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A new Royals stadium will be expensive. Fixing a crumbling Kauffman Stadium will be too

A baseball stadium is shown from the outside. Rows and rows of blue seats can be seen inside a curving, concrete shape.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kauffman Stadium sits empty in April 2023 between games. According to the Royals, The K suffers from a myriad of structural issues.

A new Royals stadium has been controversial since it was announced. A location and funding plan is yet to be determined. But at the heart of the debate is a fundamental question of whether Kauffman Stadium can or should continue to be the venue for future Royals games.

It’s been a year since the Royals announced the plan to move their stadium. An official location has yet to be announced, but taxpayers are likely to foot much of the bill either way.

Beyond stadium funding eventually appearing on the ballot for either Jackson or Clay County residents, another question lies at the heart of this stadium debacle: if Kauffman Stadium is structurally sound enough to be the venue for future Royals games?

According to a report released by Populous in 2022, a stadium design firm that’s done work for nearly all MLB teams, The K suffers from severe structural issues that would cost more to fix than a new stadium would be to build. Architects see the benefit of building a new stadium tailored to current trends. While the Populous study supposes that the K is beyond repair, it is possible to renovate.

The only question is if taxpayers, and Royals ownership, deem it worth it.

“I bet if Kauffman Stadium was downtown, we'd be renovating it because people do love it so much,” Michael Gekas, an architect with McCown Gordon and president of the American Institute of Architects Kansas City board, said. “Even folks that want a new stadium, just like wanted a new airport, miss the old airport and kind of wanted to keep it. So there's a part, I think, of all of us in Kansas City that wants to keep Kauffman but also like the idea of a downtown stadium.”

A collage of four different pictures shows concrete cracking and in poor condition over different areas of Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals say it's not worth it to pay the more than $1 billion it would take to fix all the structural issues at Kauffman Stadium. Experts say there are new techniques for preventing concrete cracking and steel corrosion, but it's easier to incorporate those into new structures.

A crumbling foundation

Populous found that Kauffman Stadium had water damage, steel corrosion and HVAC issues throughout the facility. One of the biggest issues presented by Populous and the Royals was Alkali-Silica Reaction (ASR).

Concrete is made with cement and aggregate — in the Kansas City area, much of the aggregate comes in the form of sand from the nearby rivers. ASR happens when aggregates that contain silica particles, like those found in sand, react with alkali hydroxide in concrete and form a gel that causes it to expand.

Put more simply, when water comes into concrete, ASR works against the material and causes it to swell and crack. Dr. William Kirkham, a structural engineer and professor at the University of Kansas who specializes in concrete, says ASR is hard to avoid because silica is one of the earth’s most common materials. Keeping concrete dry helps protect it, but that’s hard to do at a stadium with no roof.

“The enemy of almost any structure is moisture,” Kirkham says. “It doesn't matter whether it's steel or wood or masonry or concrete or whatever. As long as you keep it dry, it's not necessarily a big deal. But when you get some moisture into the concrete, then you start to get this reaction going.”

Populous said it found evidence of ASR on the upper deck front tubs and throughout the stadium. The Royals have said nearly 70% of the lower bowl would need to be replaced. While those issues can be fixed, it would take years of work and millions of dollars to rid The K of the issue.

Dr. David Darwin, a professor of civil engineering at KU who specializes in reinforcing concrete, says if Populous is being honest about the damage, repair might not be the best option.

“I don't know how widely spread that ugly-looking concrete is,” Darwin said. “But if you were told, ‘I can give you a brand new house, I can repair your house. The new house would be more modern, really nice, look really spiffy, and the price is identical.’ Well, then the question becomes: how emotionally connected are you to your current house?”

A cracked concrete ceiling shows water damage and features an old banner that says "All Star Game."
Kansas City Royals
Populous reported widespread ASR throughout Kauffman Stadium, which causes concrete to expand and crack. Fixing it would mean replacing much of the fan-facing part of the stadium.

To love it or to leave it

While some cities have chosen to build new downtown stadiums, others like the Cubs’ Wrigley Field in Chicago and the Red Sox’s Fenway Park in Boston — two stadiums older than The K — have chosen to renovate and stay put.

