District leaders have said repeatedly that a baseball stadium on the Anacostia waterfront should have a modern and memorable design that is not simply derivative of recently opened ballparks.
But as next week's deadline approaches for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission to select a chief designer, some architects say they believe the process is being driven instead by Major League Baseball's desire to ensure that a functional, if not creative, stadium opens on schedule in 2008.
David Childs is on one of the three teams of finalists.
The debate has led several architects who bid on the project to speculate that Kansas City, Mo.-based Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum Sport, which has built 10 of the last 14 major league baseball stadiums, has an inherent advantage among the three finalists. The long relationship between baseball and HOK Sport could lead to a stadium that is simply a knockoff of previous efforts by that firm, said the architects, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process is ongoing.
Allen Y. Lew, the sports commission's chief executive, will make the final decision next week after receiving a recommendation from a six-member panel, made up of representatives from the commission, baseball and the office of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). The three finalists have participated in interviews, but specific designs have not been requested.
"Having experience on the sports side is certainly a major element" in the selection, Lew said. "But whether a firm has done 10 baseball stadiums or one is not the determining factor. There's no question HOK has been very popular with many cities . . . and I would suspect that HOK would tell you they can handle iconic architecture."
When soliciting architects, the sports commission advertised that it wanted to "create architecture for Washington that is distinctive and of this time."
The commission received eight bids, including some from firms that had never designed ballparks but boasted big-name architects. Rafael Vinoly of New York bid on the project, as did Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, founded by I.M. Pei, which entered a joint bid with sports-oriented HNTB of Kansas City. Neither, however, was invited for an interview before being eliminated.
A D.C. government source said when rumors spread in January that HOK Sport and another firm, Dallas-based Harwood K. Smith, would not bid on the stadium, Major League Baseball officials pushed to ensure that they would. Harwood K. Smith is also among the finalists, along with New York-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
"This seems to be wired for HOK," said an architect from an eliminated firm. "When all is said and done, HOK probably will be selected, and when they unveil [the design], people will go, 'Man, this is not as groundbreaking' as they were thinking it might be."
A high-ranking baseball source with influence in the selection process acknowledged that he favors HOK Sport because the company understands how to achieve the basics -- such as sightlines -- and is best equipped to complete the $279 million ballpark on the tight deadline.
HOK Sport officials declined to comment this week, saying they were instructed by the selection committee not to talk to the media. But in a previous interview, Earl Santee, a chief designer for the firm, said HOK Sport is capable of iconic design.
The company, which focuses exclusively on sports, is known for such retro ballparks as Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards and San Francisco's SBC Park.
But Santee said a new ballpark design for the Florida Marlins features a modern glass-and-steel look.
"Unfortunately or fortunately, we've been branded because we've done a lot of parks," Santee said. "But we've done [basketball] arenas that are more modern. We do not get complacent."