The firm was considered a likely choice because of its work on behalf of the team a year ago, when Populous produced renderings of a possible stadium on Buzzard Point for the team to use in marketing materials.
“We have been working with them for over a year and have developed a comfort level in terms of their experience in the region, in this particular field and in our communication with them,” said Tom Hunt, United chief operating officer.
While new soccer-dedicated stadiums have already been built for most other Major League Soccer teams, United still plays in the too-large and deteriorating RFK Stadium. Jon Knight and Joe Spear, Populous senior principals, said they wanted to create a stadium that would bring fans close to the action, offering an intimacy that Spear said could feel “intimidating for the opposing teams.”
“We want to create what I would say is a first-class experience for fans in D.C. that have stood by the team and have had to endure watching games in a football stadium, which is not ideal,” Knight said.
Then-known as HOK Sport, Populous helped usher in a new era of ballpark design with the brick, retro feel of Camden Yards. The company has worked on other local facilities including M&T Bank Stadium, home to the National Football League’s Baltimore Ravens, and Georgetown University’s basketball training center, as well as Major League Soccer stadiums in Houston, Kansas City, Denver and Orlando.
The design of Nationals Park isn’t celebrated in every corner. When it debuted in 2008, Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott praised the park’s sight lines but concluded that it was “a machine for baseball and for sucking the money out of the pockets of people who like baseball, and it makes no apologies about its purely functional design.”
Spear said the United design will be distinct from Nationals Park in part because of the importance of connecting to the neighborhood around it. “This stadium should be transformative not just for the soccer fans but for the neighborhood. This should make that the place to be,” Spear said.
Populous will have to contend with an agreement allowing Pepco to run electrical lines beneath the field, near to a new substation the utility is planning. “Anytime you design or build on a site in an urban area like this, you’re going to have issues you have to deal with and it’s just a matter of turning those problems into opportunities,” Spear said.
In June, officials with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the team reached final agreement on a deal for the stadium, but the city must still finalize acquisition of the needed land by Sept. 30. There are deals in place to acquire all but one parcel owned by developer Akridge.
Mayoral spokesman Joaquin McPeek said the city would meet the deadline but was still “in discussions” with Akridge about how to acquire its land.
Knight and Spear said they did not know if development of ancillary buildings for restaurants, shops and possibly a hotel along Half Street SW, which are included in the stadium plan, would be erected with the stadium or later.
Many other details of the United stadium are still being worked out as well, including how many seats it would have — somewhere around or above 20,000 — and how seating areas would be configured and sold.
To firm up its plans, the team sent a lengthy survey to local corporations and businesses recently asking about stadium preferences.
Survey respondents were asked to rank the importance of parking, in-stadium restaurants, tailgating space and amenities such as “local and craft brewery beverage” choices, mobile food ordering, child care facilities, wireless Internet and post-game entertainment such as concerts or fireworks.
The survey asks about a variety of general and club seating options, including “wider, padded” seats enjoying access to private club space or indoor lounges. The very high-end possible “Director’s Box” seats could include access to stylish, air-conditioned lounges, all-inclusive food and beverage service, and the first right to purchase tickets to all other events held at the stadium, but which could cost as much as $6,000 for the year, or $353 per game.
The survey indicates that the team plans to hold focus groups to gather more information from interested buyers.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz