Bruce Miller jokes he was bound to end up working on a project in Knoxville one way or the other after playing a key role on projects across Tennessee.
Miller, who spoke exclusively with Knox News about his work on a proposed new stadium for the Tennessee Smokies in Knoxville’s Old City, designs ballparks and stadiums for a living as a senior architect at the internationally renowned Populous firm. He’s heading Smokies owner Randy Boyd’s proposed baseball stadium and connected retail, restaurant and residential development.
“We’re always looking for where the ballpark could have the most impact. How could it help spur development and cement the development momentum?” Miller told Knox News.
Miller previously led the effort for the Nashville Sounds’ First Horizon Park and was part of the team the city of Memphis used for AutoZone Park, both minor league baseball stadiums built downtown. He briefly worked in Knoxville in the 1990s as the city tried to find a new home for the Smokies before they left for Sevier County.
Smokies CEO Doug Kirchhofer said the organization chose Kansas City, Missouri-based Populous because the company is the industry leader in sports stadiums. The firm has been hired only to do the conceptual design, though Populous will continue work on the project if it secures the approvals it needs.
Boyd’s plans for a sports development in the Old City depend on the city or county, or both, to spend $52-$65 million to build the publicly owned stadium. The rest of the proposal — a 630,000-square-foot restaurant, retail and residential complex costing $142 million — would rely on private dollars.
Kirchofer said Populous is another selling point for the proposal.
“If you’re looking for some confidence that you’re going to be able to rely on your designer for best practices and for great input, they’re a really easy choice,” Kirchhofer said.
Old City spot suited for a ballpark
Miller explained what he looks for when he designs a stadium, including space, surroundings and potential.
Miller said Boyd’s site in the Old City has enough acreage for a ballpark — he needs 8-12 square-shaped acres and Boyd has 10.9 — and the surrounding transportation and utility infrastructure are suitable.
The most important factor other than space is the development opportunities that surround a park, Miller said. This is what successful ballparks do: they are built in areas that allow for development and redevelopment around the park.
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“I think the site in Knoxville has that quality of being right now the edge, and I think you can quickly see — with some investment in that area — that there could be an expansion of the Old City development to the east.”
Ballpark should resemble community
Populous focuses on making sure its stadiums fit into the fabric of the communities they’re in, Miller said. Boyd’s proposal includes keeping a warehouse district feel to the ballpark, from signage to materials. A key design element will be the area’s signature water tower, which will be incorporated into the design.
“The Old City is clearly inspiration,” Miller said. “I think some of the industrial uses of the site will become useful to us as we develop the architecture … we’re trying to fit into the community and make sure that it’s really a ballpark that only belongs in Knoxville, Tennessee, and can belong nowhere else.”
The Wrigleyville theme is real
The buildings surrounding the stadium would would resemble the Wrigleyville neighborhood in Chicago, home to the famed Wrigley Field and the Cubs, the Smokies’ major league affiliate. Some nearby apartment buildings would be topped with bleacher seating, and adjacent to the stadium would be a fan concourse that reinforces the neighborhood vibe of stadiums like Wrigley or Boston’s Fenway Park.
“We’re not trying to recreate the architecture (of Wrigley Field or Fenway Park) but we are trying to get right what some of those ballparks got so right,” Miller said. “That they are woven into the fabric of the neighborhood and that they are part of the experience of being in the neighborhood.”
More than just baseball
In order for fans to better enjoy the games, Miller said, Populous has to design for less sun exposure and provide opportunities for shade and create spaces where breeze can naturally flow into the stadium.
Separately, like all professional baseball, the stadium has to face the right way so the setting sun doesn’t shine directly into the face of the batters or pitchers. Architects use sun studies to plot the exact direction and feel of the sun at a specific time. This used to be done by hand, Miller said, but now is handled by computer software.
Populous is a major player
Populous’ world-renowned projects include Olympic stadiums and hundreds of major spots including London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Texas A&M’s Kyle Field and ballparks like New York’s Yankee Stadium and Atlanta’s Truist Park.
Boyd would include in any deal with the city or county, or both, the seven acres he bought in the Old City for $6 million in 2016.
As Boyd has it drawn up, the park could host concerts and accommodate a soccer field in the outfield. It would include spaces for conferences and a public plaza for markets and watch parties.
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