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It's Work Before Play For Baseball at RFK

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page C01

More than 340 detailed drawings have been developed to guide the renovation of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium for the Washington Nationals. But on a recent day, architect Lane Welter improvised when the chief groundskeeper asked how close the bullpens should be to the outfield wall.

"I told him: 'Whatever you think is best. I trust your judgment,' " Welter said.

"We're doing 12 months of design and construction in three months," says Lane Welter, architect for the $18.5 million renovation of the stadium. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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Suffice it to say that some decisions are being made on the fly as contractors race to complete an $18.5 million facelift by April 3, when the Nationals take the field for an exhibition game. Among the hundreds of tasks, seats are being moved, dugouts expanded, field irrigation laid and a new owners' box constructed.

"We're doing 12 months of design and construction in three months," Welter said.

In the locker room, slated for a paint job and new carpet, handwritten instructions have been scribbled directly onto aging metal lockers. "Top shelf goes here," says one note, with an arrow pointing upward.

"Some of the people in the industry thought we were crazy for taking this on," said Welter, who works for HNTB Architecture, which was chosen by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission as part of a renovation team that includes New York-based Turner Construction and Chicago White Sox chief groundskeeper Roger Bossard.

Built 44 years ago, RFK was once a state-of-the-art multipurpose sports facility, home to the Senators baseball team and the Redskins football team. But the former left in 1971 and the latter in 1996. Since then, the stadium has stood largely empty except for a couple of dozen soccer games per year.

Now the building will be restored to a reasonable facsimile of its former glory, with red-white-and-blue bunting and banners, concessions, a Diamond Club for season ticket holders and a lush green playing field. But Lane and Hamilton O'Dunne, HNTB's principal architect, acknowledged that because of cost and time constraints, the stadium will not feel "plush." There will be no luxury boxes.

The Hall of Stars, a second tier beam covered with a ring of large placards featuring the names of Harmon Killebrew, Art Monk and other legendary Washington athletes, will likely be moved to the top tier beam, officials said. When Nationals fans glance at the second tier, they will see team-purchased electronic "ribbon boards" featuring game scores and advertisements.

Major hurdles remain before the stadium can present itself for the more than 43,000 fans and dignitaries expected to watch the first regular-season home game April 14 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The capacity for baseball crowds will be far lower than the 56,000 for football because bleacher seats that had been installed for Redskins games have been removed.

"We're operating in a glass boat: Everybody is watching us," said sports commission Chief Executive Allen Y. Lew, who is overseeing the renovation.

Top challenges for contractors include: building a mechanized system to move thousands of seats back and forth along the third base line and into left field for the Nationals and D.C. United, whose games require different configurations; turning an empty hallway into a shower area and bathroom for the visiting team's locker room; and reconfiguring a press box from which it is difficult to see high fly balls because of the overhanging upper deck.

While Lew already is anticipating overtime shifts to meet the deadline, extended bad weather could pose delays and strain the already tight budget.

Although the Nationals' colors are red, white and blue, the RFK seats -- which are orange in the lower section and Redskins burgundy and gold in the upper levels -- will not be repainted because most are made of a plastic that does not take paint well. About 800 premium seats on the mezzanine level might have special covers added, however. Concourses will be painted only if there is time and enough money.

The original stadium featured four locker rooms. The renovation plan is to keep one for D.C. United and expand another for the visiting team. The other two would be combined for the Nationals, who also will get an expanded 56-foot dugout, compared with the visiting team's 45-foot dugout. The disparity of the dugouts was not intentional but due to space differences on the two sides of the field, Lane said.

"We're trying to use as much of the old space as possible because of cost concerns," Lane said. "The overall footprint will be like it was in the 1960s."

Although the D.C. Council did not approve the financing package until last month, Lew authorized planning and design work shortly after his arrival in November. A bigger problem came when Major League Baseball promised the April 3 exhibition game, which will raise money for a charitable foundation for the city. The game will mean that Lew has 11 fewer days to complete the renovation.

"Realistically, it means we have to finish by late March," Lew said. But Lane had a different take: "Up to Opening Day, we'll still be tweaking."

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