If You Build It, Don't Build Next to It

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Some ideas are so dumb you assume they'll collapse of their own weight. That's what we hope will happen to Mayor Anthony A. Williams's cockamamie brainstorm to construct two vast 13-story towers -- filled with condos, shops, garages and a hotel -- just beyond left and center field of the new Nationals stadium on the Anacostia waterfront.

Thirteen stories? The ballpark is only eight stories. The twin eyesores, which would blanket much of the view from the left field corner to center field, would loom at least 50 feet above the park and block almost every sight line to the U.S. Capitol or any cityscape. Whether you were approaching the park from the Metro or sitting in your seat, the massive $281 million towers, which would cost almost as much as the $313 million ballpark, would be an eternal infuriating visual blight for fans.

Dodger Stadium has the San Gabriel Mountains, Camden Yards the B&O Warehouse, PNC Park in Pittsburgh the Allegheny River and AT&T Park in San Francisco has its Bay. Meantime, across about half of its outfield panorama, Washington might well have condo balcony parties, hotel gawkers and who knows what else. In Toronto, the center field hotel rooms famously offer sexhibitionists.

So, be sure to bring your binoculars to Opening Day in '08.

Laundry hanging out a rowhouse window has its place beside Wrigley Field. It's naturally part of the neighborhood. The subway is supposed to run beyond right field in Yankee Stadium. Fenway Park without the big Citgo sign beyond the Green Monster just wouldn't be right. But did Cleveland build an apartment complex beyond its bleachers to block views of downtown? Did the Phillies erect an office building so you could not see the Philadelphia city skyline in the distance?

Ah, the pastoral bliss of not one but two 13-story opportunities for bad taste and urban invasion of baseball's visual space.

Believe it or not, this mixed-use monstrosity, to be built by developer Herb Miller who needed a decade to finish Gallery Place, has already been passed by the zoning commission and the D.C. Council. Luckily, this tower tumult, all conceived in recent weeks as a method to surround and disguise two humble, generic four-story garages, faces myriad obstacles that may derail it. Ground must be broken near Labor Day. Financing is still not finalized.

All in all, the whole project has the feeling of such a slapdash last-minute Mayor-plus-developer-driven compromise that the project may fall apart. We can only hope so. Once the ambiance of a ballpark has been created, it doesn't change for decades. If the mayor has his way, the tone will be set at the top; developers will race to dream up new 13-story projects with their noses pressed as closely as possible to the park. Much of the land on the Anacostia side is already spoken for.

After the first few seasons of novelty, two factors will determine whether baseball will attract urban development (and tax dollars) to Southeast: the quality of the team and the appeal of the ballpark. A compromise needs to be struck between the esthetics of a new park and the development of Southeast. Neither rules all decisions. But powerful trends have already begun to bring energy, money and construction to the area. Over the next decade, it's doubtful anything can stop it. But a ballpark that's surrounded -- perhaps eventually on all sides -- by the equivalent of soulless K Street is hardly a setting that many baseball fans will want to linger, shop and eat. Ugly doesn't sell.

The mayor means well. But he's not really a baseball fan. He's an urban development fan. He has never met a millionaire with a shovel or a New York bank with a line of credit that he didn't love.

Remember the "iconic ballpark" the mayor talked about when he was selling his $611 million project? Recall his poetic vision of a stadium with views of the U.S. Capitol from the right field upper deck? And don't forget his central concept that a gorgeous park with a contending team would be a tax magnet and source of civic pride.

Well, forget it. Miller is willing to write the District a $61 million check for the ballpark land. So, the mayor's on board.

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