SBJ/January 24 - 30, 2005/Facilities

Retro a no-no for D.C. ballpark

The Washington Nationals’ new ballpark won’t be another retrospective retread cast in the mold of other MLB facilities built in the last 15 years, based on the design proposal sent to several architects earlier this month.

The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission’s document says the design goal for the stadium “should not be a duplication of other recently built ballfields in the country, but should take the most successful elements of these new facilities and create architecture for Washington that is distinctive and of this time.”

Designers considering themselves unconventional in their approach to planning stadiums and arenas say the proposal brings a breath of fresh air to the industry.

“They don’t want the next Camden Yards,” said Bill Johnson, senior principal with 360 Architecture, the firm that has been working for the District of Columbia the past two years to identify the ballpark site and plan the redevelopment of areas surrounding the stadium at the site chosen, near the Anacostia River.

Allen Lew, the commission’s executive director, didn’t return a phone call for comment. The commission will appoint a design team by Feb. 28. Construction is scheduled to start Feb. 1, 2006. The ballpark’s completion is targeted for March 1, 2008.

The proposal reinforces the design objective by requiring each team of architects bidding the project to have experience with designing buildings of “similar national or international significance in urban environments.”

Translated, that statement indicates that traditional sports facility designers should think of including people such as Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, I.M. Pei or Antoine Predock on their teams, the so-called starchitects recognized for designing iconic structures outside the sports world, said Stuart Smith, spokesman for Ellerbe Becket.

Those four world-class designers have also been involved in planning sports venues.

“You can read between the lines; they want the next generation of ballpark design, not the status quo,” Johnson said. “They don’t want a throwback, and that’s a great challenge. Our firm has recognized that they’re pushing the envelope and, for us, that’s welcome news.”

Dan Meis and Ron Turner, both with Ellerbe Becket and NBBJ before forming a partnership two years ago, pride themselves in not following the same path as the “typical suspects” in sports facility design, and the D.C. ballpark project is right up their alley, according to Meis.

Meis and Turner were involved in the redevelopment process of RFK Stadium, the home of the Nationals for the next three seasons, and were with Ellerbe Becket when the firm designed MCI Center in Washington, where the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals play.

“We’ve looked for projects with a sophisticated design and high-profile development,” Meis said. “There haven’t been too many of those.”

Said Turner: “It’s the finest design opportunity since Camden Yards.”

HOK Sport designed Camden Yards, considered the benchmark of modern ballpark design and the first of what turned out to be a string of MLB facilities with a retro theme. HOK’s Earl Santee and Joe Spear, the firm’s two designers specializing in baseball, declined to comment on the D.C. proposal.

HOK may have taken its knocks in the media for designing too many old-style venues, but to Spear’s credit, he worked with Predock on a successful design of Petco Park in San Diego, which with its soft colors and exotic plant forms is anything but retro.

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