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Washington City Paper

Oct. 7–13, 2005

Rich Fan, Poor Fan

by Josh Levin

Washington was once a sports-stadium innovator. Not anymore.

This year, 2,731,993 people went to watch the Nationals play at RFK Stadium. Washington baseball fans got to watch a major-league team of their own for the first time in 34 years. They cheered as the home team soared to first place in the National League East before the All-Star break. And they watched as big-time sluggers such as Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols came into town to practice their craft.

There may have been major-league action on the field, but there certainly wasn’t in the stands.Though the grass at RFK looks nice, and the sightlines are just fine, the drab, cramped concourses discourage ticket holders from opening their wallets. Most of the retail establishments on the stadium’s perimeter are tiny carts that sell little more than hot dogs and water. The stadium’s supposed luxury boxes, with their soiled carpets and shabby décor, evoke a conference room in the heart of the New York Avenue motel corridor.

When it opened its gates in 1961, the imposing, futuristic, roller-coaster-roofed D.C. Stadium helped inspire the construction of similar multipurpose “concrete-doughnut” stadiums in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia that accommodated both baseball and football games. Forty-five years later, the concrete doughnuts have been replaced by a new kind of multipurpose stadium—the field is designed for baseball, and the building is designed for commerce. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia have all replaced their old facilities with baseball-only stadiums. St. Louis’ new park will open next year; D.C.’s will follow in 2008 at an estimated cost of between $500 million and $600 million.

Once a stadium innovator, the District has become the ultimate follower. If you thought Mayor Anthony A. Williams rolled over for Major League Baseball when the Expos relocated, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, the mayor’s office, the Nationals, and Major League Baseball have chosen to kill off the league’s last ugly duckling and replace it with yet another shiny baseball jukebox.

In its request for proposals to potential architects, the Sports Commission sold the stadium project as an icon. The ballpark must “have an architectural presence befitting its prominent location at the gateway to the Nation’s Capitol, yet reflective of the city’s modern growth and new innovations in building design and technology,” the document said. “The design must be timeless, unique in the nation’s capitol and its waterfront setting, and representative of 21st century architectural ideals.”

If the District is looking for a unique piece of work, then its choice of architects is a curious one. Kansas City, Mo.’s, HOK designed the new stadiums in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. In fact, the firm has designed or built 12 of the 16 most recently built Major League Baseball stadiums and is now conjuring up new buildings for the Marlins, Mets, and Yankees in addition to the Nationals. (HOK’s partner in the stadium-building joint venture, the District architecture firm Devrouax & Purnell, has built zero of the 16 most recently built major-league ballparks.) Strip away the quaint façades and skyline views, and you’re left with the same formula: ample suites and club seats and 40-foot-wide concourses larded with souvenir stands, picnic areas, and Ferris wheels. Actually, after you’ve seen five or six old-timey façades and skylines, those start to look the same, too.

Back in February, HOK handed the Sports Commission a CD-ROM of stadium-design ideas. A finer mix of civic pandering and elementary-school-level boilerplate would have been hard to fashion. In its proposal, HOK listed several potential themes: “embrace monumentality of DC,” “create a formal building based on L’Enfant’s plan and the Capitol,” and “use the ballpark as a catalyst to connect the disparate faces of the city and Anacostia.”

Watch carefully for the public-relations campaign designed to make you feel good about breaking your household budget for a night at the District’s new ballpark. In fact, it has already begun. Via a front-page piece, the Washington Post, with an assist from the Sports Commission and HOK, has framed the place as an objet d’art, an elegant gateway to the District that will evoke the East Wing of the National Gallery.

As opening day at Linda Cropp Field approaches, you’ll also hear about the glass-and-stone frontage on South Capitol Street, the potential for views of the Anacostia River from the ballpark’s interior, and the repurposing of Half Street SE into a spectacularly landscaped pedestrian boulevard. WRC-TV Channel 4’s George Michael will do spots from the glistening structure, proclaiming the beautiful layout and the monumental backdrop. “It’s the most stunning ballpark I’ve ever seen,” he’ll say.

