Steve Berg followed the construction of U.S. Bank Stadium from start to finish. Photo courtesy the Minnesota Vikings

The making of a stadium

Updated: September 7, 2016 - 10:58 am

Journalist Steve Berg tells the story of U.S. Bank Stadium in his new book

Steve BergSteve Berg chronicles the construction of a Minneapolis landmark in “U.S. Bank Stadium: The New Home of the Minnesota Vikings,” his new book from Minnesota Historical Society Press due out Nov. 15.

Berg previewed his inside look at the stadium in a conversation that took place the day after he attended the Vikings’ first game at U.S. Bank Stadium, an Aug. 28 preseason face-off with the San Diego Chargers. A former reporter and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, Berg is no super-fan or cheerleader, but he said researching and writing the new book changed him from a stadium skeptic into someone who thinks the $1.1-billion project is “going to pay off in the long run.”


Southwest Journal: It sounds like the book gets a bit into the political history of this project, correct?

BERG: The book has four main parts to it. The first one is the long, tortuous political history of the stadium and how it — over a period of, depending on how you look at it, as long as 18 years — was kind of a public controversy. I think it was 12 years in the legislature, off and on.

(The book) goes into why this was such a tortuous journey for us as Minnesotans. Of course, that also includes Target Field and, to a lesser degree, TCF Bank Stadium. The needs of college and professional football and major league baseball all coincided with the demise or the obsolescence of the Metrodome over that period.

Tell me how you approached the political history of this project, because public financing for a $1.1-billion football stadium was and is polarizing in this state.

Oh, absolutely. There’s no dodging that fact, and I went into great detail about what it was and what it still is that polarizes us as people. Do we want to compete or retreat? Is it not important for us as a metro region, and by extension as a state, to be a major league region? Is it better to just kind of give a stiff arm to major league sports and opt out, and life will be pretty good even without it?

There are a lot of people who believe that. And then there’s the other side that believes we live in an era when people can live wherever they want, and part of what attracts jobs and prosperity are things like the arts and sports and all kinds of other quality of life ingredients. And for better or worse, the NFL is one of those things that puts a city and a region on the map.

We face a really acute labor shortage in the coming two decades. Do we want to be in a position to continue to attract the best and the brightest and to offer this array of attractions, like theater, dance, a symphony orchestra, a great music scene, major league sports — all that stuff? Is that part of the formula? A lot of people decided that (building a stadium) was worth doing.

For the biggest cities — places like New York and Los Angeles — it’s not that important. They’re major league cities anyway, with or without (a stadium). And the private sector pays 100 percent (of stadium costs) in those kinds of places.

In smaller cities, like Cincinnati and Tampa-St. Petersburg and Jacksonville and those kinds of markets, Indianapolis, the public pays almost everything.

It’s the mid-sized metro areas like Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver, Philadelphia — Pittsburgh, maybe — (where) it’s some kind of a split.

The average for about the last 20 stadiums — that would mean about every stadium built since about 1997, the new era of stadiums — is about half-and-half. And the split on this one is 45 public and 55 private: the Vikings and their sponsors and the league paid 55 (percent) and the public pays 45 (percent). So, that’s a little bit better than average. And that’s how it came out. The market sort of has set that.

Is that the best of all worlds? Is it great that medium-sized cities have caved into this half-and-half formula? No, but the alternative is doing without professional sports. And the governor and (former) Mayor (R.T.) Rybak in those days were convinced the Vikings were going to move.

Even though they never publicly threatened to move, they were going to go to Los Angeles. And look what happened to St. Louis. I mean, the Rams moved. The Rams failed to pass a stadium in St. Louis and they are now the Los Angeles Rams. They’re going to play here on Thursday night.

So this is the question everyone is asking: What did we get for our money?

So, for this half-a-billion dollars that the public invested in this, we got an NFL team that we would not have otherwise had.

U.S. Bank Stadium under construction. Photo courtesy the Minnesota Vikings
U.S. Bank Stadium under construction. Photo courtesy the Minnesota Vikings

Because you think they would have moved.

Oh, they certainly would have. The governor thinks so, the former mayor thinks so. You cannot compete.

Rich people think differently than we do. The Vikings were last or second-to-last in stadium-produced revenues since the mid-90s. They’re just not competitive in a building like the Metrodome.

