Nationals Park: Best of a Bad Lot

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

With only 33 days left before the Nationals officially unveil their ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront, some of the project's most visible short-term problems may be on the verge of being solved or at least mitigated. However, other potential troubles make those who are on the park-building battle lines lose sleep.

Wait 33 years for a team. Hold your breath for 33 more days. While the immediate future holds a mixed bag of possibilities, some of them quite encouraging, the next several years may be tougher sledding for a development project as brave but grandiose as the District's hopes for Southeast. As the national economy slows, the long-term future of the entire waterfront project becomes cloudier and more worrisome. Whenever a ballpark opens, worst-case scenarios dominate every sensible mind. It's like holding a dinner party for 41,000 people in a new house that you moved into the day before. What could go wrong? The right question is: What couldn't?

For example, for the next month, the Nats' mantra to fans will be "Take Metro." Great. Except the Navy Yard Metro stop expansion isn't finished. Will it get done? Everybody claims so. Will platforms be big enough? Will fans all try to use the exit a mere 200 yards from the main entrance, or realize they have another exit, but with a longer walk? For every such problem that can be imagined in advance, there may be another that hasn't even crossed anybody's mind.

In a situation filled with so much potential anxiety, "we have done the best with what we were given," said principal team owner Mark Lerner. "We focus on the areas we can control. We've had great cooperation from the District. The park is going to be ready on time. We've spent the last 18 months working on every detail inside the park to make it a more vivid, colorful, exciting place. Every day now you can see it all coming together so fast. I can see the finish line now. The fans' eyes are going to pop."

The Nationals are perhaps proudest of how they have taken an abysmal parking situation -- "the whole neighborhood looks like it was hit by a nuclear bomb," one Nats executive said of the construction zone -- and, they hope, turned it into a bearable experience. Just in time, the Nats have scrounged enough parking spots, almost 5,500, so that every season ticket holder, including those with 20-game plans, has a space.

For two years, managing principal owner Ted Lerner, who didn't get to be worth a couple of billion dollars by overlooking details or angering his customers, has obsessed over minimizing the distress of the fans whom he always assumed would have to park at RFK Stadium, then ride in shuttle buses to his new park. Someday, such second-class treatment would be eliminated. "But Ted has focused on it like a laser from the beginning," team official Gregory McCarthy said.

The result is that an obscure back access road from RFK to the new ballpark area will be used exclusively by Nats buses, which, the team claims, now take only "five to seven minutes" to get from RFK to a drop-off spot on M Street, just another five- to seven-minute walk to the main entrance. Can Ted's Shuttle really get you from your car to his front door in 15 minutes? Or will we have to recall the shuttle bus nightmares at FedEx Field that blighted the Redskins' relations with fans for years?

The Nats have also been acutely aware of what Mark Lerner calls "obviously two of the world's ugliest garages" that sit beyond left and center field. A few thousand fans in $10 to $17 seats in the upper deck will see spectacular city vistas that include the U.S. Capitol or the Washington Monument. For the fans in the high-priced seats in the lower bowl, those garages were in danger of being their monuments. Not anymore, says Lerner.

"You won't think of them as garages anymore," Lerner vows, because he'll have them covered by Opening Day with league logos, replicas of the "Washington All-Stars" from the right field scoreboard in RFK as well as colorful baseball-themed ads.

Even the exterior facades of the park, modeled on the Washington Convention Center, have, in recent weeks, gone from dreary to sleek as the glistening finishing materials have been put in place and burnished. The Lerner family and team president Stan Kasten, who love retro red brick, wince whenever they're reminded that they inhabit the only park in history with modern architecture. Who did I.M. Pei play for? Soon, even they may have to admit that the District gave them an iconic design.

Okay, that's it for the semi-good news. Now, cover your eyes. Directly behind home plate, the cement trucks, the billowing clouds of dust on hot afternoons and all the industrial detritus of the Florida Rock and Gravel Company constitute an enormous and inexcusable 5.8-acre eyesore. It'll be sitting there all season, damaging the river views from all the ramps to the first base upper deck. If the land doesn't get rezoned so Florida Rock can develop it or, more likely, sell it, the monstrosity could stay for two or three seasons. Nothing in the vicinity of any other major league park is even one-tenth as ugly.

"With 20/20 hindsight it's almost incredible that Florida Rock is still there. People have been trying to get it [re]zoned for at least 10 years," Mark Lerner said. "It really is sad. . . . We're just going to put up a red fence so you can't see it from ground level."

As for the gruesome WASA site beyond right field, which could have been addressed long ago, it would be the Most Unsightly Thing Near Any Big League Park if Florida Rock and Gravel hadn't already retired the trophy.

Over the next few years, patience and perhaps forgiveness may be required for those who venture outside the new park. A legal battle between two developers has delayed the development of one side of Half Street for at least 18 months. Half Street is supposed to be the glamorous main entrance to the park from the Navy Yard Metro. On the other side of Half Street is a huge block-long hole, several stories deep, where construction by Monument Realty has stopped.

The District was lucky to sell bonds for its $611 million ballpark in boom times with interest rates unusually low. But you have to take the bust that follows the boom. And nobody knows how long that will last or if it will be deep or shallow.

Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capital Riverfront Business Improvement District, said: "This area may develop in somewhat different ways and at a different pace in this economy. But that isn't necessarily bad."

We've waited this long. Now, just 33 more days until a new park opens. Someday, the Anacostia riverfront will amaze us, just maybe not as soon as we hoped. When it comes to fulfilling huge civic dreams, what's a few years, more or less. In for a dime, in for a decade.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company