On the Waterfront, Hope Beginning to Spring Eternal
If you want a baseball gift for the holidays, visit the construction site of the Nationals' new ballpark on the Southeast waterfront. You'll be stunned, as I was. Many assume the project has barely begun or is still just a hole in the ground. In reality, the stadium is one-third finished: on time, on budget and with a right field grandstand that has risen 10 stories.
Bury your ingrained Washington cynicism about baseball. Ignore that internal voice which said for 33 years, "If it's good, it won't happen. It'll get messed up." This $611 million park is no longer a dream. One glance and you'll know: on Opening Day of '08, we'll be there. So don't spoil your fun. Washington's Fenway Park or PNC Park is springing to life along South Capitol Street. Don't look for financing flummoxes, D.C. Council snafus or hazmat nightmares. We're past that now. Santa says we win.
"The park is going up so fast you almost want to slow it down to enjoy it more," said Mark Lerner, son of owner Ted Lerner. "From morning to evening in just one day, you can see the changes. This is the best part."
For five months, starting in May, the construction team of Clark-Hunt-Smoot dug 340,948 cubic yards of soil and drove a total of 25 miles of pilings to a depth of 55 feet. To the average fan's eye, it looked like nothing had been done. Yet the groundwork had truly been laid. The actual erection of the steel and concrete structure of the park only takes nine months. So since Oct. 5, a park seems to have sprung magically from the earth. By Opening Day -- of 2007, not 2008 --you'll have an almost complete feel for the shape of the park. By the Fourth of July, the structure will be done.
If you take the Green Line to Navy Yard Metro station then walk down Half Street to N Street, the bowl of the ballpark will open below you. Someday, this left-center field plaza will be the park's most-used entrance. Half the fans will never climb a stair or ramp to enter because the field is 24 feet below street level. From this N Street vantage point you realize that -- from home plate to the right field foul pole -- the steel and concrete of the lower deck and mezzanine is completely done. The same process along the left field side is well under way. The 100-foot-tall steel skeleton of the right field grandstand is in place.
For the best vistas, drive across the Frederick Douglass Bridge, which offers dramatic views of the park with the Capitol, Washington Monument and Library of Congress dome distributed along the horizon. From the bridge you realize that the Navy Yard, with its battleships, as well as planes landing at Reagan National Airport, will be part of the nightly panorama. Douglass Bridge also has a fenced off walking/jogging lane open to the public that provides a helicopter-level view of the park.
"By next Christmas, it will look like a finished stadium, right down to seats and grass growing," said project manager Matt Haas. "We'll probably only have interior work, plazas and landscaping left to finish."
Many have assumed for years that building a state-of-the-art ballpark in the District would somehow turn into a disaster of delays, cost overruns and every misery known to Murphy's Law. A year ago, one of the potential bidders for the Nationals told me: "They'll never open that Southeast ballpark by Opening Day of '08. More likely '09, if they're lucky, and '10 if they're not."
This time, the D.C. doomsters appear to be wrong. The Clark-Hunt-Smoot team has played a role in building ballparks in Baltimore, San Diego, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Cincinnati and St. Louis, as well as local facilities such as FedEx Field, Verizon Center and Comcast Center. "It'll be done on time. There's no choice. Simple as that," Haas said.
I realized this week that I've underestimated the potential of the park, maybe by a lot. Until you walk the main concourses and see the views from the club levels, you don't grasp how much the drama of the city, as well as the twisting sweep of the river, will be part of almost every fan's experience. Also, at night, almost everything that is most attractive about the location -- the illuminated monuments, the house lights across the river, the planes landing at National, even the grungy Anacostia when you can't see it too clearly -- is emphasized.
I had assumed that high-rise development, including some already built, would obliterate views of the verdigris Library of Congress dome and the distant National Cathedral, not to mention the Capitol, which should glow like an enormous moon beyond the outfield. Now it seems that more seats are higher than I'd thought and that surrounding buildings, both those that exist and those that are planned, may not do as much damage as I feared.
If, just 15 months from now, the Nats' park doesn't have at least 15,000 of its 41,000 seats with knockout views, then somebody slashed our Mona Lisa -- because such views exist right now. I've seen them.
Fortunately, the awful idea of dual 13-story towers beyond the left and center field fences seems defunct. But more monstrosities will probably be proposed. Development of Southeast is vital. But the elevations of any new structures can be graduated in height so the current vistas from the (ritzy) club level and (affordable) upper deck remain intact. There's no excuse why this park shouldn't have knockout seats for both top-dollar patrons and the average fan.
For $611 million, Washington should at the least get a park so opulent that fans will be seduced for a few years. But our ultimate goal should be higher and longer lasting. Eventually the architectural power of a park and the melding of scenery and cityscape in the experience is essential to holding a fan base. The ballpark as magnet, as emotional destination, must be earned.
Washington has a chance for something special, perhaps one of the 10 best baseball parks in the country. So far, nothing on the Anacostia has been ruined. And the new park, or the first third of it, makes you gasp with its promise. See it. For your pleasure. And so that, someday, we can hold accountable those who now have such an invaluable civic asset in their control.