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

Compare this with the Design Excellence Program of the General Services Administration, which has done so much to improve federal architecture over the last couple of decades. Robert Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, used to oversee the program as director of the Public Building Service. "In the federal government, by law you are not allowed to consider upfront cost in the selection of your number one-ranked firm," Peck said. "You pick who you think is the best on design and technical grounds, and then, later, you ask for a price," he continued. "If it's out of line, then you can go on to your number two choice."

At this point in the game, then, the cost criterion is basically a diversion from the main issue. Perhaps because of this, the commission this week cut the point allowance for cost from 25 (out of a possible 100) to 15, according to Lew. Encouragingly, the 10 points thus freed up were applied to the design category, upping it from 30 to 40 points. "At least," Peck said, "they're going in the right direction."

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)

Then, too, the stadium is to be constructed by what Lew calls a "hybrid design-build system." This means the prime contractor, a firm to be hired after the architectural team in a separate process, will at a certain point "own the design," in Lew's words. The ideal is for the "builder and architect to work side by side as the design develops, sharing responsibilities for materials selections and systems," Lew said. But on a fast-track construction schedule like this one, the builder can overrule the designer.

The list of obstacles could go on. (Or, optimistically, we could call them "challenges.") For instance -- again in strong contradistinction to the exemplary federal program -- there are no architects assigned by law or regulation to the committee that evaluates the teams, totals up the points and thereby selects the winner. (Technically, the committee "recommends" a winner. The final decision is up to a city council at least half of whose members don't want the ballpark. But let's not even go there.) Also, the master plans for the site itself and the surrounding area are still being developed by the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., so at the very beginning of the design process, the designer will have very little context or few design guidelines to go on.

What it all comes down to is that there is a tremendous gap between the architectural ambitions stated in the RFP and the potential foul-ups built into the system.

There are, to be sure, plenty of good intentions, and these count for something. Andrew Altman, the chief of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., who, as former director of the city's Office of Planning, oversaw the creation of the farsighted Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, has repeatedly stated his determination to aim for the best. "This is when cities succeed or fail," he said this week, "so you have to get it right."

Lew, who managed the construction of the city's new convention center, defined his architectural goal as "something unique for Washington." As an example, he mentions the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. "That building looks as beautiful as it did when it was built [in 1978]. Its beauty is in its scale, proportions and palette. It's not saying it has to remind you of something Greek or Roman."

These two men could become the key advocates for design excellence, something the ballpark will sorely need as the story unfolds. They've promised, Lew said, to attend each other's meetings on the issues "so that the processes of planning, design and construction become seamless." Altman confirms the arrangement. "That's right, we're engaged," he said.

For the Olympic Games of 1992, Barcelona showed the world how foresight in planning and daring architecture could be fused to advance a city's reputation, economic health and quality of life. In the same year, Baltimore showed the United States what an excellent new baseball park -- retro as it may be -- could do for a city's pride. In the years since, cities around the globe have used splendidly designed sports stadiums to achieve similar aims.

Now it is Washington's turn. Let's hope.

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