And it may well be. But at some point, you, the fan, will have to go to your seat and watch the ballgame. You’ll have to get up to take a piss. You may need a beer or a snack. And as you go about your game-watching business, you’ll come face to face with the really important design aspects of the new stadium: the ones that explain why your legs are cramped when you get home, why you have a better view of the blimp than of the second baseman, and why you’re suddenly out $200.

Strolling

The facts: If modern baseball has a political ethos, it’s cheery, old-fashioned totalitarianism: Buy everything, knock it all down, and replace it with “grilles,” “shoppes,” and hanging flower baskets. Alight from the Navy Yard Metro station and head south on Half Street SE, a purged and redeveloped upscale shopping strip with newly minted restaurants and kiosks and parallel lines of evenly spaced foliage. Look down the canyon of retail and you’ll fall into the stadium’s maw. A hand-drawn artist’s rendering included in HOK’s June 30 stadium concept design shows stick-figure pedestrians walking toward a cutout in the stadium walls near center field—according to architect Joe Spear, this is where the majority of fans will enter and exit the ballpark. According to documents and drawings, the “ballpark plaza” just north of the stadium gates will afford views of the field, areas for “informal picnicking,” and enough flagpoles to satisfy the most ardent vexillologist. On non-game-days, dreamy types can enjoy the “romance of the field and the spatial drama of the empty bowl.”

Pick a compass direction, any compass direction, and you’ll get a structured, monumental, inorganic thoroughfare. Coming from the south? Amble over on the replanted, re-retailed South Capitol Street or Potomac Avenue SE, where “active ground level uses will help to animate and energize the street.” From the east? Take a gander at 1st Street SE, a “pedestrian-intensive retail street.” And from the west, follow P Street SE to enter a Camden Yards–esque pedestrian avenue that offers plenty of inside-the-ballpark shopping opportunities to go with those outside. Bought all the fresh-squeezed lemonade and commemorative spoons you can handle by the third inning? No worries. Terraces that look down from the stadium concourse onto Potomac Avenue will give you a head start on your postgame window-shopping.

Who’s to blame: imperial baseball. The stadiums of the early 20th century sat on around 8 acres of land. The D.C. ballpark will sprawl over 21 acres in the middle of a 60-acre “Ballpark District” that should include 465,000 to 785,000 square feet of retail space, 350,000 to 1.6 million square feet of office space, and 7,000 to 8,000 parking spaces.

That’s not a ballpark. That’s Luxembourg.

Luxuriating

The facts: The suite and club areas at RFK Stadium are to typical MLB premium sections what a 5-year-old with his glove on his head and his finger up his nose is to Willie Mays. RFK’s got a few so-called luxury boxes and a concrete-cell-block-looking space with a stir-fry station and a cash bar called the PNC Diamond Club. If you’re the type of guy who can’t watch a guy grab his crotch unless there are doilies present, the new stadium will be more your speed.

Planning documents provided by the Sports Commission reveal that each luxury suite will be appointed with a “24 oz. carpet…wood veneer millwork and stone countertops… [r]efrigerator, ice maker, chafing dishes, plasma TV, computer connectivity, bar sinks.” The club seats—“a premium seating area for a premium price”—will share a concourse with the suites and, if recent stadiums are any guide, will likely feature waiter service and special parking privileges. If you want a guy in an apron to throw you a bag of peanuts in the Club Lounge, you’re on the wrong side of town. One specific mandate in the Sports Commission’s stadium program: “no vendors.” According to HOK’s Spear, the architects are trying their darnedest to provide Anacostia River views from the club level, but the Florida Rock development to the south of the stadium might block the vista. There’s also been talk of adding “porches” at either end of the suites as a way to supply additional sightlines to the field. No word on whether the porches will include rocking chairs on which suite owners can guard their turf with shotguns.

