeter, so that fans are no longer trudging through a parking lot to get to the entrance closest to your seat. “When you got to a game, you had to go to your seating section to enter.  We wanted to change that and make it so that you enter wherever you park, wherever it’s convenient to you.”

Derek is quick to note that none of the ADA parking near centerfield has been forfeited to the new design.  In fact it’s even easier for those with mobility issues to get around, as the ADA parking is now on grade with the new centerfield gates.  There are four new escalators and two new elevator towers with two elevators each. 

“Accessibility means something totally different to different people.  We often think of just wheelchairs, but we have fans with different amounts of accessibility needs.  Even escalators instead of stairs is a big deal.”

“You’ll see an older couple climbing a hundred feet of stairs.  And they do it to get to their favorite Top Deck seats. I think everything from the bridges to the escalators to the elevators is something that will make everyone more comfortable.”

The expanded ticketed perimeter and the new ramps and breezeways allow fans to walk all the way around the field in Dodger Stadium without ever once leaving the park, a feat never before possible since its opening in 1962.

It might not seem as exciting a feat as new restaurants and amenities, but the ease of movement improvements were considered just as important as the new bells and whistles in centerfield, if not more so.  “From our department, we were very adamant that these had to happen at the same time. You couldn’t just build something out there and then shine a bright light on the fact that everyone has to take nine stories of stairs to get down there or wait half an hour for an elevator to arrive because we really only had one elevator on the [public] side.”

Gotta be (in) Centerfield

And what bells and whistles they are: new restaurants, a centerfield play area for kids, a brand new staging area for live pre- and post-game SNLA shows, as well as improved restrooms and viewing areas overlooking the field.  Even more exciting is the fact that planners are working with the city to permit the restaurants and bars in this outside area to open earlier and close later, allowing the camaraderie of the game to linger at Dodger Stadium long after the last out.  

One of the most exciting and unusual features are the new bullpen bars.  Built on the same footing level as the Dodger and Visitor pens, fans can now grab a beer and watch through mirrored glass from feet away as their favorite pitchers warm up.  The bars will also feature glass cases chock full of Dodger memorabilia and history.  But that wasn’t always the idea.  The original floor plan already had restrooms there and the thought was to keep them.

“At one point, I was looking at the plans and said, ‘Why don’t we completely demolish these bathrooms and then these bars could look into the bullpens?’”  

Derek might have had the idea, but it was architect Thomas Quirk at D’AIQ in Boston who had to make it work.  “He was immediately like, ‘Yes, that’s better.  We’ll scrap those plans, we’ll work on these plans and we’ll have them to you in like two days.’ And those bars are really interesting.”

“We wanted to make those bars as big as they could possibly be, so everything is built within an inch of tolerance right up to bottom of the existing stands.  It was really important to us that we kept the original structure of the outfield pavilions.  Everything that was done was built around, within, or interacting with the existing structure. We kept the existing steel, we kept the existing concrete, we kept the existing benches and built everything new around it.”

That’s right.  Those wooden bench seats that have held millions of Los Angeleno derrieres over the decades were meticulously marked and labeled before removal so that after they were straightened, mended, painted, and weatherproofed, every single board went back into place.  It was all part of a very concentrated effort to not mess with magic.  Derek is well aware of that special energy that permeates the pavilions, the good-natured heckling, the large groups of families and friends, the odd cast of characters that call the cheap seats their home.

“The pavilion has that energy in the ballpark,” says Derek, smiling.  “I think bringing the rest of the ballpark in, around, and through the pavilion…I want that kind of in-game passion everywhere.”

A Solid Team, A Solid Leader

Passion is certainly not lacking when it comes to the work being done at Dodger Stadium, and that starts from the top down.  Janet Marie Smith has proven she knows how to both build and restore beautiful parks.  She was responsible for reworking and preserving Fenway Park in Boston and for the ground-up build of the beautiful Oriole Park at Camden Yards. 

When asked what he likes about working with Smith, Derek’s response is immediate. “An awful lot of things.  Janet is incredibly passionate on every scale of a project.  The thing I like the most is if you really, really care about something, she doesn’t mind letting you do it.”  While Smith is absolutely in charge and has a voice on all aspects of the project, she also knows when to let the experts under her take the reins and run. 

“Ultimately, she cares about everything to do with the ballpark. At every level. If I want to call her and talk about a handrail for half an hour, we can talk about a handrail for half a hour.  If you want to talk about furniture, it’s gonna be a four hour meeting and you’re gonna go through every possible material and color sample know to man.”

dodger stadium renovations, renovation team, derek o'hara, Daniel Fetcho, April Alexander, centerfield Dodger stadium,
In early February, O’Hara overlooks the work with Daniel Fetcho, (Design Manager, Planning and Development)
and April Alexander (Alexander & Willis Custom Furniture).

“The best part is that is that it’s never ‘her’ idea.  She always frames it like there’s a best solution to the problem…It’s never ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘I think this isn’t right.’ It’s more like ‘The plaza doesn’t feel like it wants to be this way.’ She’ll give the building or the space its own personality, its own goals. And it’s like ‘It doesn’t quite feel comfortable yet.’”

