- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

Hundreds of baseball fans gathered on the future site of the Washington Nationals’ ballpark in Southeast yesterday to watch city officials and the team’s new ownership group officially break ground on the stadium project.

It marked a day that, for many fans and city leaders, seemed unlikely even a few months ago, when the future of the stadium was clouded by political uncertainty. But yesterday, the talk was of Opening Day in 2008 and the promise of economic development sparked by the ballpark’s construction.

“This is a little dusty right now, it’s a little dusty place,” D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said from a temporary stage that overlooked what will become the ballpark’s right field. “But imagine this place in a few years. There’s going to be fathers and mothers and sons and daughters grabbing a hot dog inside the ballpark, residents and visitors enjoying the beautiful Anacostia river walk and surrounding environs, crowds walking from the nearby Metro station, fans circling the ballpark grabbing lunch or an early dinner.”

Other officials in attendance, including D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, and D.C. Sports & Entertainment Chairman Mark Tuohey, used the opportunity to thank fellow ballpark supporters and congratulate the Lerner family for being awarded the team on Wednesday.

But behind the cheery demeanors was the reality of actually getting the stadium built in just 22 months and within the $320 million budget on hard construction costs set by the D.C. Council. Officials from Clark Construction, who are working with Hunt Construction Group and Smoot Construction on the project, said they are on track to complete the ballpark on time and said they were relieved that they can start work after months of delays.

“Now it’s time for us to do what we do best,” said Clark senior vice president Greg Colevas, who is overseeing the joint venture. “The politicking is over. We are a construction company, and now it’s time to build.”

Demolition of buildings on the 20-acre site is almost finished, and excavation of the earth in the southern portion of the area began last week. Because of time constraints, Clark officials are starting construction of the stadium even as designs from architect Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum are being completed. And Mr. Colevas said they plan to build several sections of the ballpark at once, rather than build one section at a time in a clockwise direction, as they had preferred.

“This is one of the tightest timelines we’ve ever had to deal with,” said Alan Petrasek, another senior vice president with Clark, who oversaw construction of Petco Park in San Diego.

That project, which was of similar size, took nearly four years to complete.

Yesterday’s groundbreaking came just one day after the family of Bethesda-based real estate developer Theodore N. Lerner was introduced as the Nationals’ new owner. At this point, the Lerners have said that they have no plans to contribute more money to the project and that the $320 million will be sufficient to building a premier ballpark. But, they have yet to formally meet with members of the construction or design teams or with members of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, which has ultimate oversight of the project.

Sports commission officials said they were anxious to hear whether the Lerners will seek the rights to develop about 40,000 square feet of retail space along First Street Southeast, along the stadium’s exterior. To obtain those rights, the Lerners would be asked to pay for the construction of that space, estimated to cost about $10 million.

“The Nationals, to date, have been unable to make a decision,” on the First Street Southeast retail, said Bill Hall, chairman of the sports commission’s baseball committee. “Now, with an owner, we can address this kind of stuff.”

Clark officials said they hope to raise the basic steel framework of the stadium by October. If that deadline is met, the rest of the stadium construction should be completed on time. Glass exteriors are expected to be added in the spring or summer of 2007, and the playing field to be installed shortly thereafter.

“Once the [steel] superstructure is up, a large amount of the risk is taken out,” Mr. Petrasek said. “The plot is to get that steel up and then start building in and around it.”

Mr. Petrasek said that despite the industrial-related tenants of the ballpark site, which had included a large asphalt plant and trash transfer facility, the stadium area is not unusually hard to build on. He said there is some mild concern that the playing field, to be located several feet below street level, will be close to the water table, but that the team is prepared to construct a system of wells, if necessary, to prevent flooding.

According to the contract between Clark and the sports commission, the construction team could earn up to $5.25 million in incentive fees for completing the project on time and on budget. The contract calls for $1.4 million to be awarded if the stadium is substantially completed by March 1, 2008, and another $1.4 million if it costs less than $320 million to build. The commission will award $350,000 more if the Lerners are satisfied, $1.05 million more for reaching benchmarks for minority and local involvement in the project and another $1.05 million for meeting building quality benchmarks. For every day after March 1, 2008, that the ballpark is not completed, the construction team will lose $100,000 in incentive fees.

The biggest concern of the construction team could be the weather. It is common for construction projects to be delayed by heavy rain, snow or extreme temperatures. But the construction team will only be given a reprieve from the budget and time constraints if a weather event caused destruction on par with that caused by Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent flooding of New Orleans and the ensuing poor response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the contract with the sports commission.

“We’ll just have to hope for normal weather,” Mr. Colevas said.

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