Let’s return to the question of what it’s worth. The economics of the NFL changed in the mid-1990s when the league discovered that people and companies were willing to spend huge amounts of money to help sponsor stadiums, and people were willing to spend big money for things like fancy suites and clubs and stuff like that. And so it changed the dynamics of what stadiums were for. Having a set of bleachers — like what the Metrodome really was, an indoors, sort of ugly set of bleachers — just was no longer competitive, financially. So these teams, no matter whether you like it or not, everybody was building these palaces that monetized every nook and cranny of these buildings.

If you had a plain set of bleachers like we had, it wasn’t going to be long before you turned into a St. Louis or somebody that the league was going to abandon. The next one is going to be Oakland.

Look at all the cities: More than 20 cities built new stadiums between 1996, or so, and now. That’s the reason. Whether you like it or not, what a stadium was for changed, and if they weren’t bleachers anymore, they were these money machines.

And for their locales — and this is where you get into whether it’s worth the public expense — number one, yeah, you get to keep an NFL team. You get to stay on people’s mental maps.

I’m not a big NFL fan personally, but I was amazed when I went to the game yesterday: 66,000 people in purple jerseys screaming and a television audience that  — I mean, it’s bigger than anything else in our state. I don’t particularly think it’s a great thing about us, but you can’t deny that the NFL is this huge, huge thing.

It also brought us back on the national stage for hosting big events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four. Those are incredibly lucrative events for any city to host, and those are going to be coming up here in the next few years.

It’s really a majestic gathering place for concerts. We saw Metallica and Luke Bryan here.

It’s got school sports and band events. A guy who works there told me there are sometimes eight events a day, big and small, there.

I think there’s over 250 high school and small college baseball games that were at the Metrodome and they’re going to happen here at the new place.

There are a lot of community events. Everything else. Inline skating. People’s bar mitzvahs will be there. It will be scheduled out.

It’s been a magnet for neighborhood revival. There’s been $1.2 billion in investment going into the East Town neighborhood. Now, it’s not only the stadium; it’s the light rail station and the park and all that together that produces this kind of investment. But, boy, anything that manufactures $1.2 billion of investment in housing and offices and businesses, that’s good for the city.

It’s a model for sustainable design, too. It’s going to be LEED certified. There are a lot of good green practices that went into the building.

And then, maybe finally and maybe most importantly, it’s a job-training bonanza for minority families. These construction jobs: (Mortenson Construction) met and exceeded all their targets for minority hiring and for (employing) women, and it’s going to lift several hundred minority families into the middle class, (both) this construction job and the future construction jobs that come after it that people of color are going to be able to get because they had experience on this job.

Those are all pluses that lead me and some others into thinking this was a pretty good decision and it’s going to pay off in the long run.

Was it ever difficult for you to capture the scale, either financial or physical, of this huge project?

No. It’s huge by almost any community’s standards, but compared to other NFL projects it’s not particularly large. And the costs were held remarkably low, considering that the thing was designed during a recession and was built during recovery. And yet the cost overrun, if you want to say it, I think was about 12 to 15 percent. You’d have to check the numbers, but it started out at about $975 million and wound up at $1.1 billion (an overrun of about 5.3 percent).

Atlanta’s new retractable-roof stadium started at the same time and it started at about $965 million, as I recall, and it’s going to come in at about $1.5 billion. That’s about a 50-percent cost overrun for them, and they’re not going to finish on time.

(Editor’s note: According to Atlanta-area news outlets, the cost of the stadium was estimated at $948 million in 2012, but is now expected to come in at $1.5 billion, a cost overrun of 58 percent — although the projected cost already had been raised to $1.2 billion when designs were made public.)

We did a really good job of keeping costs in check, and the team, whether you like them or not, they put in an extra, I think, $102 million above and beyond what they said they were going to do.

(U.S. Bank Stadium measures) 1.75 million square feet. The new Los Angeles stadium now under construction in Inglewood, that’s going to be 4 million square feet. That (Los Angeles stadium) is going to have a retail and office component that’s about the size of this Minneapolis stadium.

(U.S. Bank Stadium) is not as huge as we think. It’s big, but it’s not as huge as we think when you look at it in the universe of stuff that’s being built out there.

A sketch of the stadium design. Image courtesy the Minnesota Vikings
A sketch of the stadium design. Image courtesy the Minnesota Vikings

Its appearance downtown has turned everyone into an architecture critic. What do you think? How does it fit into the skyline?

I was appalled when I first saw it. I thought, “Oy.” But it’s grown on me.

Let’s first talk about the scale. The scale is going to get diminished as stuff gets built around it. The architects expect that this $1.2 billion worth of buildings going up around it is going to be probably about $3 billion before it’s all over. In other words, there’s going to be a lot of square-footage to it, a lot of buildings that will visually reduce the scale a little bit. But there’s no doubt it’s a big, hulking thing on the horizon.

