- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

The task for the architect of Washington’s forthcoming ballpark in Southeast will be a daunting one: create a stadium that veers sharply away from the bevy of recently built, retro-inspired facilities and pushes sports design into another generation.

The District’s ambitious, forward-looking wish list for the Washington Nationals’ future home is laid out in a recently released request for proposals, and was reiterated this week in a prebid meeting with 35 prospective architecture and design firms.

As with other key portions of the stadium project, the timetable is tight. Design proposals are expected back by Feb. 15, with the winning architectural team to be selected 13 days later. But amid the compressed environment, competition is expected to be heavy for one of highest-profile sports design contracts in recent memory.

“We think this is a unique opportunity to do something special for Washington and have it look like it was really intended for Washington,” said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive officer of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “We’re really talking something along the lines of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The proposal document specifies a desire for a stadium that is “timeless, unique in the nation’s capital and its waterfront setting, and representative of 21st-century architectural ideals,” Mr. Lew said. Buttressing that is a requirement for each bidder to have experience with “projects of similar national or international significance in urban environments.”

But Mr. Lew was quick to say that does not mean the stadium will be a staid, formal facility mirroring many of the city’s federal office buildings.

“We’re not suggesting that this just look like something along the Mall,” he said. “What we’re after is a truly fresh approach.”

Also critical to the design project is a strong linkage to the forthcoming Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, a massive redevelopment in which the ballpark will play a central role. District officials, through a relocation contract with Major League Baseball, have targeted the new stadium’s completion for March 1, 2008.

The desire to have a unique ballpark design is not entirely new or exclusive to Washington. Baltimore’s Camden Yards, which opened in 1992, ushered in a sweeping change in ballpark design through its celebrated marriage of modern amenities and classic stylings such as brick exteriors and wrought iron.

But over the next decade, stadiums such as Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Texas, and Coors Field in Denver copied many of the Baltimore elements, to the point where Camden Yards became seen by some as simply a new version of the cookie-cutter design it was intended to replace.

To that end, some recently built major league parks have forged their own, more locally congruous identities. PNC Park in Pittsburgh features a rough-hewn limestone exterior that weaves well into its western Pennsylvania setting. San Diego’s Petco Park boasts a mission-inspired design and heavy use of palm trees in its locally themed landscaping.

“There really aren’t many other new major league facilities left to be built, so this is really a career project,” said Bill Johnson, senior principal for Kansas City-based 360 Architecture, one of the firms seeking the Washington contract. “We’re talking about building the home for the national pastime in the nation’s capital. I can’t think of a more important and interesting ballpark to do.”

Meanwhile, work continues at a fast pace to prepare RFK Stadium for April 3, when the Nationals will play an exhibition game against the New York Mets. With much of the preliminary field preparation work complete and temperatures plunging in recent days, workers have begun to move toward interior projects such as press box and locker room renovation, and construction of batting tunnels.

Progress is also being made, albeit slowly, in determining the new owner of the MLB-owned Nationals. Representatives of the prospective ownership group led by District financier Fred Malek took their turn yesterday reviewing Nationals financial documents at MLB’s New York headquarters.

The group is believed to be the fourth such potential bidder to start the due diligence process, joining the family of local developer Ted Lerner, District entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky and Tennessee businessman Franklin Haney.

Northern Virginia businessman William Collins III, who announced his intent last fall to bid on the Nationals, is expected to get his turn with the Nationals’ books in February. The review of the books is an important step in helping prospective bidders prepare their offers for the franchise.

Still missing, however, is a clear understanding of the Nationals’ projected local TV revenue, which is tied up in unresolved negotiations between MLB and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos over a compensation package to protect the Orioles against revenue loss from the Montreal Expos’ relocation to Washington.

A new Nationals owner is expected sometime early this summer, with MLB likely to fetch more than $300 million for the club.

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