Southwest University Park

Southwest University Park: A Grand Slam for El Paso


Location: El Paso, TX
Owner: Mountain Star Sports, City of El Paso
Size: 6 acres
Seats: 9,500
Expertise: Structural, Civil, and Traffic Engineering
Architects: Populous / MNK Architects
Certification: LEED® Gold    
Awards: Project of the Year, ENR Texas & Louisiana
Structures Project of the Year ($25-$75 million), Texas Chapter, American Public Works Association
Ballpark of the Year, 2014, Ballpark Digest 
2015 ACEC Texas Engineering Excellence Award Gold Medal
2015 ACEC Engineering Excellence Award National Honor Award (Top 24 Projects in Nation)

At the start of the 2015 season, the El Paso Chihuahuas of the AAA Minor League (MiLB) were one year old and sporting a fresh new stadium in their hometown of El Paso, Texas. The Chihuahuas not only have what Joe Mock of calls an “exemplary ballpark” but also one of the first two LEED Gold certified ballparks in the country – and the only such ballpark in the Minor League.

The Chihuahua’s have started life with momentum. Winning has something to do with this. So does the ballpark. It was designed by Populous, who brought Walter P Moore in to provide multiple engineering services.

Part of the Game
Mountain Star Sports Group and the City of El Paso chose a site in downtown El Paso intended to boost development in the city’s CBD. And it has. But while it was ideally suited for that, there were some less than ideal building conditions.

For starters, the site was slightly less than six acres, tight for a ballpark, even a Minor League one. It also was irregularly shaped. Worse, it sloped steeply. And its boundaries were constrained, particularly on the south. Here, 160 feet from where the new stadium’s home plate would be, stood a massive concrete retaining wall. It separated the edge of the site’s outfield from the Bataan Memorial Trainway. Twenty-two feet, on the other side of this wall, lay multiple railroad tracks (including Union Pacific’s main line from Los Angeles to Florida). It is a busy corridor that’s been in place for a very long time.  

Then there were underground utilities. Among them, running more or less parallel to the retaining wall, 15 feet below grade, is an 84” diameter storm sewer. Immediately above it is where the grandstand was to be located.

Now add to the mix an unusually short timeframe (18-months for design, construction, and demolition of the old, abandoned City Hall). Furthermore, the 2014 season opening left us with no wiggle room. From every angle, the project was rife with challenge. But then, in baseball, rising to the occasion is part of the game. At least the engineering challenges were familiar.

The ballpark completely filled its site. The Bataan Memorial Trainway retaining wall loomed large in our initial planning. Since it couldn’t handle added load, we designed a foundation system that used 80 foot deep augercast piles to support the grandstand. Furthermore, a line of columns nearest the trainway were situated directly over the retaining wall’s horizontal concrete foot. To accommodate the required piers, it was necessary to drill through this footing (with a custom-designed drill bit). The top 30 feet of the piers were then encased in steel jackets of salvaged oil field drilling pipe and concrete was poured into the jackets. This approach avoided placing any additional loads on the soil behind the retaining wall. It also saved substantial cost and time by eliminating extensive excavation.

Access to the ballpark was another major concern, especially for the client. Parking garages in the area were plentiful, so we elected not to build a dedicated garage, saving both time and money.  To get the most from the small site, we reduced the width of adjacent streets and their rights-of-way. Our traffic studies confirmed that shared pedestrian-vehicle arteries not only could handle game day traffic (including regular traffic) around the stadium but also would create a more intimate and friendly environment.

This led us to engineer Texas’ first modern “woonerf," a curb-less drivable sidewalk conceived by the Dutch and referred to by urban planners as a “living street” which uses texture as a way to designate a shared area that serves both autos and pedestrians in the same space. This had an impact on numerous utility functions. We worked closely with the City and helped coordinate the relocation of major telecommunication lines, an electrical transmission line, a sanitary sewer, and a water line.

Throughout the project, we used a fully connected BIM model to inform decision makers with accurate, timely, and literal detail in the planning, communications, coordination, approvals, and solutions required. BIM also made it possible to elicit distinct solutions to complex technical designs. That, in turn, helped keep the project moving forward and on schedule.

For all of its challenges, Southwestern University Park has surpassed expectations. In their first year, the Chihuahuas played before record crowds, with 48 sellouts in their first 68 games, attendance levels virtually unmatched in the minors. They and their ballpark took the challenge and proved that nothing’s too big to take on. We get that.  But perhaps an MLB scout’s characterization sums things up best: “What personality! There is no minor league ballpark that I have visited that has more.”