Nats owner asked D.C. to add $300m roof to 5-year-old stadium STOP LAUGHING WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?

Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray revealed yesterday that — excuse me, what?

Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Tuesday that Washington Nationals owner Theodore N. Lerner pitched him earlier this year on a pricey plan to have the city build a retractable roof over Nationals Park — a proposal, Gray said, that he swiftly but politely rejected.

(Hang on, I’m going to need a minute here.)

Okay, so: This news first broke when WNEW-FM (hey, that used to be our station ID!), which learned from multiple sources that “team executives have approached several District officials, including some inside mayor Vincent Gray’s office,” to propose a $300 million roof atop the five-year-old stadium, which cost $667 million to build, almost all of it from city tax money. Gray later confirmed the report, saying he had a 15-minute meeting with the Nats owner in July at which “what Lerner wanted to talk about was the possibility of a roof on Nationals Park. That was it. There was no discussion about how much it was going to cost and no further details. I’ve had no further discussions.” Another city official, this one unnamed, told the Washington Post: “The mayor was polite but unequivocal. We are not going to spend taxpayer money to put a roof on the stadium, regardless of the cost.”

So we’ve established that whatever else you want to say about Mayor Gray’s sports stadium dreams — not only is he proposing one of the largest soccer-stadium subsidies ever for D.C. United, but he recently approved $50 million in tax-increment financing funds for the Wizards‘ Verizon Center to buy a new scoreboard and other goodies — he’s not totally crazy. Which raises the other obvious question: Is Lerner?

It’s not totally unheard of to add a roof (retractable, presumably, since for $300 million you damn well better get a roof that moves) to a stadium that wasn’t designed for one in the first place: There’s the U.S. Open tennis center’s planned roof, and the one at Wimbledon, and … okay, there’s not a lot else, and certainly no examples from baseball. Roofs, especially retractable ones, require a ton of support structure, which means giant pylons around the stadium, and Nationals Park doesn’t exactly have a lot of free space around it. Supposedly Lerner went as far as having renderings drawn up, which he showed to Gray, but which haven’t publicly surfaced yet.

And then there’s the bigger question: Why the hell do the Nationals need a roof, anyway? Washington isn’t especially rainy as cities go, and though the Nats have shown a strange obsession with not wanting to have to give rain checks for games lost to weather, the amount of revenue at stake has to be piddling. So why spend $300 million to solve a problem that really isn’t?

The answer, I suppose, could be that Lerner wasn’t looking to spend his money. Why he thought Gray would go for building a roof with city money is anyone’s guess, though. Maybe this was just an opening gambit so that later when he says, “Okay, we’ll just take one of those $50 million scoreboard plans like you gave the Wizards,” he’ll sound more reasonable by comparison? Given that right now Jeffrey Loria sounds more reasonable than Lerner, that might be the best bet — call it baseball’s madman theory.


13 comments on “Nats owner asked D.C. to add $300m roof to 5-year-old stadium STOP LAUGHING WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?

  1. Educated guesses:

    1) Shade. Neil, you mentioned this in your review of Nats Park. There is no shade for the expensive seats. I think wanting shade is becoming more of a trend (see also: Dallas MLS team).

    2) All Star. It wouldn’t surprise me if MLB is reluctant to deal with the heat of DC in July, but would be happy to do so if there were a roof.

    3) Non-baseball events. To take one example, NCAA folks have mentioned they want larger, coastal cities for the Final Four. Concerts and other events might be more attractive with a roof as well.

  2. 1) Actually, I was in the cheap seats when I had no shade. And no baseball team on earth closes the roof because it’s too sunny. Plus, for $300 million they could just buy every fan an umbrella for the next 30 years.

    2) Last year’s All-Star Game was in Kansas City, which you may be aware is a bit toasty in July. And besides, there’s no way D.C. could actually seal up Nats Park to make it air-conditioned, not even for $300m.

    3) Number of Final Fours that have been held at baseball-only stadiums: zero. Football geometry sort of works for basketball, baseball not at all.

  3. I really think DC should make a tender offer for the roof of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and then disassemble the roof and move it to DC.

    The symmetry would be hilarious, and may be cheaper.

  4. I always find the silliness surrounding getting the All Star game to town to be amusing. Why would anyone “invest” such a large amount of money to get one game? Obviously, trying to get the World Series would be a much better investment–you’re guaranteed at least two games (and the playoffs before it), and you can have it every year!

    Living there, I had the idea that the Lerners wouldn’t mind changing the narrative on the relatively low turnstile count in the Stadium. Despite all the protestations of Thomas Boswell and others on what a great “baseball town” Washington is, it has been a bit of a mystery as to why so few people actually go (versus buying tickets) given all the marketing and gee-whiz technology in the stadium. Getting some opinion shapers to posit that environmental problems are an “issue” helps them in a variety of ways when “improving the stadium experience.”

  5. I think I can help with the structures side of this unrealistic request. I’ll use Minute Maid Park as an example since I’m familiar with it and it has a retractable roof.

    The roof on Minute Maid (then The Ballpark at Union Station) was considered a separate “unit” during construction. On the left field side the structure was built with a concrete base that was separate from stadium structure. The first base side structure was built (above ground) with entirely steel structure but both sides started completely separate from the stadium, which was started in right field.