Down at field level, there will be a special 500-seat home-plate section called the Founders Club—think senior partners at Wilmer Cutler and Gilbert Arenas. A spot in the first row puts you closer to such hitters as Andruw Jones and Carlos Delgado (54 feet) than they are to the Nats’ pitchers. To reach your seat, you’ll pass through an exclusive lounge area with a pre-game buffet and a fully stocked bar. And if sipping Johnnie Walker Blue Label within spitting distance of Carlos Baerga isn’t enough, the lounge will also be available for “wedding receptions, holiday parties, etc.”

Just above the Founders Club will be the 1,300-seat Diamond Club—think junior partners at Wilmer Cutler and Gilbert Arenas’ entourage. And that’s it for the seating behind home plate. Yup, the only chairs within earshot of the catcher are in the ballpark’s superpremium sections.

Who’s to blame: AT&T, Coca-Cola, and any other corporation that has ever bought a skybox. The Washington Post and Jack Evans will try to convince you that most of the battles over the new stadium have to do with aesthetics and sightlines. But documents reveal that the stadium principals have spent most of their time arguing about the number, location, and extravagance of the ballpark’s premium seating areas.

The stadium negotiation process demonstrates that your appetite is always bigger if the other guy is paying. The general pattern: MLB and the Nationals ask for more bells and whistles, and the Sports Commission responds that any changes to the original program (41,000 seats, 2,000 club seats, 74 suites) won’t fly.

On Feb. 28, 2005, the Sports Commission responded to a litany of requests by the Nationals with a memo explaining that it “cannot agree to changes that would result in an increase in the project budget.”

Among the Nats’ requests that the Sports Commission considered unreasonable:

the addition of a 10,000-square-foot lounge for Diamond Club members,
a 7,500-square-foot conference center,
an increase in the number of glitzy Party Suites from 6 to 15,
an increase in the capacity of each Party Suite from 24 to 40, and
a mandate that every suite be in the infield dirt area.

In a June 7 letter, the Sports Commission once again bridled at the Nationals’ requests for more premium seating. “The inclusion of eight Founders Suites will add [square footage] to the building and increase finishing costs,” the missive explained. The Nats’ stadium consultant also wrote that the team “expected the Party Suites to be located on a separate level above or below the Suite Level.” In a June 23 letter, the Sports Commission responded that “we believe that minimizing the number of separate levels is more cost effective than increasing the height of the section by adding another level.”

A look at the current state of the stadium shows that the Sports Commission hasn’t exactly stuck to its guns. HOK’s Spear says that the supposedly budget-busting conference center is now an approved part of the stadium plans. Same thing for the Diamond Club lounge. Two-thousand club seats? Make that 2,500. What about those 74 suites? Revise that up to 78—oh yeah, and they’ll all be on the infield dirt. The architects crammed the boxes in by stacking them on top of each other. The plan is to cram 58 standard luxury suites with 16 seats apiece, 10 Party Suites with 24 seats each, and two Owners Suites with 24 seats each into a two-story space; there will also be eight megadeluxe 16-seat Founders Suites on the field level.

The Sports Commission’s biggest accomplishment, then, seems to be that an extra 16 people won’t make merry in each Party Suite. What happened to those shouts that “minimizing the number of separate of levels is more cost effective”? An extra suite level is just fine, explains Sports Commission head Allen Lew, because of “certain changes that they made that reduce certain costs.”

Sitting

The facts: If you’re a wide load, your wallet had better be as swollen as your haunches. Planning documents from the Sports Commission and HOK show that when the new stadium opens, you’ll pay by the inch. The fat cats in the high-rent Founders Club section will slosh around in upholstered 22-inch-wide seats. The schmoes in the least-adorned sections of the lower deck and the cheapskates in the upper deck with expired student IDs? You guys might want to kick that helmet-sundae habit, because you’ll be squeezing into a bare-bones, 19-inch bucket.

