Saturday, June 27, 2015

About Arnold Field ...

On Tuesday, Sonoma Valley's school board heard from some City residents with concerns that construction at the combined SVHS/Adele Harrison/Prestwood Elementary campus would hurt their property values. This is (of course) a common situation whenever a school district builds the regular improvements and expansions that their educational mission requires.  I think most everyone has sympathy for the neighbors' concerns. But empirical research shows that their fears aren't backed by the facts. Chris Neilson and Seth Zimmerman demonstrated (in their increasingly-widely cited research) that neighborhood school construction actually improves property values. "[B]y six years after building occupancy, school construction increases reading scores by 0.15 standard deviations relative to the year before building occupancy ... school construction raised home prices in affected neighborhoods by roughly 10%, and led to increased public school enrollment."

The proposed sports complex, in particular, has alarmed some nearby homeowners, who focused their concerns on the stadium. But the research, again, supports the District. Larissa Davies, a United Kingdom based researcher into the subject, conducted a thorough review of the US and UK literature on the impact of football and soccer stadia. Her internationally recognized study found that "proposals to locate stadia in urban areas often prompt a negative reaction from local communities, fearing a decline in property prices ... in contrast to this widely held belief, sports stadia can actually enhance the value of residential property ... stadia also contribute indirectly to property value through the creation of pride, confidence and enhanced image of an area."

Arnold Field
180 1st St. West, Sonoma, CA 95476
Image courtesy Google Pedometer

service available at
The neighbors did have an alternative proposal.  In listening to the different speakers, I noted that they brought up more than once the argument that Arnold Field was a fine alternative to a high school stadium.  On the surface, that argument looks good, but as a person who's been involved with the nonprofit that administers the field, and having played on it quite a bit myself, I know that the (generally undiscussed) truth is that Arnold Field isn't long enough to play football on safely, and it isn't in compliance with the law. A football field must be 360 feet long, surrounded by a further safety buffer of 15 feet. As the attached picture (created using Google Pedometer) shows, the length from fence-to-fence at Arnold Field is 116.3 meters, which amounts to ten feet short of the required space for the safety buffer.  The cramped quarters leave no space for accessible routes alongside the playing surface, a DSA requirement for California school facilities.

Spaulding Field
309 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90095
Image courtesy Google Pedometer

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The safe and legal way to deal with that situation is a non-regulation size field; UCLA's practice field is a good example.  Rather than unsafely stretch the playing surface to a fence, the UCLA Athletics Department shortened the football practice field adjacent to Pauley Pavilion by 20 yards (a careful observer of the Google Pedometer image on the right will note there are no 40 yard lines).  By doing so, the University preserved the buffers and accessible routes required by statute. It would be great if Sonoma had the kind of alternative UCLA has to playing on their practice field, but the Dragons can't simply decamp like the Bruins to the Rose Bowl on Game Day.

But length isn't the only problem posed by Arnold Field. The baseball locker rooms at Arnold are probably too small for baseball; they're clearly inadequate for football. The beautiful, pristine baseball outfield often gets churned into a mudscape during football season, and to be back at its best for spring, it needs rest from December until mid-March, preventing women's soccer from relying on it for winter practice. Arnold Field has no track, and doesn't have space for one to be installed. And the location itself, which might have been helpful in Sonoma's railroad days, when adjacency to a Depot could have aided traveling teams, is a hindrance today, when 1st St W jams with traffic after home football games, adding to the already-unmanageable traffic congestion around the Plaza.

Meanwhile, SVUSD has specific requirements for a variety of sports that are consistent with its mission to ensure healthy minds in healthy bodies. California (and the nation) faces a physical education crisis.  Sonoma High's track is in such dilapidated condition that home meets had to be held at away locations this past spring. Women's soccer, whose schedule is planned to be moved to winter, will require a lighted field for play purposes, one that, practically, must be field turf given the sloppy, unplayable condition of grass fields in January and February.  Sonoma High's football team, meanwhile, still needs a safe and statutorily-compliant home field.

There have been some suggestions that SVUSD could "take over" Arnold Field and improve the facilities. That presents a lot of problems.  California educational facilities have higher than normal construction standards, just like hospitals and police stations.  State regulations prescribe that particular elements (things as mundane as the layout and size of walkways) conform to those standards. Bringing the facility into compliance would be far more expensive than moving a fence or building locker rooms, even if the baseball constituency would agree to replace the grass field with turf. And all that presupposes the property could be taken into trust as an educational facility in cooperation with the County.

The truth is that Arnold Field is a great baseball field. Mario Alioto, and all of the baseball supporters and boosters, have maintained it as a labor of love. Their hard work has caused the community to over-rely on the facility, and sometimes to over-use it. Arnold Field should be dedicated to baseball–a move that would be in keeping with the long term trend away from multipurpose civic stadiums to those dedicated to a specific use, from the San Jose Earthquakes amazing new Avaya Stadium, to the jewel that AT&T Park has become along the waterfront in San Francisco.

Arnold Field is a historical facility, steeped in the memories made there.  But physically, it is a product of another time. Easing the pressure on the facility will allow site-specific baseball improvements to be made, enhancing the experience for Sonoma's high school baseball team, as well as the Little League, Babe Ruth, and now the Stompers that call it home.  It will avoid the potentially serious legal liability the District, the County, and even the City could all face by allowing use to continue at a field we know doesn't meet contemporary safety guidelines.  It will mitigate traffic on and around the Square, and will ensure the women's soccer team will play in the appropriate facilities our Lady Dragons deserve.