“It’s a process that’s very ongoing and very everyday.  There’s always constant feedback.  There’s always something else we can do.  The biggest challenge has been when do you stop yourself?  When do you put the pencil down?  But that’s a fun problem to have.  There’s never a settling for anything being only okay.”

“The thing I really like about working here, on this project, is that there’s true puzzles. You only have so many things you can do [in a certain space].  The problem-solving aspect of working with the existing building is really thrilling.  But I could bore you to death on tons of little nuances that were really fun to figure out how to do.”

One such nuance?  The net over the centerfield play area under the batter’s eye.  A net seems like a simple thing, doesn’t it?  Stretch it out, let it catch balls and protect those that might be standing underneath. But the reality of actually putting this net up is a little more complicated.

“You have to be able to get an ambulance through that area, so it can’t be low and blocking an ambulance driving through.  You need to preserve the sightlines of the broadcast cameras, so your net can’t get too high. But you still want it to function well and follow a certain line.  Things like this pop up every day.  Now all of the sudden I had to talk to like five different people about one net to make sure everyone’s cool.”

Another such issue came up around the restroom situation in centerfield.  Now that the bullpen bars were in the old restroom spaces, the plaza and pavilions would be sharing smaller restroom areas.  A long line at the bathroom meant less time with eyes on baseball, as did walking down from the pavilions to the ground floor restrooms.  That wasn’t going to cut it for baseball fans.  So the fix was to create an entire second level, tucked up closely under the pavilion seats, adding a galley way of restrooms just for the faithfuls in LFP and RFP.  Much like the earlier clubhouse renovations, the centerfield expansion is a collection of many, many different parts made to fit together perfectly.

Looking at Dodger Stadium’s Future

Despite the setbacks and slowdowns presented by COVID-19, Dodger Stadium is complete and ready for fans.  The only major item left as of this writing is a set of sun canopies for the new escalators that will be crane lifted into place.  Without the onset of the pandemic, it would have been ready to roll by the original April Opening Day and ready to shine for this year’s cancelled All Star Game.  But that doesn’t mean that Derek and his team are done with their work.

“When we started this project, you heard the word ‘Millennial’ more and you’re now hearing the term ‘Gen-Z’ more.  There’s a constantly evolving fanbase and expectation of what a stadium delivers. There’s always going to be projects here.”

The next big undertaking in the works?  The aerial gondola from Union Station.  “Just doing things to our building, it’s really hard to have an impact on traffic, but almost anything the gondola does will be an incredible benefit to the rest of the stadium in terms of access to the site.”  The proposal is in the Environmental Impact Study stage now, going through entitlements and permitting with the city for approval.  The Dodgers are supporting the initiative led by Aerial Rapid Transit Technologies, or ARTT, in an effort to cut down on game day logjams.  “The gondola or the Dugout Loop…any form of alternate transportation, we’re always going to be excited about.”

The more immediate future, however, has some of these new spaces getting use in interesting ways. 

“The floor of the batter’s eye, dead center right behind the outfield wall, that is an open kid’s play area with interactive furniture.  And it’s all on a piece of turf.  Official artificial turf lawn.  And actually, right now, the players have been using it as a training surface.  In the time of social distancing, players have set up agility workouts out there. There’s hurdles, cones.  They’re doing workouts there while other guys are hitting on the field.”

When it comes to getting fans into these new spaces, Derek and the team at Dodger Stadium are open to a myriad of possibilities.

“We’re trying to be ready for everything.  In terms of fans coming back, we’re constantly looking to the league and the state. We’re going to follow the league and the jurisdictions that actually cover that. The last thing we want to do is not be prepared for something that’s possible.  You don’t want to be the bottleneck on any of that.”

In the mean time, the folks at the stadium are experimenting with simulated crowd noise, which is pumped in through speakers situated around the Dodger Stadium, not through the new sound towers.  If all goes according to plan, DJ Severe and Dieter Ruehle will be using those towers to pump up the players with their walk-up songs and the traditional interactive chants.  How interactive it will ultimately be with the pumped-in sound is anybody’s guess right now.

Home in Blue Heaven

Even with all of the drone footage and cutaways during the intrasquad games, there’s still a lot of wonderful surprises waiting for fans at Dodger Stadium, including a small collaboration with the Los Angeles Fire Department, a new home for the Jackie Robinson statue, and more touchstones of Dodger history both past and present throughout the entire park.

If you look at the stadium as the home of the Dodgers, then the centerfield addition is like a new front porch, somewhere to gather before and after major events, somewhere for the kids to play when they are driving the adults a little batty but the adults still want to be a part of the action on the field, somewhere to relax and have a drink with your buddies while basking in the euphoric glow of another walk-off victory. 

Thousands of hours of hard work have gone into this project with hundreds of people coming together to get the job done.  There’s not one department, from Operations to Player Development to the Broadcast team that hasn’t weighed in.  Architects, engineers, electrical workers, builders, landscapers, sound designers, painters…Derek and his Development & Planning team have marshaled them all to one goal: to make the park the best it can possibly be.

Dodger Stadium has never been more accessible, more inviting, or more ready for fans.  And while it might be a while before we get to walk the new breezeways or sit in those Home Run seats, the inhabitants of Dodger Nation can rest assured that our Blue Heaven has only gotten better and sweeter with time.

To read more from Tavi, check out Women Belong At Home (and First and Second and Third)

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