Keep in mind that those 19 inches aren’t 19 inches for the ass alone. In the stadium-chair biz, they inflate the numbers by measuring from armrest to armrest—a 19-inch seat is more like 17 inches wide for sittability purposes. Still, that’s enough room for all but the most ample bums. The real enemies here are broad shoulders. In a row of 19-inch chairs, girthy guys in the middle chew up most of the air space; the folks closest to the aisles tip over like dominoes.

Who’s to blame: Kraft Foods. Everyone will tell you that folks are fatter than they were, say, 45 years ago. Still, the big-bottomed baseball fan has it better in the ’60s-era RFK Stadium, where most chairs measure 20 inches and there are plenty of 21-inchers in the upper deck and in the 300 level at the back of the lower deck. In the new park, every design decision, down to the temperature of the water, gets run through a revenue-vs.-comfort algorithm. On the seating front, it pays to pack in the less expensive 19-inch chairs and save the ritzy, La-Z-Boy-sized numbers for the big spenders. Sorry, tubby.

Squinting

The facts: The great thing about upper-deck seats is that you can see the entire diamond. The new stadium’s top level will be even better—on a clear day, you might be able to scope out the action at FedEx Field. HOK’s June 30 concept design showed the upper concourse at an elevation of 87 feet, 3 inches. That’s 15 feet higher off the ground than RFK’s top deck. But that was before the architects, the Nationals, and the Sports commission settled on a double-decker luxury section. Spear says the drawings he’s now working on will place the upper deck another 6 feet higher. Every extra foot you’re jacked into the air will add to your misapprehensions. Ball or strike? Pop-up or home run? Did Barry Bonds just point at the sky or give some guy the finger? Is Livan Hernandez with child?

Who’s to blame: the same skybox-owning corporate bozos as above. Architects ratchet the upper deck higher into the sky to squeeze in the revenue-boosting suite and club levels below them. In RFK, there are 15 feet between the upper deck and the mezzanine level, the stadium’s halfhearted impersonation of a premium seating area. In the new ballpark, it looks as if the suite concourse will require a heftier 30 feet of vertical separation.

The upper levels are farther back horizontally, as well. In stadiums of the early 1900s, such as Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, the front of the upper deck was often as close to the field as the front of the lower deck. That’s not because the guys in the owner’s box cared about putting fans close to the action. In order to support second and third levels, the architects of yesteryear were forced to put support columns in the lower seating bowl. A couple of hundred seats downstairs may have had obstructed views, but the people up top felt as if they could reach out and touch the right fielder.

Today’s steel-and-concrete monsters don’t require the same buttressing, and today’s owners wouldn’t dare block the view of a season-ticket-holder in the 100 level. So the upper decks in freshly minted ballparks don’t begin until the lower decks end. In a 1996 Slate article, ballpark critic John Pastier wrote that the middle of the upper deck at the Texas Rangers’ 1990s-vintage stadium is 99 feet farther from home plate than the same row in Tiger Stadium. And according to architect Philip Bess, the last row of the upper deck of Chicago’s old Comiskey Park was closer to the action than the first row of the upper deck at its HOK-designed replacement. (A much-needed 2003 renovation lowered the upper-deck height by 20 feet.) Boosters of modern-day stadiums will tell you that the back rows of the upper decks are closer in than the back rows at older parks. That’s because they simply stop building—the new stadium will hold 41,000 people compared with RFK’s 46,000.

Focusing

The facts: The new Nats stadium will include something called “redirected seating.” No, scammers, that’s not a Camden Yards–style usher squadron that redirects you to the shitty seats you paid for when you try to sneak down to better ones. This term of art means that lower-deck seats will be angled so that all eyes naturally fall on the game’s focal points: the pitcher’s mound and home plate. No more contorting your neck like an emu to avoid ogling the bullpen all game.

