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Getting Good Designers To Swing at D.C.'s Pitch

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page C01

Unique. Iconic. World-class. Contemporary. Distinctive. Forward-thinking. Representative of 21st-century architectural ideals.

Words and phrases such as these are peppered throughout a document recently released by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission: "Request for Proposals -- D.C. Major League Baseball Park Architectural and Engineering Services."

The search for a D.C. ballpark designer hopefully will attract architects of the caliber of Santiago Calatrava, who designed Olympic Stadium in Athens. (Saitas Pantelis -- Athens News Agency)

This is the 28-page paper (plus attachments) that sets the tone and establishes the processes for designing and building Washington's new ballpark on South Capitol Street.

The park represents a giant architectural and planning opportunity for the nation's capital, a rare chance to build a splendid, 21st-century "gateway" structure near a major bridge and within site of the Capitol dome. And to help revive a river and a section of the city.

Demonstrably, Washington is rejecting yet another "retro" ballpark. But whether we will get a stadium that embodies all or any of the admirable qualities so frequently cited in the RFP, as such documents are known, remains a troubling question.

One reason is the schedule. It is incredibly tight. The agreement between the city and Major League Baseball calls for the ballpark to be ready for Opening Day 2008. To get a stadium built and operable by then means that the complicated job of preparing the city's 21-acre site must begin this fall, at the latest. (The site, bounded by South Capitol, N, First and P streets SE, is not entirely in the city's possession, as of today.) Construction has to start by next February.

A demanding schedule is an obstacle that can be overcome, of course, but it puts pressure on the process at every point. And the process, as we shall see, has quite a few points where too much pressure could negatively affect architectural quality.

The first, and possibly most important, of these is the selection of the design architect. More precisely, the city will be selecting a design team, comprising a lead designer and a supporting crew dedicated to transforming a vision into reality. Like stadium engineering, such teams require precise balances and can be hard to put together in short order.

Usually for such important civic projects, the selection process is a rather patient, deliberative affair taking anywhere from four months to a year. In Washington, we're getting the condensed version. The RFP was issued Jan. 14. Submissions are due Feb 15. Oral presentations by finalists will take place Feb. 21 and 22, and the final choice will be announced the first week of March. (Originally the selection date was Feb. 28. Allen Lew, chief executive officer of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said in an interview, however, that a few more days will be needed.)

Who got the message? That's question number one where such a condensed selection process is concerned. One can be reasonably sure that most local firms and all the big sports stadium design specialists are aware of the opportunity. But what about the "world-class" designers, the ones you'd automatically put on a top 50 list of architects most likely to come up with a brilliant new concept?

Toni Griffin, a chief deputy of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., which has a big say about the ballpark because it will be built just a block from the river, said copies of the RFP were sent to a number of distinguished architects. Lew said he's heard "rumors" about the possible involvement of name architects.

But Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect engineer who designed the beautiful Olympic Stadium in Athens, told me in a telephone conversation this week that he knew nothing of the Washington opportunity. New Mexico's Antoine Predock, a top-50 type and lead architect for Petco Park, the innovative stadium that opened last April in San Diego, said he hadn't heard about it, either. (Predock did, however, enthusiastically ask for the commission's e-mail address.)

So, who know's who'll show up? Only one thing is certain: The wait for an answer won't be long. And then the question becomes, who'll get the job? That always tantalizing possibility is given extra dimension in the Washington case by at least two questionable steps on the procedural ladder, both of which might penalize a brilliant designer.

Like most such competitions, this one is to be judged using a point system. Unlike most competitions whose focus is outstanding design, however, one of the five criteria on the District's list -- in addition to design quality, key personnel, management capacity and local and minority participation -- is cost. That sounds reasonable in a publicly funded project of this magnitude, until you read the fine print. What competitors are being asked to present are fixed fees for each phase of the design process.

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