DOUBLE PLAY

The Baltimore Sun

It's close to downtown and open to the sky, and features sweeping views of the city beyond. There's an asymmetrical field with enough nooks and crannies to keep the game interesting - plus a state-of-the-art scoreboard, luxury skyboxes and all the creature comforts fans could want.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992?

Yes, but also Nationals Park on the Anacostia riverfront in 2008.

Sixteen years after Baltimore broke the mold with its "newfangled, old-fashioned" ballpark, Washington has joined the list of cities that can boast they have a new, baseball-only stadium in a prime urban setting.

Opening Saturday with an exhibition game between the Nats and the Orioles, followed by the season opener Sunday against the Atlanta Braves, the $611 million Nationals Park in Southeast Washington incorporates many of the elements that have been so popular at Oriole Park and a dozen other major-league ballparks that have debuted since 1992.

But those who visit Nationals Park seeking comparisons with Oriole Park will hardly find a clone. Although it's intimate and full of fan amenities, this is not a "retro" park.

From the outset, city planners in Washington wanted their ballpark to be a contemporary expression rather than a throwback.

And the design team - which includes the architects of Oriole Park, HOK Sport (working in this case with Devrouax + Purnell of Washington) - was happy to oblige.

HOK Sport has been concerned about being typecast as a firm that specializes in old-fashioned parks ever since Baltimore's opened to rave reviews. Its architects seek out chances to prove they can create "forward-looking" sports architecture, even as team owners yearn for nostalgia.

Washington, which got its present team when the Montreal Expos moved there in 2005, presented a rare opportunity. When design work began that year, an owner had not been identified to purchase the team from Major League Baseball, so the architects' chief "client" was the District of Columbia.

Joseph Spear, principal in charge of the project for HOK Sport, said city leaders told the design team early on that they wanted Washington's ballpark to reflect the duality of the nation's capital: the "monumental city" that visitors see and the "local city" where people live and work.

"They made it clear that this is not just a city of monuments," Spear said. "They wanted this to be about the community."

As constructed, Nationals Park doesn't break new ground in design as much as it builds on what has gone before and tailors it to its city. The designers took what has been learned about ballpark design over the past 20 years - much of it taught by HOK - and gave the team and the city a better setting for baseball than they've had before.

"It has all the right stuff," Spear says. "Everything we've learned in the last 20 years is baked in in Washington."

One of the biggest differences between Oriole Park and Nationals Park is the exterior. Baltimore's ballpark is defined by red brick arches and Camden green steel supports for the upper deck. In Washington, the palette is light-colored precast concrete walls, glass and metal panels. Each side of the building has a different look conceived to respond to the area it faces.

The ballpark was designed to fit into the Pierre-Charles L'Enfant plan that has guided development in the district since 1791.

The site is bounded by South Capitol, N, First and Potomac streets Southeast. The designers took two geometrical shapes, a triangle and a circle, and combined them to create the basic plan for the park.

One side of the triangle was used to define the edge of South Capitol Street Southeast, a main boulevard leading to the U.S. Capitol. It represents the formal, monumental side of the ballpark. The circle encloses the seating bowl, which is closer to the river and represents a more informal side of the ballpark. The combination is not unlike the marriage of two geometries at Oriole Park - the long, straight B&O; Warehouse and the curved seating bowl.

Nationals Park has 41,888 seats - 4,000 fewer than the team's home for the past three years, RFK Stadium - and each is angled toward home plate. The lower bowl, which holds more than half of the seats, is made of concrete. The upper decks are steel. Luxury skyboxes are concentrated behind home plate.

Every seat is designed to be part of a distinct "neighborhood," so fans will be close to the action and have a variety of viewing experiences, both of the game and the city. Fans also can stay connected to the game if they leave their seats because the concourse offers open views of the playing field.

One of the most mundane aspects of the ballpark is the sight of two concrete parking garages along N Street Southeast designed by parking specialist Desman Inc.

They occupy the same block as the ballpark and frame the plaza entrance that the greatest number of people will use, making them part of visitors' first impressions. They're also a constant presence just beyond the outfield.

It would have been better if the garages had been buried underground and other types of buildings had risen above street level, but the cost of putting parking below grade was deemed too expensive. If there is anything good to be said about the parking from an environmental standpoint, it is that there is relatively little of it on the block containing the ballpark - about 1,200 spaces. Patrons are encouraged to use Metro - its Navy Yard stop is several blocks away.

Speaking of environmental considerations, Nationals Park is the first professional stadium in America designed as a "green" ballpark, and the architects plan to seek certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Eco- friendly features include a green roof, water-conserving plumbing fixtures, high-efficiency field lighting and an intricate ground and storm water filtration system designed to protect the river from peanut shells, among other debris. That's a promising new direction in ballpark design.

Asked how he would like visitors to describe Nationals Park, Spear said he hopes they have a hard time putting a label on it.

"I don't think that people would say this is retro," he said. "I hope they don't see it as modern, either. I hope they see it as a building that could only fit on that site in D.C. That's what we were trying to do. If they say it fits the city, that's the compliment we're looking for."

Like many cities, Washington has seen the two extremes in baseball parks over the past century. It had the quirky but amenity-poor ballpark of old, Griffith Stadium at Georgia Avenue and W Street Northwest, which was demolished in 1965 and is now the site of Howard University Hospital. It had the concrete doughnut configuration of RFK Stadium, now owned by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. In a few days, it has a chance to experience a third genre that goes a long way beyond both.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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