By Paul Duggan and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Under a clear blue sky perfect for a baseball game, 500 construction workers responsible for one of the most expensive and most important projects in the District took a break yesterday for a quick pep talk.
They wore hard hats and neon reflector vests, sitting in rows on concrete slabs that will one day soon become the first-base stands of the Washington Nationals' $611 million ballpark.
"The closer we get to next year, the more people are looking at us to bring this project in on time and on budget," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty told them on his first trip to the stadium site near the Navy Yard and South Capitol Street in Southeast.
"It's all you who do the hard work," Fenty added, eliciting a cheer. "We have the best team in the country working on this, and I know we're going to get it done."
And they had better. With a little more than nine months to go until the scheduled opening of the publicly financed project, city leaders are under pressure to meet the deadlines for the 41,000-seat stadium. Any delays could mean the city is liable for financial penalties to Nationals owner Theodore N. Lerner.
Fenty (D) said he felt compelled to visit the workers to ensure them that the project won't be disrupted even though he persuaded Allen Y. Lew to leave his role as chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission to head the city's $2.3 billion school modernization program. Lew and Gregory O'Dell, whom Fenty has chosen to replace him, joined the mayor on his ballpark tour yesterday.
As he gives up day-to-day control of the ballpark project, Lew won't entirely relinquish a decision-making role; he is to remain closely involved with the project.
O'Dell, a financial and economic development aide in Fenty's administration, has been working on the project from the beginning, first as a consultant to Lew and more recently as a member of the sports commission's board of directors.
When O'Dell, 37, leaves his part-time, unpaid post with the commission to become its full-time, $175,000-a-year chief executive, Lew will trade places with him, taking O'Dell's seat on the board.
"The biggest concern I had was with the timing," said Lew, 56, who was hired as the commission's top official after he managed another big construction job in the city: the $834 million D.C. Convention Center, which opened in 2003.
Lew said this week that the ballpark is on schedule, and remains within budget, with no indication that will change.
"I really believe the stadium project is on track, and I wanted to keep it on track," Lew said, recalling his reaction when Fenty approached him in May about leading the massive school renovation effort. "I didn't want the ballpark to slip. So the mayor proposed a plan of putting me on the board and naming Greg as my successor. And that, I thought, worked."
Others agreed, including D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) -- although Evans said it might take a while for him to become as comfortable with the less-experienced O'Dell as he is with Lew.
"I'm going to be involved in this a lot more than I was," said Evans, who keeps a small countdown clock on his desk, showing the number of days, hours and minutes until the anticipated first pitch at the stadium next April. "I had kind of taken a step back because of the confidence I had that Allen would get this thing done. There was no need for me to be calling everybody up every week, saying: 'Where are we? Where are we?' But now I'm going to reinsert myself in terms of being in the loop constantly."
In the 14 months since officials formally broke ground on the stadium, using shovels with Louisville Slugger handles, the ballpark has been rising steadily along the Anacostia River.
The stadium's steel framework and concrete seating decks are largely in place, as are miles and miles of ducts, electrical wires and pipes. Workers are drilling tens of thousands of holes in the decks to anchor seats. And a 200-foot tower crane has been erected to lift concrete and other materials for construction of a Nationals office building.
Next month, workers plan to complete the steel framework for the ballpark's restaurant and main scoreboard and to start putting in the stadium seats. The project's schedule calls for installation of the scoreboard to begin in August. Then, in October, sod will be laid. The grass will take root before going dormant during the winter and then spring to life for Opening Day.
Still, problems remain, including a long-vexing issue that O'Dell will inherit when he takes control of the project. "The biggest thing still out there," Lew said, "is coming up with an inventory of parking spaces to meet game day requirements."
Slightly more than 1,200 spaces will be available for premium-ticket holders in three garages at the stadium. But to accommodate a sellout crowd at the ballpark, planners say, as many as 8,000 more spaces will be needed for fans who don't use Metro.
"We certainly have a lot of challenges and a lot of work to get done," O'Dell said, offering no immediate proposal for the parking problem. "I'm fortunate enough to have worked intimately on this project with Allen, and I'm familiar with Allen's model for how to manage it. I'm confident we can get it done."
Commission members and others closely involved in the project credit Lew for the stadium's largely glitch-free ascent. And they say they remain confident that it will be finished on time and within the spending cap set by the council.
"When I first met Allen, I knew he was the one and only," said Mark H. Tuohey, who was the commission chairman when Lew was hired.
Because he has more experience than O'Dell, Lew got a higher salary, $250,000, as chief executive. Before overseeing the D.C. Convention Center project, he worked in the private sector, developing hospitals and office buildings. In the 1980s, he was a top aide in the construction of New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center -- a project that was delayed by two years and went $111 million over budget, according to news reports.
"I mean, he was so impressive," Tuohey said of Lew. "His personality, his management style, his technical knowledge in building these large, complex projects -- he was just the perfect choice for us on a number of levels."
Said Evans: "Allen knows his business. . . . If I was on the other side of the table, I'd describe him as a very difficult person to deal with. No nonsense. Knows what he's doing. And consequently, you're not going to pull anything over on him. I was thrilled to have him in that position, to make sure the deal is done the way it's supposed to be done, that we don't get taken advantage of, which happens a lot with governments."