The design. I didn’t like it at first — until I started talking with the architects. (U.S. Bank stadium designer and HKS Executive Vice President) Bryan Trubey is a really well-known sports architect. And what was really cool was (the architects) turned themselves into anthropologists before they started building it.

They studied really closely Minnesota’s terrain and culture, (its) Nordic roots, all that sort of stuff, and came to the conclusion they wanted a building with a sloped roof. It would make it unique and they would also solve the snow problem. (Snow) actually collapsed the Metrodome roof to various degrees five different times, so that was not something they wanted to repeat.

They started by designing the slanted roof, and the rest of the angular look of the building came from that. They studied ice floes on Lake Superior and down by St. Anthony Falls (and) the way the ice comes together and pushes up and makes triangular shards — shapes like that. They looked at that and thought, well, let’s try and emulate that.

There’s not a right angle really in the whole building. (There are) lots of strange, angular shapes. And there’s lots of light coming in, because that’s the other thing: They really studied Minnesotans and what Minnesotans really like, and they love nature, they love the outdoors. Being there yesterday, with all the light coming into the place — wow, you thought you were outside!

They created this illusion of being outdoors while being climate controlled. On a hot day like yesterday, you could be cool, and on a very cold day you could be comfortable in a building that lets in a lot of light and makes you feel like you’re outside.

I think, once I started understanding what they were trying to achieve, I liked the building better.

You got an inside look at the construction process. I’m wondering if there’s something about how this stadium came together that most of us wouldn’t have seen or read about.

That’s the thing: The political history is one part, the architecture is another part and the construction is yet another part of the book.

Mortenson Construction is kind of the big dog here for building big civic and sports buildings. Almost every stadium in the Twin Cities, from Xcel (Energy Center) to Target (Field) to (TCF Bank Stadium at) the U of M, they’ve all been built by Mortenson. They’ve got a great history. They also built the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., so they’ve got history with a Frank Gehry building. Very, very complicated.

They’re a very sophisticated construction company. They build all these things with four-dimensional computer models that show the building at every stage of its development, what has been done and what needs to be done — minute detail, fourth-dimension stuff. It’s really amazing.

They’re very sophisticated and a really interesting company. I was talking about the minority hiring and the women hiring (on this project). There’s a social good to that, but they’re really, really serious about it. That’s because they’re self-motivated. They’re looking out for themselves in the future. They’re looking at who they need for their future workforce, and it ain’t going to be guys like me, even if I were young. White guys.

The population is changing and the old European model for building these companies (is changing). These guys are Swedish immigrants from the late 1800s. Your family and friends get the jobs and it’s kind of a patronage thing. That’s been a problem in the construction industry forever. And now they’ve realized that they need to broaden who their workers are and how they change and all that. It’s really exciting.

So, I think they’re both sophisticated and socially conscious, which is a nice combination.

What was it like the first time you set foot in the completed building? What did you notice?

It was completed so gradually that it’s hard to notice, but the moment that stands out to me was one day it was almost finished and they opened the doors, the five big pivot doors, 95-feet tall. They haven’t even been opened for an event yet, but I think that’s going to happen Thursday night.

This is going to sound really hokey, hokier than the rest of my monologue here, but you’re accustomed to passing through major doorways, just standing at thresholds and having things change. Let’s say you’re on the street in New York and you walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and suddenly it’s quiet and dark. You walk out again and suddenly it’s bright and Fifth Avenue is bustling. It’s a change, going from one to the other.

When I stood in these big open doorways, I wasn’t sure if I was standing inside or outside. There was so much light coming in on a bright day like today and the plaza was also bright. It was a moment of sensual confusion. Am I inside? Am I outside?

I think that’s the real magic of this piece of architecture, is that you, especially standing on that threshold, you’re unsure of: Am I inside or am I outside? It’s so vast in there and so big and so bright. I’ve never quite had that feeling before.

That’s a nice place to wrap it up.

Can I say one thing? I’m afraid I’m going to come across too much like a cheerleader. I am impressed by this building, but I’m surprised I’m impressed.

Maybe, in the best of all worlds, the critics are right. I just don’t think we live in that world.

I was an editorial writer. We love the word “amelioration” — that is, you kind of marginally try to make things better. And I can’t help but believe that, on the margin, we’re better off with this team and with this building than we would’ve otherwise been. I don’t think that’s a cheerleader’s story, that’s a pragmatic conclusion.

Berg's book is due out in November.
Berg’s book is due out in November.