Who’s to credit: HOK. This is one of the few attempts at crowd pleasing in modern stadium architecture that actually pleases the crowd. There will also be glass railings in certain sections to ensure that nobody’s view will be obstructed. Hard to say how much of a difference that will make, but it raises the prospect of shattering the closest railing with a sledgehammer if the Nats lose to the Phillies in excruciating fashion.

Hydrating

The facts: Want a sip of cold water on the way back to your seat? Better check your ticket stub, because the fountains will be segregated. According to planning documents, the stadium’s public concourses will be outfitted with nonrefrigerated drinking fountains. In other words, bubblers that spew swamp fill: At a mid-July afternoon game, with the temperature around 95, those WASA pipes will discharge a lukewarm chlorine-lead brew. In the suites and club-seating section, the fountains will serve up cold water. Oh, and the suite concourse is going to be air-conditioned, too. If you want AC in the upper deck, bring a window unit.

Who’s to blame: Major League Baseball, money-grubbing team owners, the entire D.C. government, and the ineffable separation of rich and poor in 21st-century America.

Pissing

The facts: Got a taste for $8 microbrews? Just to be safe, catheterize yourself if you can’t afford a premium seat. According to ballpark architect Joe Spear, the stadium’s public concourses will include one “lavatory” (for those of us who aren’t in the bathroom-fixture industry, that’s a sink) per 300 men and one per 200 women, one “water closet” (toilet) per 350 men and one for each 75 women, and one “urinal” (urinal) for every 100 men. The folks in the penthouses upstairs? They’ll never have to decide between soiling themselves and missing the chance to see Jamey Carroll swing the lumber. On the suite and club levels, there will be one lavatory per 125 men and one per 125 women, one water closet per 250 men and one per 50 women, and one urinal per 75 men.

Who’s to blame: male chauvinist pigs. According to George Washington University professor John Banzhaf, also known as the “father of potty parity,” the new stadium’s bathroom stats won’t skew female enough. Banzhaf says that to avoid queues of angry women, the stadium needs twice as many toilets for women as for men; these figures suggest the ballpark will have a measly 1.15-to-1 ratio in the luxury areas and a positively sexist 1.04-to-1 ratio in the public concourses. Also, what ever happened to the giant troughs that collected pee in the stadiums of yore? Who wouldn’t prefer standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a giant urine trench to being one of 115 wannabe water-makers waiting for a stand-alone pisser?

Antiquing

The facts: Fans of distressed furniture will have a ball at the ballpark. The new stadium’s outfield dimensions, after all, go after that old-timey ballpark feel in the phoniest way. The inner-city stadiums of the early 1900s (Fenway Park, Ebbets Field, and D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, among others) had to squeeze into the existing city grid. Baseball wasn’t important enough—and owners weren’t rich enough—to shoo away adjacent-property owners. Fenway’s short porch in left field, for instance, is a natural artifact of the ballpark’s siting in an awkwardly shaped lot.

The new field’s contrived distances will try to summon the old parks’ essence: 340 feet down the left-field line, 385 in the left-field power alley, 413 at a sharply angled outcropping just left of center field, 400 feet to straightaway center, 380 in the right-field power alley, 368 on the short side of a protuberance in right-center field, and 330 to the foul line in right. The manufactured quirkiness evinces Major League Baseball conformity: The outfields in the newish parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and San Diego, with their jutting corners and acute angles, look identically asymmetrical.

