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Architects Promise Visionary D.C. Ballpark

HOK Sport Considers Such Encompassing Themes as 'Transparency of Democracy' for Design

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page B01

The nation's leading sports architecture firm won the design contract yesterday for a Washington baseball stadium on the Anacostia waterfront that the company maintains will "change the paradigm of ballparks."

The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission awarded the $18.6 million contract to HOK Sport, the Kansas City, Mo.-based division of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum that has designed or collaborated on 12 of the 17 major league baseball stadiums that have opened since 1990. The company, one of eight firms competing for the contract, submitted a bid that was $4 million less than those of the two other finalists .

Joseph Spear, lead architect for the winning firm on the stadium project, has mentioned encompassing themes such as the "transparency of democracy." (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

"They saw this as an ideal chance to change the paradigm of ballparks. They were emphatic about that," said Claude Bailey, a sports commission lawyer who led a six-member search committee. "They want to do something new and creative and yet consistent with Washington architecture."

The choice of architect has been of paramount importance for city leaders, who expect the ballpark to help spark economic redevelopment of a blighted area. Furthermore, a ballpark must open within three years -- a tight time frame according to industry sources -- and within the $535 million budget authorized by the D.C. Council. A report this week from the city's chief financial officer said the price of the ballpark and related infrastructure and land costs could swell to $581 million.

Joseph Spear, who will act as lead designer for HOK, said the firm had no specific designs for the stadium. In his pitch to the sports commission, Spear said he and partner Earl Santee suggested overarching themes, including taking into account Pierre L'Enfant's design of the city and using glass as a predominant material to suggest the "transparency of democracy." But nothing has been decided yet.

"We want this to be timeless, something that looks as good in 20 years as it does today," Spear said.

City leaders have said they want a forward-looking ballpark that does not mimic the brick throwback model popularized by Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, also designed by HOK Sport.

The city estimated the cost of an architect at $20 million before soliciting bids. Although the sports commission delayed the final selection for several weeks, HOK was the favorite of all search committee members from the start, said sports commission Chief Executive Allen Y. Lew. The committee's recommendation was unanimous.

"No question, they are dominant in the industry," Lew said of HOK. "They have a proven track record, and they earned it. We do not have time for trial and error here."

HOK, along with local partner Devrouax & Purnell, will set up an office at the stadium site near the Navy Yard and South Capitol Street in Southeast.

The firm will seek input from city planners, Major League Baseball and the community. Lew said he is considering appointing an advisory committee of industry experts and hiring a consultant to help guide the process.

Some industry sources have complained that HOK's domination in stadium design -- which extends to football and other sports -- is largely due to the fear of both cities and sports teams to take chances on other firms that have less sports experience but could be more creative.

With about 350 employees, including branches in England and Australia, HOK is one of the largest sports-oriented architectural firms in the world. A competing firm, Ellerbe Becket, recently filed a lawsuit against HOK Sport, alleging that the firm improperly hired several top Ellerbe Becket employees while the two companies were working on a joint project.

Supporters of HOK said the firm is capable of being creative and forward-thinking but is often hamstrung by team owners who insist on replicas of proven designs.

"Like any other project, a lot depends on the direction you get from the client," said Janet Marie Smith, a senior vice president with the Boston Red Sox. A former executive with the Orioles, she worked with HOK in developing Oriole Park. "I think [HOK] would tell you that when they are given the freedom, they can do innovative things."

David M. Schwarz, who designed a ballpark for the Texas Rangers that is now known as Ameriquest Field, said team owners are wary of new ideas because a different look could change the way fans spend money on food, souvenirs and merchandise -- and potentially jeopardize revenue streams.

The Nationals are owned by Major League Baseball, which plans to auction the team to several potential ownership groups.

The District will pay nearly $4 million for a Major League Baseball-appointed adviser to represent the team's interest in building a ballpark.

Spear said his company recognizes the scrutiny HOK will be under.

"Everyone who has been to a game is an expert on stadiums," Spear said. "A baseball stadium is something people get emotional about."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company