- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fenway Park has the Green Monster. SBC Park has McCovey Cove. Camden Yards has the warehouse.

But when it comes to Nationals Park, no one can agree on what will be the stadium’s distinctive feature.

“I’m going to have to say the scoreboard,” the Nationals’ principal owner, Mark Lerner, said of the mammoth video screen in right field, one of the largest in baseball.

“What I like about it is the intimacy,” said Bill Hall, vice chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. “Everyone feels like they are truly part of the game.”

Other city and team officials like the views of the Capitol Dome and Washington Monument from the upper deck. Construction officials said they like the unique design of the steel beams that support the ballpark. There’s also the center field restaurant, 10,000-square-foot entertainment area, Presidents Diamond Clubs, and of course, the cherry trees on the outfield concourse.

“My favorite part of this park is that there are so many different things, different nooks and different ways to appeal to different people,” Nationals president Stan Kasten said. “There are so many great looks.”

The lack of a signature feature could be the result of the ultra-tight schedule and intense budget pressure placed on the project at the start. Those restrictions prevented the city and team from making significant design changes in midstream and also forced them to turn to lower-cost materials, such as concrete instead of granite or limestone.

Time will tell, of course, whether the ballpark was built in the mold of a “Buick or Ford” rather than a “Cadillac,” as was predicted by former D.C. Council chairwoman Linda Cropp during the tense negotiations to get the stadium built.

“We could have probably had more stone if we had the funding, but we took very seriously the cost caps that were established,” said former sports commission CEO Allen Lew, who oversaw the major phases of construction. “But there was not a lot of value-engineering in this project. A fool can build something fast and cheap if you sacrifice quality. We wanted to make sure the product was something we’re all going to feel good about.”

Nationals Park will be unique among the newer ballparks in baseball in that the city pushed for a more modern design instead of the retro-style brick ballparks made popular in places like Baltimore and San Francisco. The result is a building that looks more like a modern office building than a stadium.

“This is really a design that fits in with the Washington we know today,” Hall said. “It will have something for everyone. It will truly be just a fabulous baseball experience and our newest monument.”

In a positive twist, the stadium’s tight budget may have indirectly helped make the ballpark more intimate. There are no luxury suites located down the lines or in the outfield, allowing some upper-deck seats to be just 60 feet from the field — as close to the field as the pitcher is to home plate.

“For a third deck, that’s really close,” Kasten said. “It’s as close as you can get. The whole park is intimate, and that’s one of the great things about it.”

Time pressure also forced the city to build parking garages at the site above ground, marring the view beyond left field. And new office buildings in the area make it virtually impossible to see the Capitol Dome or Washington Monument except from certain upper-deck seats. But people involved in the project downplayed the issue.

“You don’t always have to see the mountains from the windshield of your car,” said Jim Chibnall, an architect with HOK Sport who worked on the stadium’s design. “Sometimes you like to see the peaks appear and disappear as you drive through mountain passes. This works because it captures peoples’ imaginations.”

The Nationals have spent nearly $20 million on enhancements to the ballpark, expanding the center field restaurant, upgrading the scoreboard, installing a new ribbon board and improving the luxury suites. They’ve also insisted on smaller enhancements such as better light fixtures and nicer signage.

“We’ve set a very solid criteria for how we want things to look,” Lerner said. “We’ve been very particular about it, and there’s been a strong attention to detail. A lot of the things that the fans will see are things we’ve selected to put in place some life and some color, and to make this place have a personality.”

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