For 47 years, the Golden State Warriors played in the Oakland Arena, the second-oldest stadium in the National Basketball Association at the end of the 2018-2019 season. The outrageous success of the Warriors—three NBA championships in the last five years—packed the house every night with blue-collar Oakland natives and the tech industry elite from Silicon Valley. The Warriors are beloved in Oakland, San Francisco’s more progressive and grittier stepsister, and fittingly, perhaps, the Oakland Arena was somewhere between a functionalist masterpiece and a midcentury dump, distinctive for its diamond exterior bracing, perfectly cylindrical shape, enormous parking lot, and near-absence of amenities. Golden State needed an upgrade. They opted not only for a new arena but also a new city.
The team settled on an 11-acre site in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco, one of the only major underdeveloped parcels remaining near the famously dense and expensive downtown. A former rail yard and industrial district, Mission Bay was created largely with landfill, including refuse from the 1906 earthquake. The site offers views across the bay of the old arena and, more importantly, of the east span of the Bay Bridge, which adorns the team’s logo. It is one of the more spectacular settings in the American sports landscape—rivaled only by Oracle Park, the Giants’ baseball stadium about a half-mile to the north.
The Warriors and their design architect, Kansas City-based Manica Architecture (Gensler was responsible for the interiors and SWA Group did the landscape master plan), faced a singular challenge: How to design an arena to appeal to fans whose wealth, in many cases, eclipses that of the players themselves. Golden State’s rise has coincided with the vaunted Bay Area tech boom, and the team is among the hottest tickets in town for billionaires, titans of industry, and the stream of millionaires who follow in their wake. At the new Chase Center, developed at a reported cost of $1.4 billion, they no longer have to slum it.
Of those billions, the public sector contributed nothing. Wealthy athletic teams have become champions at extracting public monies for what are, essentially, private assets—a trend that has continued even as evidence has mounted that public subsidies are bad investments. One of the few exceptions is California, where voters have grown wise to the practice: Sacramento’s new NBA arena was also privately funded, as is Los Angeles’s new football stadium. As for Golden State’s ownership team, they apparently didn’t need public help: They sold the naming rights to Chase for $300 million, and the team grossed over $2 billion in ticket and suite presales and sponsorships before the 18,000-seat arena even opened—with a waitlist of 44,000 customers. In other words, that $1.4 billion is already looking like a smart investment.
A Potent Symbol of Late-Stage Capitalism
The end result looks handsome enough. The exterior drum of the Chase Center resembles a reassembled apple peel, according to David Manica, AIA, the firm’s founder. Previously an architect at Populous, he has designed or contributed to arenas and stadiums for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, the National Football League’s Houston Texans, and soccer teams in Brazil, Qatar, Russia, China, and elsewhere. Manica told me he welcomes the NBA’s embrace of contemporary style, compared to, say, baseball’s preoccupation with history and nostalgia. The Chase Center’s cladding is indeed ultra-white and modern, suggesting the shiny countenance of a superyacht. The metaphors get really mixed, though, with the inclusion of hundreds of rectangular slits meant to evoke punch cards from the early days of computing. They give the exterior some visual interest, and they are functionally part of the building’s ventilation system, but the gimmick—too cute by half—will be lost on the average fan.
The center’s most appealing exterior feature may be an entry plaza—roughly the size of two basketball courts—framed on the east side by a glass pavilion housing an amphitheater (designed by SHoP) and on the west by the arena itself and an enormous video screen mounted to the building’s façade. A public walkway encircles the entire drum, sloping downward from the entry plaza through an appealing box-canyon-like passage on the south side and through a paseo lined with restaurants and the NBA’s largest team store on the north side. A series of stairs and plazas on the east side overlook the bay. That’s the site of the Chase Center’s most delightful design element: a wall-length mosaic by the Precita Eyes Muralists, a local collective, depicting the Bay Area in all its funky glory—Victorian houses, BART trains, cargo cranes, low-rider bikes, a multiethnic game of playground basketball, not an iPhone or corporate logo in sight. (Less enchanting is "Seeing Spheres," an art installation by Olafur Eliasson that consists of five mirrored globes that are as brazenly Instagrammable as they are aesthetically dubious.)
Inside, the Chase Center has relatively steep sightlines and a tight seating bowl designed to showcase basketball and enable a few different concert configurations. Manica told me that the center packs far more features into a medium-sized building envelope than almost any other arena. The main lobby, for instance, features a four-story atrium punctuated by space-age, Saarinen-esque flourishes and some dramatic escalator rides through open air. The whole place has a clean, Scandinavian feel, with both white and blonde wood as the dominant colors alongside the Warriors’ royal blue and golden yellow. An upper deck lounge, the Modelo Cantina, hangs over the north-end baseline from what seems like miles above the floor, designed in part to look good on television. Manica told me he wanted viewers at home to recognize the arena, which is no small feat given how similar most stadiums look on the inside.
