Close your eyes and picture Chase Field. No, not the interior, with the ball field and concessions, a giant videoboard and (usually) a roof. Don't picture the exterior murals, or its general ballpark aesthetic. Instead, think about the ballpark's location. When you look this way, it's becomes clearer why they might want to change in the first place.
As a fan, Chase Field is more than serviceable. The seats are all angled towards home plate, there's air conditioning, the tickets are usually cheap. It might not be as beautiful as most post Camden Yards ballparks, but the chief complaint would be that it looks like a hangar, not that it isn't safe or a decent place to watch a game.
The Diamondbacks, though, have bigger concerns than just fan comfort. There's an increased interest for teams to have more economic control in their immediate area, directing mixed-use developments that can draw people to the area and get them to stay more than the game. The Braves move was cloaked in moving closer to their core fans, but even more critical for their longterm viability is being in the center of retail and residential components that feed into the stadium neighborhood. The Cubs are trying to do the same thing around Wrigley, buying up parcels and buildings to redevelop the area.
The trend that the D-backs got swept up in was to build near urban cores as part of a core revitalization plan. Stadiums were often used as a centerpiece to improve urban cores that started to decline in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Nearly every stadium built in MLB after Camden Yards fit this profile: retro or jewelbox ballparks near or in the urban core. Jerry Colangelo pushed this concept, and it eventually triumphed over a competing plan that suggested an MLB ballpark in Glendale (sound familiar)? The hope was to build the ballpark near downtown to give people a reason to be there outside of the 9-5 work week, and drive redevelopment.
There's just one problem, and it can be found on a map:
Maybe you can't see it, but look at Chase Field's location, and imagine it in context in the larger downtown area. The dream that there would be redevelopment around this ballpark was just that, a dream. To the east is the elevated portion of 7th Street, to the south is railroad tracks and industrial blight, to the west is a parking garage and then the basketball arena, and to the north there were already developments (the parking garage wasn't there when Chase Field was constructed, but that's not a large enough parcel). Where, at this location, could retail and residential components be built?
Around 3rd Street, and further west, redevelopment could happen, but it's not ideally located to drive traffic back towards Chase Field. The ballpark is nestled in a location that makes it difficult to develop, forcing people to arrive for the stadium, see the game, and then leave. There's no line of bars and shops leading to Chase Field, because there's no place for them to currently exist.
The general area around downtown is not much better for options. A replacement ballpark would need at least 10 acres, though it would be more like over 20, like its current location. There aren't any empty parcels in the downtown area that fit this bill, and the portions where you could piece together would require negotiating with numerous parties, as well as spending what would likely be a hefty starting fee. North of downtown has a certain emerging neighborhood chic, but finding enough land there to build would be a Herculean task.
Downtown Phoenix is changing in a positive direction, but virtually none of the improvements are near Chase Field. It would be a smarter argument to say the ASU Downtown Campus and the UofA medical schools are contributing more to the revitalization of the area, with the influx of young residents that are needed to jumpstart a neighborhood's resurgence.
The Diamondbacks, of course, have categorically denied they want out of downtown, and I mostly believe them. Moving stadiums will kill a lot of good will the team might have, and it will be expensive and time consuming. The stark reality, though, is that they don't have a good location, and they could better mimic the Braves and the Cubs by moving out of downtown?
Where, you ask? Phoenix might have a reputation for low density, but the reality is most of the available, good land is already taken, if by low-density development. Piecing together a large enough site will be difficult, and certainly not near one of the existing retail areas like Scottsdale Fashion Square, Kierland Commons, and Biltmore Commons. But there is a site that has great transportation connections, lots of available land for parking and mixed-use development, and is controlled by a group that might already be predisposed to working with the D-backs: the northwest corner by the 101 and 202 exchange.
The Diamondbacks have partnered with the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community before in Salt River Fields, and the Community has been active in seeking a wide variety of partners to develop their land that borders Scottsdale. Talking Stick Pavilions and various office buildings have sprung up over the last 25 years, and more are on their way.
Of course, just because it makes the most amount sense doesn't mean a deal will get done. The D-backs still have to consider their lease, which they might not be able to escape until 2024. They also have a rather significant debt load related to the construction of Chase Field in the form of IDA bonds. Normally you'd pay off the debt either with the sale of the property or a refinance, but the D-backs could be looking at a massive payment to escape their debt obligations. And even if both of those two issues are in line, it's not guaranteed they want to move out of downtown (as they've said) or that another large partner, such as the SRPMC, would be looking to make a deal. The SRPMC funded the construction of Salt River Fields with debt and their own capital; would they be willing to do it again?
Most of the reaction so far has focused on the improvements, or the physical structure of Chase Field. But I wouldn't be surprised if the real reason for this dispute is because Chase Field isn't at a great location for how teams are conceptualizing their ballpark neighborhoods. Some already have the access to retail and mixed-use developments, and the area around Coors Field is a great example of a newish stadium that has it.
But the Diamondbacks are currently missing out, and I can understand if they want in, too.