Disappointment doesn't seem to go far enough to describe the reaction a lot of y'all had to the new design concept for D.C. United's planned - no longer just proposed! - stadium on Buzzard Point. That was part of it, but some of you were downright angry. Some accused the team of lying to us by releasing more ambitious renderings a few years back. Some take issue with specific features or omissions. Some are miffed that Populous, the architecture firm that will design United's new building, has not come up with something more groundbreaking or wholly unique in their approach.
I was disappointed when we got our first glimpse at this design concept two months ago, when United announced they had selected Populous. The Kansas City-based firm had also designed the ultimately too-good-to-be-true renderings so many of us fell in love with, so seeing something significantly more scaled back was something of a let down for a lot of us. What I don't fully understand is the outright anger that has come to the fore now, when the response two months ago was less severe. (Is it overflow from the on-field product sucking a lot over the last two months? Is the threat of Joaquin or a government shutdown just really stressing people out?)
I'll be the first to say the team botched the expectations game here from the go. They gave us shiny pie-in-the-sky renderings and said "This is what we want to build." We got attached. When the new conceptual drawings came out, they were obviously a step back, and we were disappointed. United allowed an expectations bubble to inflate when it was always bound to pop someday. But that's really their biggest offense here.
They didn't lie, as some are accusing them of, and there was no bait-and-switch (unless they used the old renderings to sell the team to one of you for millions more than it's worth, in which case my email address is in my profile and we should chat). Let's not with the hyperbole. Levien did say he'd prefer to keep supporters at midfield and would like to find a way to incorporate bouncing stands. A few different versions of renderings showed a roof, and I'm sure somebody somewhere talked about wanting in a perfect world to have every seat covered. But I don't ever recall seeing any guarantees to any effect. Everything was always subject to change, and we shouldn't pretend that we didn't all knew that. Again, it is disappointing to have our hopes built up by the spectacular only to end up with anything less than that.
But disappointment shouldn't cloud what we're looking at here, which - assuming the team doesn't totally botch details like concessions and ticket prices - still looks like a damn good place to watch a soccer game.
Look at those sight lines. I mean, really picture what being in one of those seats would look like. Every single seat will be a better spot for viewing the game than RFK offers. Every seat will be closer to the action, and the pitch of the seats will be far more vertical - which creates a much more imposing and loud atmosphere than anything else an architect can offer. There's no amazeballs triple-decker on the west side of the ground (my personal favorite part of the old renderings), but it's still pretty great by any standard. Bonus: every sideline seat will be shaded for late afternoon/evening games, which almost all of them will be because United will actually control their own scheduling. (No, it's not the perfect ideal of 100% covered seats, but more on that further down )
Yes, lifting the front row of seats to make room for what look to be field-level suites is similar to San Jose's Avaya Stadium. Who the hell cares? It makes for better sight lines while also allowing the team to get more revenue from highrollers. San Jose was the first place I know of to try this particular idea, but it won't be the last, whether or not we see it on Buzzard Point. That's because it's a good idea, and good ideas catch on. There are only so many ways to put seats around a rectangular field before repetition naturally occurs. No stadium is totally unique. Some folks said the old, shiny, seemingly perfect renderings looked too much like Sporting Park. Some folks are never satisfied. I don't care what the precedents are as long as it's a good place to watch a game - and this looks likely to be that.
Another criticism I've seen has to do with how the stadium addresses the neighborhood around it. Now, I'm a big urbanism guy. I support active and complete streets, multimodal transportation options, mixed use development, the lot. But I'm not sure I follow some of the complaints on this front.
Potomac Ave will see a team store and potentially an outward-facing bar on the western part of the site. Whatever hotel/ancillary development the club can manage on the eastern part will also face Potomac, with a plaza in between. The Half Street side will have that ancillary development going. The western facade, on 2nd Street SW, looks likely to be pretty dead. But it faces the brick wall on the Fort McNair perimeter, and no amount of architecture could salvage that arrangement.
The south side of the stadium - the side with exposed girders on the underside of the stands - looks like it will face the team parking lot. Not ideal urbanism by any means, but also not the most critical piece of the puzzle since that direction is likely the last to develop, being farther away from transit and all the planned development so far. In any event, I suspect the western roof could be removed to make room for a wrap-around second deck on the south and west stands if/when the time comes to add capacity. In the meantime, some exposed beams facing a public plaza on one side and a parking lot on another will not be what makes or breaks Buzzard Point as a neighborhood.
Which brings us to the supporters' stand on the north side of the stadium. Yes, a roof over the supporters would be awesome, and I'd certainly like to see one. As much fun as rocking out in rain and sun can be at RFK, having some protection from the elements is generally preferable to the alternative. But let's not pretend like a roof - which, thanks to the height of the rest of the stadium, would have to be a good deal higher than what would be ideal to trap noise effectively - is some sine qua non for an intimidating atmosphere. RFK has been plenty intimidating without one in its day, and storied grounds like La Bombonera in Buenos Aires and the Camp Nou in Barcelona don't have roofs over Even a majority of seats - they do just fine.
Hell, I've heard people complain that there might not be enough entry gates. After so many people called for a supporters' bar over the last several years, now that the design document mentions one, some people are calling it a money grab. Which is how I know we're scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for stuff to bitch about. There's a forest here, let's stop looking for imperfections on the leaves in the trees.
There are absolutely plenty of nits to pick in this design concept - which, it must be repeated, is likely to change a lot between today and when it opens. There are suggestions and changes that can and probably should be made, and I have as many questions I'm curious about as anybody. United and Populous and whoever their construction contractor is will have to be really diligent about finding high-quality finishes to keep this from looking like an Erector set project a la
Columbus Crew Mapfre Stadium (or, frankly, Red Bull Arena, which, despite the reverence some hold for it, sacrifices all else for the sake of the stadium bowl, a totally reasonable decision).
But some national disgrace this ain't. It's going to be home, warts and all. We can all have strong opinions about it, but let's do ourselves the favor of being self aware enough not to pretend that anything less than an unreachable ideal of perfection is failure and might as well not be built. We all should recognize that even this design concept's flaws are minor next to its great successes: it will exist, and United will remain in D.C.