As much as it is a piece of architecture, the Chase Center is also a potent symbol of late-stage capitalism. The real action is in the lounges: lounges in the rafters, lounges underground, lounges on the north side, lounges on the south side. Lounges named for banks and beer and airlines. Fans with seats on and near the floor no longer just get an intimate view of the action; they also have access to lounges embedded deep under the lower-level seats. Even the average fan in the lower seating bowl can visit one of two lounges on opposite sides of the court, each with bars, food stalls, bistro tables, and booths. One wonders how much live basketball fans in the Chase Center will actually watch.
Especially because the arena boasts the league’s largest scoreboard/video screen, measuring 82 feet by 59 feet—nearly as big as the court itself. Together with smaller screens and accent lighting throughout the seating bowl, it facilitates some sweet light shows, and can be retracted for concerts and other events. It’s so big that the undercarriage includes even more screens for fans in the lower seating bowl, who are probably watching those screens on the screens in the lounges.
The Chase Center also includes the typical NBA complement of luxury boxes, priced at $1 million per season, around its midsection. For patrons who are more social, or who don’t have two dozen clients in tow, the arena includes a new category of luxury seating: the “theater box”. Mini-boxes face the court and include a full buffet and bar and restaurant-style seating where fans can dine without the indignity of holding a hot dog in their laps. As for the average fan without the pull to get into the JP Morgan Lounge, Oakland’s beloved, ironically named Bakesale Betty outlets will likely do robust business.
The class distinctions become readily apparent on the dramatic escalator ride to the upper level—a ride that ascends five stories through the atrium before disappearing unceremoniously into the arena’s upper bowels. Along the way, fans pass the luxury suite mezzanine. It’s an experience not unlike moving through business class en route to economy, as three-story chandeliers and picture windows give way to narrow, crowded passageways with endless vendors and ceilings covered in shotcrete and exposed ducts. The upper level, where the team reserves most of the 5,000 seats for individual game purchases, is not unpleasant—and it’s certainly an acceptable sporting experience—but the divide is clear.
A Radical Absence of Parking
The Chase Center, as yet another billion-dollar symbol of corporate power, has been accused of contributing to San Francisco’s notorious wave of gentrification. That may be true on the whole, but Mission Bay itself was a blank slate—there wasn’t anything to gentrify. The neighborhood now consists largely of master-planned corporate and institutional campuses with medium-rise towers, and the Warriors’ neighbors include tech icons like Uber, Dropbox, and Cisco. It has none of the charm, though, of the city’s dense, historic neighborhoods. Even Oracle Park, just a mile north, feels more integrated into the historic fabric. How Mission Bay will age remains anyone’s guess.
Unlike most office parks—and most major sports ventures—the Mission Bay location does have public transportation access, and the Chase Center, in its most radical turn, boasts a near absence of on-site parking. The Oakland Arena used a 10,000-stall surface parking lot that also served the Oakland Coliseum. At Chase, fans who don’t come by Maybach or personal quadcopter can arrive by foot, bike (with a dedicated bike valet station), ferry (with special service for games), and light rail—a Muni stop rises immediately in front of the entry plaza. It’s the same line that serves Oracle Park, so eco-conscious fans should know the drill.
The tech industry has, over the years, incubated its share of hubris, and one wonders whether the Chase Center is likewise built on a bubble, whether it’ll end up more MySpace than Facebook. Since 2012, the Warriors have sold out every game not because of the Oakland Arena, but in spite of it. Golden State may soon discover, however, that the din across the bay—the old arena was one of the loudest in the league, an advantage for the home team—had more to do with the Warriors’ extraordinary run. The noise may just as quickly die down if the team stops winning, no matter how nice the new arena is or how loud it was designed to be. (Manica said he worked with acoustical engineers to replicate the favorable acoustics, if not the aesthetics, of the old arena.) An injury to superstar Steph Curry has contributed to an early-season slump, and Golden State currently has one of the worst records in basketball. What will come of the new luxury boxes if Golden State loses its touch? Likewise, as invincible as Google, Salesforce, and Twitter may seem today, what will come of all those corporate perks if the Bay Area tech revolution stalls or moves elsewhere?
Many Oakland natives resent the loss of the Warriors and the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, who will soon relocate to Las Vegas to a stadium designed by none other than Manica. The two moves inspired Proposition I, a 2018 ballot measure in San Francisco, which would have called on the city to oppose the “relocation of established sports teams” from other municipalities. The measure failed, 97,863 votes to 130,916, but it appears nonetheless that the Chase Center alienated a solid 20 percent of San Francisco's half-million registered voters even before the first tip-off. Lucky for the Warriors, enough fans seem more than willing to drop some serious cash on the experience, so long as the tech money keeps flowing and the Warriors keep draining threes.