Who’s to blame: HOK’s chief stadium designer, Joe Spear. Two years ago, Spear ruminated on the success of his most famous creation, Camden Yards. “[It] has a natural grass playing field,” he explained in the Baltimore Sun. “It has the icon of the warehouse. It has the asymmetrical field. It just resonates.” Spear says the fencing he’s designed will resonate in the District because it’s more than a standard-issue, faux-eccentric outfield. Rather, it’s a nod to Griffith Stadium, the Washington Senators’ onetime home, which had a notch in center field to accommodate five houses and a large tree. Of course, that was the handiwork of holdout property owners, not nostalgia-minded architects. So that’ll be 340 feet down the left-field line, 364 to the gay strip clubs…

Throbbing

The facts: Got long legs? Don’t go through the turnstiles without asking your doctor—you might put yourself at high risk for deep-vein thrombosis. According to planning documents, nonpremium rows in the ballpark’s lower concourse will measure 33 inches from front to back—that’s 2 to 3 fewer inches than you’ll get in parts of RFK Stadium’s lower deck. Oh, and don’t forget that your chair’s going to fill about 20 of those inches. Want to practice for Opening Day 2008? Slather yourself with Crisco and slide into the back seat of a 1967 VW Beetle.

Who’s to blame: Major League Baseball, money-grubbing team owners, the entire D.C. government, and the ineffable separation of rich and poor in 21st-century America. Again, there are profits to be had from squeezing in seats downstairs, where the tickets are pricier. Yearning to stretch out in a 36-inch row so you don’t have to squat all game like Nats catcher Brian Schneider? Those extra 3 inches are all yours, for the right price. If you can’t afford to pamper your gams in a luxury suite, keep blood flowing to the lower extremities by supplementing the seventh-inning stretch with between-innings yoga.

Spending

The facts: According to the sports-research firm Team Marketing Report Inc., it cost $169.72—slightly more than the league average—for a family of four to go to a Nats game this year. That’s mighty impressive given the paltry number of big-ticket items on the RFK menu.

Just wait ’til 2008. Documents indicate that the District’s new stadium will include a Family Plaza with arcade games and “baseball-oriented ‘training’ activities” for the kids. “Training activities”? That’ll be $10 per slider, son.

You will also be able to buy José Vidro bobble-heads in several convenient locations. There will be a main team retail store that makes “extensive use of glass storefront,” four permanent novelty stands, four portable novelty stands, a shop with “kid-scaled displays,” and a space reserved for the team’s “naming rights partner.” Also: two premium novelty stands with “upscale finishes and presentation.” We’re talking three coats of polyurethane.

Hungry? Check out the 233 points of sale at public concession stands, the 39 points of sale at club concession stands, and the sit-down, “fine dining” restaurant.

Who’s to blame: Boog Powell. The ex-slugger for the Baltimore Orioles, whose name graces a food stand at Camden Yards, has proved that people will buy barbecue at a ballgame. Sources say that former Senators masher Frank “Hondo” Howard has been spotted harvesting firewood in the shadows of the Frederick Douglass Bridge. CP

Ballpark Frank
The lowdown on the old vs. the new
NEIGHBORHOOD AMBIANCE
RFK: D.C. Armory and D.C. General Cropp Field: Armani and Chanel
TICKET AVAILABILITY
RFK: Plentiful and cheap crappy upper-deck seats Cropp Field: Scarce and expensive crappy upper-deck seats
ARCHITECTURAL INFLUENCE
RFK: Spaceship Cropp Field: Retro spaceship
CONCOURSE DIMENSIONS
RFK: Wingspan of single-engine Cessna Cropp Field: Wingspan of Spruce Goose
FOOD
RFK: Chicken fingers and Italian sausage Cropp Field: Same thing, plus mango salsa
MEMORABILIA
RFK: Hats, pennants, and souvenir cups Cropp Field: 100-percent-suede hats, pennants, and souvenir cups
BETWEEN-INNING ENTERTAINMENT
RFK: Scoreboard beer-bottle races and trivia contests Cropp Field: Offers to refinance your season tickets
LUXURY-SUITE APPOINTMENTS
RFK: Maximum-security prison Cropp Field: Minimum-security prison
COST
RFK: An arm and a leg Cropp Field: Four arms and three legs
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