    The roof unit doesn’t merge into the actual stadium it’s beyond first base on the first base side and never actually merges into the stadium on the left field side. Of course the non-moving overhangs have to be part of the stadium structure.

    So, to an extent it is possible to build a retractable roof without much “interaction” with the stadium itself.

    The reason for the separate “units” was that it was felt the moving part of the roof unit might be difficult to build and hold-up progress on the stadium bowl itself. By making them (mostly) separate that decreased the schedule risk.

    I seem to remember that the total roof cost was around $60 million in 2000 dollars. However, that would be for a smaller roof area compared to what would be needed for Nationals Park. Of course, roofing material has gotten lighter/stronger since 2000. Look at the past proposal for the Rays’ ballpark on the water and the roto-dome that the Falcons are building for examples of different building materials.

    Of course, there are plenty of examples of the retractable roof being integral with the stadium dome. The retractable roof at Miller Park is a great example of this and also shows the technological risks with retractable roofs. I believe Mitsubishi Industries designed that roof. Have they finally got it to stop leaking?

  6. Thanks, ALK, that’s very informative. Do you happen to know how much of a footprint the Houston roof structure takes up? Because as you can see from Google Maps, there’s not a lot of room around Nationals Park to build anything else.

  7. Wanting shade may be a trend, but wanting something and not wanting to pay for it yourself is an absolute craze amongst sports business owners these days.

    I’m pleased the Mayor kept the meeting short. I’m disappointed that the Nats – who as I recall signed a long term agreement binding them to DC as a condition of the near $700m gift of tax dollars – thought it reasonable to ask.

  8. Neil, I don’t have everything where I’m at to answer your question. I can tell you that the seat bowl down the left field line ends just before the roof rail support structure starts. On the first base side, the last part of that rail is behind the first base stands as part of the stadium structure. So it is right over the last seats in the upper deck, where the lighting is located. It is the reason the roof rail is so much higher on the first base side than in left field.

    So, you can think of the roof support structure as being two parallel tracks where their closest points just touch the stadium on the first base side and are just outside of the stadium on the left field side. I suspect that if you can find a way to draw two parallel tracks on Nationals Park and have both tracks just outside of the stadium bowl, you would have a good footprint estimate. Of course for $300 million you should be able to replace part of the stadium structure to accommodate a closer (smaller) roof, as needed.

  9. OK, I got curious. Looking at the overhead view of Nationals Park, you could see a roof rail running parallel with S. Capitol St SE and the other next to 1st St. SE. You can kind-of see where the tracks would run in the photo, assuming the office structures (outside of the seating bowl) could be reinforced enough to handle the weight and dynamic loads as the roof moves.

    When opened, the roof unit would rest above the left field bleachers.

    But, when you add a roof, you also add other things. If the roof is supposed to provide protection against the heat then air conditioning and its ducts will need to be run. Somewhere the cooled water would have to be pumped in. You also need to add doors to seal the air in. It’s not hermetically sealed, of course, but you still want to stop air flow.

    On the other hand, a linear roof like in Seattle where it is just designed to stop rain, would not require the above. Their retractable roof cost more because it had to be designed to handle earthquakes.

    I’m assuming a linear roof system, which they may not have in mind. But the outer footprint of the ballpark seems to lend itself to a linear roof design. I can see how it could be retrofitted with anything resembling Miller Park’s radial roof.

  10. Did fine until the last sentence. Should have read,

    “I can’t see how it could be retrofitted with anything resembling Miller Park’s radial roof.”

    Sorry about that.

    Given enough money and time (which solves a lot of engineering problems), a retractable roof on Nationals Park looks feasible, but it certainly would seriously change the look of the ballpark.

  11. Neil,

    1999 Final Four was at Tropicana Field.

    Just because MLB put All Star in a hot & humid place doesn’t mean they won’t ask the Nats to get some shade before they go there. KC had extortion from local pols (give us All star or we won’t fund the reno) that DC doesn’t have.

    I don’t think the roof will be completely closed all the time, but the roof structure adds shade over a lot of seats.

  12. The Trop did have that event, though that was not one of the more fondly remembered venues for the Final Four. Many remember it as a disaster with awful sight lines and strange seating configurations. I think that taste of basketball in a baseball stadium was enough for the NCAA, which has returned to enormous domed football stadia to sell upper deck seats for hundreds.

    Baltimore has little more of a roof than Washington does and no one really complains, but since these teams play 75% or more of their games at night, I’m not sure sunlight is really much of a problem most of the time.

    I’d say it again, spending big money for a one-off event is nearly senseless. It really is shocking how little that stadium is used for events other than baseball. Where the confidence comes from for concerts I really have no idea.

  13. All-star game boosters (MLB, politicos, local convention and visitors bureaus) wouldn’t even argue that the game and related events is worth 300 mil in economic impact, so it doesn’t make sense to build a roof just to have an all-star game. A case can be made that the Trop is a multi-purpose facility as it hosted Lightning NHL games for three years and a college football bowl game since 2008. If the Rangers can do without a roof in a city that makes KC’s summers mild in comparison, then the Nats don’t need one. Since MLB negotiated the lease with D.C., not the Lerners, it would be odd for them to turn down the city as all-star game host as it didn’t require a roof as a prerequisite when relocating the Expos. As the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore wrote on Twitter, the team could fund a roof in part by selling naming rights just as the White Sox did to fund improvements at new Comiskey.