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A Field of Modest Dreams

The best features of the Nationals' planned stadium are inside the park, hidden behind four mediocre facades.
The best features of the Nationals' planned stadium are inside the park, hidden behind four mediocre facades. (Rendering By Hok Sport)

Unhappily the northern facade, which just happens to be the principal entryway, through which as much as 70 percent of the crowd is expected to arrive, is something of a disaster zone. The main reason is that the northern edge is where the architects were more or less forced to place two seven-story parking garages to house most of the 1,225 spaces required by Major League Baseball.

A principal civic entryway flanked by parking garages is not an attractive prospect, no matter how enticing the view into the ballpark. Yet designs for this entry remain clearly incomplete.

Its most crucial piece, for instance, is a large cylindrical form destined to house a restaurant. More important, it is meant to become the entryway's principal architectural beacon. So far, however, it hasn't risen to the task. Marshall Purnell, of Devrouax & Purnell, was understating it a bit in an interview when he noted, "A little more design energy is going to have to go into that."

For the record, this stadium is not really a "riverfront ballpark," as the mayor and others kept saying yesterday. Stretching from N Street SE in the north to Potomac Avenue in the south, and bordered east and west by First and South Capitol streets SE, the ballpark is a block from the Anacostia, the city's often-ignored second river.

That is not to imply that river and ballpark are not important to each other. Quite the contrary. The stadium is a major part of the city's noble effort to revive the Anacostia as an urban treasure, as well as to lure a lot of new office workers, residents and services to the underused "near Southeast" district.

That is the reason Spear, Purnell and company made such a big architectural gesture on the southern facade, fronting on Potomac Avenue. This is the most exciting aspect of the exterior. The swooping contour of the seating bowl will be visible as a "gateway" image from the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge (and from the bridge that will replace it in -- one hopes -- the near future).

Furthermore, the entryway and plaza here are far more enticing than those on the north. Presumably the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. is all set to take advantage of the opportunity by insisting on highly visible, commodious links to the riverside, even though much of the property between ballpark and river is privately owned, undeveloped land.

In a sense, this is what the planned ballpark is all about -- engaging future opportunities rather than present-day conditions. Or, to put it another way, the architects are attempting to design a building for a city that isn't there yet. Each facade is so different because the architects were responding to what planners and others kept telling them would be extremely different circumstances on each street.

The First Street facade, for instance, comprises a long row of nicely designed, street-facing retail stores. Although the stores are bound to remain empty until the neighborhood grows around them after the stadium is done in 2008, they definitely should be built.

In addition to the liveliness the stores will provide for the developing neighborhood to the east, they will help significantly to define this ballpark as a sophisticated urban entity. (Not incidentally, the same sort of thing was done with a high degree of success at Pittsburgh's new PNC Park, which opened in 2001.)

Two out of four is not bad in certain situations -- for instance, a .500 batting average is as unattainable as perfection itself. But with facades, two out of four is not good.

To switch to more gratifying aspects, though: The top of this stadium is unusual and elegant. All of 118 feet high, sheathed in silvery metal and supported by light-colored, tapering steel columns, it traces a graceful arc around two-thirds of the field. With the lighting banks affixed to its inner edge, this canopy gives a certain unity to the somewhat discordant design.

Majestic Washington views -- of the Capitol dome, say, or the Washington Monument -- will be rare. In the long run, after all, this stadium will be pretty much surrounded by buildings that will be more than 20 feet higher than the highest seat in the house.

But for certain fans, upper-deck seats in right field will be sought after for the view to the Capitol in the north. And the architects did a dandy piece of work with that set of ramps, cantilevered slightly over South Capitol Street. Set at a diagonal, it's almost exactly in line with the great stone obelisk to the northwest.

And then there's the interior, a truly happy story. Our stadium, of course, will be money-segregated, as are all the new ballparks, with a whole level of seats and amenities reserved for the baseball equivalent of gambling's high rollers. But every seat will be good in its own way, because the interior is thoughtfully designed to accommodate the game and its fans. Seating areas are broken into "neighborhoods," in Spear's word, by varying heights and seat alignments, while retaining good sightlines all around.

As for the rest, well, there's still some time, and much room, for improvement.

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