As Stadium Clock Ticks, D.C. Officials Bicker

By David Nakamura and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 19, 2005

District officials were meeting to discuss the design of a stadium when Jack Evans, a baseball booster and chairman of the D.C. Council's Committee on Finance and Revenue, barged in, uninvited and angry. The view from the stands, at least according to the working design, was not what he expected.

"You can't see the Capitol!" he recalled yelling.

Shortly after that meeting last month, Evans led a group outing for a firsthand look at the potential sightlines and demanded that city planners find ways to ensure that more fans see the U.S. Capitol's iconic dome. Suddenly, a fast-track project was back on the drawing board, threatening to delay construction on a ballpark that under the agreement with Major League Baseball must open by March 2008.

As the episode illustrates, District leaders have been far from unified in their quest to ensure that the $535 million ballpark is a significant architectural addition to the skyline and a catalyst for economic development in the city.

Administration officials, council members and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, a quasi-independent agency overseeing the project, have bickered over who has final decision-making authority. Different sets of attorneys representing the administration and the commission often sit in on negotiations with Major League Baseball. City leaders and planners have given architects conflicting instructions.

The lack of consensus threatens to delay construction and the timeline by which Major League Baseball, which owns the Washington Nationals, will sell the team. Although Commissioner Bud Selig has said he hopes to sell the Nationals this month, the sale might not close until November if a stadium lease agreement with the city is not completed soon, baseball sources familiar with the negotiations said. The lease agreement includes the annual rent payment by the Nationals and sponsorship rights inside and outside the ballpark.

Baseball executives involved in the stadium project said they are uncertain about who is making the decisions.

"The city has no one in charge of the project," said a high-level baseball official who spoke on the condition he not be named because lease negotiations are ongoing. "Find out who speaks for the city on the project -- let us know who it is."

The concerns grew louder two weeks ago when Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) left town for a business trip to Europe. He is scheduled to return today.

Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the sports commission, acknowledged in an interview that the city is in danger of missing his timeline to complete stadium designs. Clark Construction, which has been hired to build the stadium, needs to get the final plans by next month to determine whether the materials and design are manageable and within budget.

Other city officials say the debates are natural for an expensive, high-stakes project.

"It's taking longer than if this was being done by a private developer, where one guy makes a single decision, but it's not longer than one should reasonably expect in a public environment," said Development Director Stephen M. Green, who is overseeing the stadium development on a daily basis for Williams. "This is a public building. There are a lot of voices, and there should be. Ultimately, the mayor makes the call, and he's good at hearing multiple voices."

Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the sports commission, said negotiations over the stadium are "going quite well. It just takes more time than expected." He said he expects the lease agreement to be completed by the end of this month.

The debate over the sightlines for the stadium is a prime example of the competing points of view. Ever since Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992 with a view of the city skyline and the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad warehouse, designing urban ballparks with a visible skyline has been de rigueur.

But in the District, the ballpark is being developed on 20 acres near Navy Yard and South Capitol Street in Southeast that generally lack architectural character. The Capitol is about 13 blocks northwest of the stadium site, but Major League Baseball prohibits opening ballparks facing west because the setting sun could affect the batter.

So city officials agreed to open the ballpark facing northeast, which would afford some fans on the first-base and right-field sides a possible glimpse of the Capitol's dome. But those views would be obstructed, planners said, because developers who own land just beyond the stadium have plans for buildings as tall as 130 feet.

Planners created a three-dimensional model of what the area would look like if private developers built structures to the maximum size allowed under current zoning rules.

"It looked like Crystal City," Evans said. "It was awful."

Evans argued that a view beyond center field of one of the city's signature buildings would give fans a sense of place and provide grand shots for national television cameras.

At Evans's urging, city planners recently stopped work by Lerner Enterprises on construction of a 130-foot office building on M Street SE, one block north of the stadium. People familiar with the matter said the move angered the company, founded and run by Theodore N. Lerner, who is among those bidding to buy the Nationals. City officials said late last week that they will allow the company to resume work because it has abided by city building regulations. Company officials declined to comment.

Evans also has discussed limiting the heights of buildings being planned by Monument Realty, which owns land on N Street SE that abuts the stadium site. City planners worried that such a move would inadvertently harm the creation of an entertainment and shopping district around the ballpark, which has been promised by another powerful player, the Anacostia Waterfront Corp.

"One of the reasons we picked this area is to capture all the economic development that's going on," Green said. "The key is balancing the value of the site and the view and experience at the game."

Architects from Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Sport, the Kansas City, Mo.-based firm that is designing the ballpark, have suggested creating "viewing platforms" on the stadium ramps leading to the upper decks, from which fans will be able to see the city and the Anacostia River.

The resolution of the sight-line debate could affect the design of the stadium, which continues to be the subject of heated discussions. Although the mayor and sports commission have pushed for a modern-looking design that incorporates glass and steel, Evans has pushed hard for the red-brick throwback look popularized by Camden Yards. Lew, the sports commission chief, said he has instructed the architects to develop several options.

"Can we get all issues resolved and in the end make everybody happy?" Lew asked. "It's manageable, but the question is timing. There is a timeline, and we're almost there. We can't sit and pontificate forever."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company