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.

"There are legitimate concerns that we have to answer," Miller said three weeks ago when the D.C. Council approved a resolution without debate to sell Miller the land. "Do we have the money? Can we get it done on time? Will they have enough parking? The answer is yes to all of those."

The questions are irrelevant. Because no matter their benefit, the towers will be completely inappropriate and probably very ugly in a ballpark setting.

If you want to get a sense of the danger now creeping up on the new stadium, just go to Camden Yards in Baltimore and look at the enormous orange 13-story-high crane that hulks far above and beyond the left field grandstand. Yes, some hotel chain got its hands on the land and permits to build one of its towering complexes a couple of blocks from Oriole Park. In a couple of years, hotel rooms will we looking down into Camden Yards, dwarfing the scale of the park.

Owner Peter Angelos once considered locking up that land for some more modest project of his own that wouldn't intrude on Baltimore's baseball masterpiece. But he never did it.

"How do you think we feel about it? We hate it," one Orioles official said recently. "But it looks like we're stuck with it."

Washington isn't. Not yet.

The District has a problem that has been debated for three months. How do you build garages for those 925 parking spaces that are part of D.C.'s ballpark contract with MLB? Underground is more expensive and so slow that the city almost certainly would be hit with tens of millions of dollars in penalties for not delivering the park on time. Two above-ground four-story garages would be quick, on-budget, homely and waste potentially valuable city land that could help catalyze development near the ballpark.

Surely there's a compromise. Perhaps you just wrap the originally planned four-story garages in a one-store-deep skin of restaurants, shops and fan-friendly retail attractions. Handsome? No way. But not 13 stories high either.

What you absolutely positively must not do is build a $281 million condo and hotel theme park behind left and center field.

Washington can have a beautiful home for the Nats. And the District can have its urban development renaissance. They're compatible. However, the worst imaginable first step toward both goals would be to dwarf the new stadium with a couple of cityscape-shielding 13-story towers, which we'd glare and cuss at for decades, just to settle a fuss over 925 parking spaces.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company