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Head of Stadium Project Has His Eye on the Clock

Convention Center Job Tested Deadline, Guidance Skills

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page B01

The night 14 steel roof trusses collapsed during construction of the Washington Convention Center, Allen Y. Lew raced from his home in Georgetown to the scene in the middle of a driving rain. What he saw shocked him.

"It looked like spaghetti," said Lew, who was managing director of the 2.3 million-square-foot project.

Allen Lew, head of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, is guiding the renovation of RFK Stadium and creation of a ballpark. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By the next morning, his steelworkers, architects and engineers were blaming one another, but Lew was calm: An insurance policy he had purchased for $400,000 would cover the roughly $8 million in damage.

This combination of thorough planning and emotional steadiness helped Lew open the Convention Center on time in 2003 and will come in handy as he faces his next major task: overseeing construction of a baseball stadium project along the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast Washington in just three years.

Hired in November as chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, Lew, 54, took over an operation still in its first phase. An architect has yet to be hired. Stadium designs have not been developed. And land has not been acquired from property owners. Even the project's ultimate cost -- estimated at $440 million by mayoral aides but raised to $530 million by the city's chief financial officer -- is difficult to determine at this stage, Lew acknowledged.

Still, he professed confidence: "I'm not nervous. We'll get it done."

Lew will be a key player in the city's most politically controversial development project in years. Not only will he serve as top manager of the new ballpark, he is also overseeing an $18.5 million renovation of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, designated as the temporary home for the Washington Nationals.

Although the project is considerably smaller and less expensive than the Convention Center, the ballpark's controversial beginnings have raised the political stakes. City leaders, civic activists and residents debated for months over Democratic Mayor Anthony A. Williams's plan to use public money for the project before a sharply divided D.C. Council approved an amended financing package in December. Significant delays beyond Major League Baseball's March 2008 deadline could cost the city millions of dollars in penalties and cost overruns.

Although he will work closely with a team of city planners, Lew, who is paid $225,000 per year, is responsible for completing the project on time and within budget. But, as he knows from experience, it won't be easy.

The Convention Center, estimated in September 1998 to cost $714 million, ended up costing $834 million, a 17 percent increase due in part to overtime for workers. At a public hearing on the baseball stadium in October, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) railed against the Convention Center cost overruns and suggested that Lew would exceed his budget on the stadium.

"I like him as a person, but you don't have to be a bad guy to overshoot the budget," Catania said in an interview. "What I'm suggesting is that from the get-go, the administration has underestimated the costs because it is politically unacceptable to tell the true costs."

Shortly after his appointment, Lew raised the cost estimate of renovating RFK Stadium from the $13 million in the mayor's initial budget to $18.5 million because he expects having to pay overtime to have the place ready for the Nationals by April.

Lew would not discuss the budget for the new stadium, which was developed by mayoral aides before he arrived. But Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the sports commission, said that Lew told him the budget and timetable for the stadium are satisfactory.

"We're under the gun to get it done, but Allen is comfortable and I'm comfortable," Tuohey said.

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