“Those were downtown stadiums where they were already there and part of that city fabric,” Gekas said. “So they obviously felt the need to renovate those and fix what I imagine were years-old concrete issues as well. That's certainly an option for Kauffman Stadium, but they have an option to look at building new because it is expensive to renovate.”

While economists agree subsidizing stadiums isn’t worth it, taxpayers will face the brunt of future building costs for a stadium that’s all but guaranteed. According to Populous, it would cost $1.072 billion to renovate the K and $1.005 billion to build new — a difference of $67 million. That estimate does not include the billion dollar price tag of the surrounding entertainment district the Royals plan to build, or maintenance and infrastructure costs that a new stadium and district will incur.

Populous declined repeated interview requests and did not specify how widespread the issues are or how it figured its cost estimates. It also would not clarify if maintenance or demolition costs were included in its report.

Kirkham says that if the numbers are correct, the stadium may not be worth the repair.

“Kauffman Stadium, it's all exposed to the weather. So it probably has resulted in more deterioration than you would expect out of a building,” Kirkham said. “50 years is probably a reasonable time to be thinking about replacing it. They might be able to get another ten years out of it with a lot of effort and some reconstruction, but they may not be able to get any use out of it because it gets more weather exposure.”

And while the Populous report tells the story of a crumbling Kauffman Stadium, fans may see something different. The Jackson County Sports Authority noted some concrete cracking and water damage in its 2022 report on the stadium but said it was overall in satisfactory condition. A representative for the Royals said the two studies are different: the Sports Authority looked at immediate safety while Populous examined its long-term viability.

While the stadium, one of the oldest in the MLB, was considered a forward-thinking piece of architecture, area architects think a new one could do better.

Jonathan Cole is an architect and founder of Kansas City-based Pendulum Studio, a firm that specializes in sports facilities. Cole says a new stadium could be more pedestrian and fan-oriented than is possible at The K.

“I've never had a project that the community has been supportive of until after it's done, I'll just put it to you that way,” Cole said. “The reality is you're creating a level of density in areas that are traditionally not already built to a point where they have the kinds of features that you would want in this pedestrian-rich environment.”

A rendering shows a baseball stadium in the middle of downtown Kansas City.
Kansas City Royals
This rendering shows an aerial view of the Royals baseball stadium in Kansas City's East Village, one of the two locations the Royals are choosing from for the new stadium.

Building a stadium to last — if we want it to

Though it’s not been decided exactly where a new stadium will go or how it will be paid for — other than the fact that taxpayers will be on the hook for at least half of it — experts agree a new build would provide more possibilities for a longer-lasting stadium.

There are new materials that help prevent ASR and steel corrosion that didn’t exist in the 1970s when the K was built. While Kauffman Stadium seems doomed to last only about 50 years, the next one should be able to last longer, if ownership and fans think it’s worth it.

“As much as I would hope that a downtown baseball stadium and the entertainment district that surrounds it would last forever, sometimes it’s hard to know and look out 50 years from now,” Gekas said. “It’s less of, materially, can it survive, but after 50 or 60 years, will we want it?”

Fans will miss Kauffman Stadium and the nostalgia it evokes for a different era of the sport. But after a string of losing seasons, Cole thinks that a downtown stadium could revive Kansas City’s baseball scene. Stadiums are built differently nowadays. Instead of a nearly 40,000-seat stadium, a new Royals venue might handle seating differently — to make the game feel more intimate and packed.

“You're rarely going to go to a Chiefs game and it's going to look empty,” Cole said. “But when you go to some other sporting events where maybe the team's not doing that well, the worst thing you can do for energy is look into the crowd and see that two-thirds of the facility is empty.”

When Royals do announce the location of the future stadium it will finally come time for taxpayers to weigh in on paying for it. Residents will have to decide for themselves whether Kauffman Stadium is special enough to pay millions — or more — for repairs or whether to build a new field of dreams. Royals ownership seems to have already made their decision.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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