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Lots of Glass, Capital Views
Design of New Stadium for Washington Nationals Reflects Elements of Convention Center and Monuments In Departure From Red-Brick Retro Ballparks

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

District officials unveiled a design yesterday for a modern, 41,000-seat baseball stadium featuring massive glass panels, steel and concrete that they hope will echo the style of the city's monuments and spark economic development in a long-neglected industrial strip near the Anacostia River.

The ballpark, scheduled to open in March 2008, will offer views of the river on one side and of the U.S. Capitol dome on the other. It will include luxury boxes and several thousand club seats, revenue-generating amenities coveted by the Washington Nationals.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and other officials did the unveiling before a festive crowd of cheering baseball supporters at the Washington Convention Center, which is also distinguished by giant panels of glass and was built largely during Williams's tenure. Many of the same managers who oversaw that project are in charge of the ballpark near the Navy Yard and South Capitol Street in Southeast.

Architects from Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Sport of Kansas City, Mo., and Devrouax & Purnell of the District broke sharply from the red-brick throwback design popularized by Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Instead, the Nationals' future home will be defined by a straight, knife-edge building along South Capitol Street, intersected by the sweeping curve of the stadium bowl.

Glass panels will make up the walls of the stadium concourse, giving the ballpark a translucent quality and opening it to the surrounding neighborhoods, architects said. Heavy use of concrete, which will be painted to look like limestone, is intended to repeat design aspects found in the convention center, federal monuments and the Verizon Center to the north.

Cantilevered ramps -- one beyond left field and one along the first-base line -- will allow fans to take in views of the Capitol dome and the river, respectively, and many of the upper deck seats will provide similar views, architects said.

"We wanted to create a design so when you walk in the stadium, no matter at what point, you felt a sense of place that was unique to Washington, D.C.," said Williams, a two-term mayor who has fostered massive economic development and expects the ballpark to be part of his legacy. "We've broken the mold of architecture in the same way as we did with the convention center."

Still, not everyone was immediately charmed by the massive complex, whose only use of bricks might be for a "donors plaza" leading into the ballpark.

"I tend to like the more traditional look," Nationals President Tony Tavares said. "If I was in charge, I would not have designed this. That doesn't mean it's bad. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We are mostly concerned with the inside and how the stadium will function."

Inside the glass walls, the stadium will have 78 luxury suites, 4,000 high-priced club seats, a distinctive circular restaurant beyond center field and 40-foot-wide corridors that will give fans space to pause as they look out at the surrounding neighborhood or continue to follow the game as they visit concession and souvenir stands.

"This has got everything for everyone: something for architecture critics to admire and stuff for the baseball purists to love," said HOK Sport's principal designer, Joseph Spear, who also developed Camden Yards. "We wanted to create a place that was unique and is not a one-liner. We want people to still be discovering new things -- new views and areas -- in the third season."

Spear hinted that architects are considering ways to leave space under the grandstand seats so that they will vibrate as they did at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium during last season's Nationals games and Redskins games of years past.

City officials are trying to accelerate the pace of construction to meet the tight timetable. Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said he will purchase massive amounts of steel within the next few weeks and set a groundbreaking date shortly.

The city has agreed to invest a total of $611 million in the project, including $320 million for the ballpark, which will be constructed by Clark Construction Group of Bethesda, along with partners Smoot and Hunt construction companies. Major League Baseball has promised to chip in $20 million, and the federal government has budgeted $20 million to renovate the Navy Yard Metro station.

Although MLB official have yet to name an ownership group for the Nationals, city officials said they hope one is selected before this season's Opening Day, on April 3.

In addition to developing signature architecture and maximizing stadium revenue potential, the ballpark designers also were charged by city officials with helping foster economic development in a largely industrial area. Williams has said that revenue from the so-called "ballpark entertainment district" will justify the enormous public investment in the project.

D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), whose ward will be home to the ballpark, said the project "will say to everybody that the Anacostia is not a forgotten river. It's an integral, important part of the District of Columbia, and the fact that we put our most important new building on the banks of the Anacostia sends a message to everyone."

Roughly 70 percent of fans are expected to approach the ballpark from the north, walking along Half Street from the Navy Yard Metro station past mixed-use development.

Shops and restaurants will line First Street to the east of the stadium and possibly Potomac Avenue to the south.

Two large, boxy parking garages are in the stadium drawings, but city officials said they will work with developers to move the structures underground and free the surface for stores, restaurants, condominium units and office space.

Russ Hines, an executive vice president at Monument Realty LLC, one of four development companies named by the city to foster growth in the area, said the stadium design evokes the convention center, which was also intended to encourage economic development.

"They made a glass curtain-like wall so that you can see into the stadium," Hines said. "It is a catalyst for the area, and in terms of its design, this is the appropriate start. It's a high level of quality, and it has a monumental nature to it."

As for the playing field, it is considered large, favoring pitchers over hitters with a 409-foot distance to the center field fence. Tavares, however, said the fence could be moved closer to home plate.

In Viera, Fla., where the Nationals are training, Manager Frank Robinson gave the ballpark a thumbs up: "I like it. It has its own identity."

"It's awesome," outfielder Ryan Church said. "We need something new. Enough of this old-school stuff. When do they break ground?"

After an often bitter 1 1/2 -year fight between the D.C. Council and Major League Baseball that ended just last week with a final stadium agreement, Williams let loose yesterday, donning a green Nationals hat in a nod to St. Patrick's Day. He thanked council members with whom he sometimes did battle over the project, including Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who took her own bow.

Then Williams told the crowd that he has long dreamed of a new stadium in Washington, recalling his days growing up in Los Angeles, where his father rooted on the Dodgers with almost religious zeal.

"I feared that after our fight, there would be nothing left," Williams said of the stadium dispute. "But we keep the dream, the flame, alive. We kept it burning. Today, the fog has lifted."

Staff writers Henri E. Cauvin, Dana Hedgpeth and Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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