SBJ/March 20 - 26, 2006/This Weeks News

Washington ballpark construction effort faces a tight time line

The Washington Nationals’ recent victory in their pursuit of a new ballpark brought the franchise another, perhaps even tougher, challenge.

HOK Sport and Devrouax & Purnell unveiled ballpark
designs for the Nationals last week.
District of Columbia officials earlier this month completed a fractious, 18-month negotiation on a lease for a 41,000-seat, $611 million stadium, barely avoiding a nasty arbitration case after agreeing on a cost cap to limit public-sector contributions to the project. With peace finally at hand, district officials, along with architects HOK Sport and Devrouax & Purnell, last week unveiled designs for a modern-themed ballpark leaning heavily on glass, steel, limestone and open concourses providing ample views of the U.S. Capitol and Anacostia River waterfront.

Developing that stadium, however, will be a race against the clock. With groundbreaking not slated to occur until early next month at the soonest, the district, along with a building team of Clark Construction, Hunt Construction and Smoot Construction, will have 23 months to meet a March 2008 deadline specified in the relocation agreement that brought the MLB club to Washington.

No modern-era baseball stadium in the Northeast has been built in less than 24 months, and only then after significant site preparation work, which has not yet occurred in Washington.

“I do have some very serious concerns about this,” said Nationals President Tony Tavares. “There are some issues that are going to have to be addressed, and people are going to have to be absolutely indefatigable in their pursuit of building this ballpark.”

District officials are seeking to complete the acquisition of the stadium property within the next few weeks. That process originally was to be done by the end of 2005.

A possible resulting scenario could be a situation similar to that in St. Louis, where the new Busch Stadium will open next month for play as scheduled but will not offer its full battery of seating and amenities until the second half of the season.

“This certainly could be like the [Washington] Convention Center here, where we opened on time, held functions and still had six months of work to do,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans of the $800 million, three-year-old building that will be an architectural cousin of the planned ballpark. “The convention center opened, and I think there were something like 30,000 items still left on the punchlist.”

The development team will be subject to fines if it misses the March 2008 deadline and is at fault, but allowances will be made if gaining full control of the site is delayed further.

“There will be a number of finishing touches that will need to be done after we open,” said Bill Hall of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, which is overseeing the ballpark construction. “But as long as we can deliver the site in April, I think we’ll be OK.”

Despite the looming pressure of the construction calendar, the last two weeks have marked a decided upswing in the Nationals’ fortunes. After more than four years of MLB ownership, league officials intend to select a new team owner by mid-April, quite possibly before Opening Day.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and President Bob DuPuy planned to meet last weekend to advance the Nationals issue while attending the semifinals and final of the World Baseball Classic in San Diego. Ideally, the pair will have a buyer to present to MLB owners for approval at league meetings in mid-May. The club is expected to sell for at least $450 million. The top candidates are the family of Maryland developer Ted Lerner and a bid group led by Washington businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients.

Ticket sales are also beginning to rebound after a marked slowdown during the lease conflicts of the fall and winter. Nationals executives expect to surpass 2.5 million in attendance in 2006, a sum that would represent an 8 percent drop from last year’s total of 2.73 million. Season-ticket sales have reached 18,500 full-season equivalents, 83 percent of last year’s total, with an aggressive push now happening to sell partial-season packages and individual game tickets.

Before the intensified lease battles of the last six months, the Nationals had hoped to eclipse their 2005 draw, as the club believed last year’s total was artificially low due to the rushed relocation from Montreal, minimal TV exposure and operational challenges at RFK Stadium.

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