By Michael Blanding
When Deena Fox (B’92, EMBA’05) started talking with officials from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) about redesigning the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, one word kept springing to mind: spectacle.
The word matches the USTA’s biggest event. The U.S. Open draws more than 700,000 people — known for their enthusiasm — annually to watch superstars perform at its campus in Flushing, Queens. Recently, however, the facilities have been showing their age, underwhelming both athletes and fans.
For its redesign, USTA greenlighted a $550 million expansion with a grand boulevard connecting two new stadiums. “We thought about other world-class events at this level and what we could do to lift the bar a little higher,” says Fox, a principal and director of project leadership at ROSSETTI, a 100-person architecture firm based in Detroit. Her project management is a rarity in the industry given she is not an architect or engineer, she notes.
Far from being a drawback, however, Fox credits her business background with giving her a unique ability to think through all aspects of complex problems. “It equips you to think through all of the things that your clients are considering and distill their mission and vision before you start visualizing,” she says.
Fox cut her teeth on creative programs at the Smithsonian Institution, where she was involved with several projects including two 100,000- square-foot traveling exhibitions showcasing America’s treasures. “That set a tenor for me in terms of how arts and culture can be such an important aspect of work,” she says. But as she advanced to managing massive architecture projects, she came to lean on the strategic thinking her background allowed.
“You’ve got qualitative project goals, accounting, human resources, the regulatory environment, investment and opportunity cost considerations,” she ticks off — and that’s before even considering the design or experience of the site. “It’s really about taking a journey together with the client and making sure everything in the decision-making process is aligned,” she says.
For the tennis center’s new 8,000-seat Grandstand Stadium, Fox oversaw plans for an asymmetrical, sunken court designed to create an intimate experience, despite its size. With the site’s unstable soils and high water table, the easiest solution would have been to sink huge piles for its foundation. But such an enterprise would have been costly. Instead, her team engineered a specialized foundation system to address the stadium’s challenging geotechnical environment. Designed with an exacting distribution of seats above and below ground level that could maintain the venue’s size and intimate feel without sacrificing its budget, the stadium opened in 2016 to rave reviews from fans, and even more so from players. American Frances Tiafoe, for one, called it, “the best atmosphere I’ve played in in my life.”
With the completion of the tennis project, Fox is moving on to a project closer to home: transforming the former site of the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium into a mixed-use housing development. That project holds its own challenges, she says. Although the stadium already has been demolished, the site at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues is holy ground for many Detroiters, for whom “meet me at the corner” was a regular refrain.
Fox’s job will be to oversee a project that pays homage to community history while creating new residences and a meeting place for generations to come. “There is a lot of emotion and attachment to that site,” she says. “It’s such a blessing to be involved with these projects that have such an ability to enrich people’s lives.”