D.C. Ballpark Architect Has Towering Test

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005

Joseph Spear has not spent much time in Washington, but the man who will design one of the most important additions to the city's skyline -- a baseball stadium -- has learned quickly that the city is hard to define.

"It depends on who you ask," Spear said. "There's a federal city and a local city. We are 100 percent committed to a ballpark that represents D.C. What does that mean? Our answer is both. We'll do something symbolic of both."

So on a recent day at the corner of South Capitol Street and Potomac Avenue in Southeast Washington, Spear ignored the rumble of trucks coming from an industrial warehouse and explained his vision for a 41,000-seat ballpark that one day could rise here like a "V."

The facade along South Capitol Street would be built of stone and glass, echoing the grandeur of the District's federal landmarks -- including the Capitol Dome less than a mile north. The other facade, along Potomac Avenue, would have a connected but distinct feel; largely made of steel and glass, this side would be lacey, almost skeletal, and afford views from inside the park of the Anacostia River to the south.

Spear moved to a spot that would be outside the ballpark but near where the two facades would meet.

"From back here," Spear said, "you could look up [through an open section in the wall], even if you're outside the stadium, and see the scoreboard."

As much as anyone, Spear, 52, is responsible for a new golden age of baseball stadium design. Starting with Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, Spear, who works for Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Sport of Kansas City, Mo., has been the chief designer of ballparks in Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco, San Diego and Detroit.

But nowhere is Spear's creativity being challenged as it is in Washington, where the city has asked him to break from his trademark red-brick throwback style and create something fresh to symbolize the national pastime in the nation's capital.

"I'm excited that so many people want us to do better than we've done before," Spear said. "This stadium is going to be very light and modern and different."

On the job for three months, Spear and his staff, along with the D.C.-based architectural firm Devrouax & Purnell, have produced dozens of sketches of the ballpark, which is scheduled to open in 2008. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which is overseeing the project, declined to release the drawings because nothing has been finalized.

"We want to create a piece of architecture that when people see it on TV, they immediately associate it with Washington, D.C., and with the Nationals," said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the commission.

The challenge is magnified because the city intends to use the stadium as a catalyst to spur redevelopment along the waterfront, and the Nationals want to ensure that fans spend lots of money inside the ballpark. In addition, the ballpark is envisioned to be an iconic gateway as motorists cross the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge -- an anchor at the city's southern end that must tie into the monumental core.

Marshall Purnell, a partner at the architectural firm, said he pushed Spear to consider the stadium project from a distance -- say, from a helicopter where one can see the ballpark in a broader, citywide context.

"How does it fit into [Pierre] L'Enfant's original plan of the city?" Purnell posed. "When you look down on it, what does it say?"

The group settled on the East Wing of the National Gallery to frame their discussions. They liked how I.M. Pei, who designed the addition in the 1970s, used a palette, scale and materials similar to the classical buildings on the Mall, yet designed something modern and distinctly different.

"Thirty years later, it's not old or dated-looking," Lew said. "We don't want to mimic the East Wing, but that's the goal we have in mind."

One of the first big questions the group wrestled with was which direction to orient the stadium. Opening to the northwest, which would give most fans a view of the Capitol, was forbidden by Major League Baseball because the setting sun would be in a batter's eyes.

Although some city planners wanted the stadium to face south toward the river, to connect it to other redevelopment efforts, they eventually were convinced that opening it to the northeast made more sense.

That arrangement possibly would provide a glimpse of the Capitol and the Washington Monument for some fans in the right-field upper deck, Spear said. Designing ballparks with a view of the skyline has been de rigueur since Oriole Park at Camden Yards was built.

Planners cite another advantage of the northeast orientation: perspective it would give fans as they arrive for the game. They believe about 80 percent of the fans will come to the stadium from Metro stations and parking lots to the north. Walking down Half Street past a row of restaurants, fans would be able to see into the ballpark because that side would not have walls and the playing field would be depressed from ground level, Spear said.

Spear called Half Street the "decompression zone" -- a place where fans would pause to eat and shop because they would feel they have arrived at the ballpark even though they are not yet inside.

Meanwhile, city planners envision South Capitol Street, the neighborhood's main traffic artery, as a grand, Parisian-style boulevard, widened and ending at a new traffic oval at the river. First Street, two blocks east, would teem with retail shops that lead to the river.

Finding ways to merge urban planning goals with the fans' game-day experience is a Joe Spear specialty. He grew up as a baseball fan in a small Kansas town and saw his first professional game in St. Louis when he was 13.

In the early 1980s, Spear was among a group of architects that split from the firm HNTB and persuaded HOK of St. Louis to let them open a branch in Kansas City devoted solely to sports stadium design.

Janet Marie Smith, who represented the Orioles during the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, described Spear as soft-spoken and low-key, someone who listens to the often vague demands of various parties and translates them into a tangible product.

In Cleveland, Spear designed ironwork at Jacobs Field that evoked the bridges along the Cuyahoga River and a concourse that was spacious and light, reminiscent of nearby shopping arcades.

"He makes his buildings really responsive to what is going on around him. He does not have a brash style," said Brad Schrock of 360 Architecture, who has worked with Spear.

Spear also is intimately familiar with the strategies that teams use to get fans to "come early and stay late" -- so they spend lots of money.

For the new park, there are plans for a restaurant and sports bar and a family plaza similar to one at Turner Field in Atlanta, which has an activity area and opens three hours before game time. Wide concourses with dozens of television screens would allow fans to buy food and souvenirs without missing the game.

An asymmetrical outfield is planned to provide more interesting bounces on long hits and also more-creative seating patterns. "Seating neighborhoods," in which seats in various sections are given distinct views and other features, would help create intimacy in a large building. Ramps leading to the upper levels would provide compelling views of the city, the river and even the playing field, Spear said.

"We want people to still be discovering new things about this park in season two," Spear said.

In some cases, Spear has had to make changes from his original thoughts to satisfy the Nationals. Team President Tony Tavares recently requested that all 66 luxury boxes be on the mezzanine level between first base and third base so big-spending patrons would have prime views of the field. Spear agreed to design stacked boxes.

Some architects at other firms have said the stadium's $279 million budget is limiting, and they describe HOK Sport as a company that struggles when trying to break from popular retro-designs.

Spear shrugged off such criticism.

"We don't want to design something that is so aesthetic that we're the only ones who understand it," he said. He took a digital camera from his pocket, leaned over a guardrail on South Capitol Street and snapped a picture of the Capitol Dome.

"I'm looking to see what kind of view you get from here," he explained. He paused, then added: "The way I look at it, I have 41,000 views to consider."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company