No Time to Rest in the Homestretch

In the time since officials formally broke ground on the Washington Nationals' new stadium, the ballpark has risen steadily along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington.
By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

The turf is growing, all the seats are nearly in and the high-definition scoreboard is lighted. The lights are glowing, and the water is flowing, with four weeks left to go before the opening of Nationals Park.

On March 30, before an expected packed house of 41,000 fans, the Washington Nationals will take the field for their regular-season opener against the Atlanta Braves. With visions of cherry trees blooming beyond the outfield and the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, the team is right on target to open the $611 million ballpark off South Capitol Street. In fact, construction executives say they might even clear inspections and get a certificate of occupancy within a week.

Workers have been racing to complete the ballpark since construction began nearly two years ago. Such an accomplishment would be a remarkable feat for a project that has kept to one of the tightest schedules ever for a stadium, officials said.

"We are very pleased with the progress of the ballpark construction and the spirit of cooperation between the city and the Nationals to get the job done and the opening to be first-class," said Mark Lerner, the Nationals principal owner.

By the time the Nationals open the Major League Baseball season in a nationally televised game, the ballpark will have been tested twice. The first event comes March 22, when George Washington University takes on Saint Joseph's University in a game that will be open to a limited crowd of specially ticketed fans of those teams.

The bigger challenge comes March 29, when the Nationals play the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game. A full house is expected, setting the stage for the even bigger spotlight that comes with the regular season opener the next day.

At the groundbreaking in May 2006, officials warned that they had little room for error if they were going to get the park open on time. Architects and builders were diligent about ensuring that steel and other materials arrived on time, and they kept an efficient pace with a schedule that at times was nearly round-the-clock.

There are incentives to get the job done. The District will have to pay hefty penalties to the Nationals if the ballpark is not ready on time. And the contractors know they face an intractable deadline: a date when Washington and a national audience will see the results of their work. A ballpark that still looks like a construction zone would be an embarrassment.

Unlike retro-style ballparks such as Baltimore's Camden Yards, Nationals Park has been designed to complement Washington's traditional architecture. For now, though, the scene outside looks a mess. The park remains surrounded by chain-link fencing, storage containers and construction machinery. All that will be cleaned up, officials insist.

At the moment, team executives seem less concerned about the state of the ballpark than about potential traffic and parking hassles for fans trying to get there.

Two parking garages at the ballpark provide about 1,200 spaces and will be used primarily by fans in the priciest seats and suites. Season ticket holders were promised a chance to buy parking at lots within walking distance for as much as $35 a game.

"We were able to place every season ticket holder that wanted a space," said Gregory McCarthy, a Nationals executive who has focused on parking issues. "We're looking at how many [spaces] are left and evaluating whether" they could be available for fans with tickets for single games. Those tickets go on sale Tuesday, including several thousand available for the official Opening Day.

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