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May 27, 2007

Nationals Treasure?

Green Initiatives in DC

by Will Weiss

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As the Washington Nationals make their mad dash out of the NL East cellar, construction crews on the team's new waterfront ballpark are doing the same to ensure an April 2008 debut. The ballpark boasts numerous green features intended to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design) certification from the United States Green Building Council, and is being touted as an example for future sustainability efforts in stadium construction.

On the Web site for the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission (DCSEC), an artist's rendering depicts the following eco-friendly features of the stadium:

  • High-efficiency lighting, which the team projects will save it 21 percent on energy bills.
  • 20 percent of building materials will be comprised of recycled content.
  • Reserved parking for carpools and fans driving hybrid vehicles.
  • High-reflectance roof to minimize heat gains.
  • Six underground areas containing sand filters to sift through organic debris, paper waste and general trash.
  • Low-flow toilets, slated to save 3.6 million gallons of water annually.
  • Access to mass transit, and an area to park bicycles.
  • Low-emitting carpets, adhesives, and water-based paints in suites and other interior areas of the stadium.
  • Imitation limestone cast used for the exterior facing of the stadium.

Stadium operators across Major League Baseball and higher-ups in the league office are proud of the work being done in Washington. The word "forerunner" has been used regularly to describe the environmental efforts accompanying the Nats' stadium project. However, skeptics are using different terms to describe the project, claiming that the features mentioned above are merely a means to acquire the requisite number of points to be awarded the LEED certification. There is a growing sentiment that the green components of the project exist solely for MLB, the DCSEC, HOK, and the Nationals to reap the public relations benefit of being the first professional stadium to achieve such status.

Perhaps that's a reflection of what's involved with certification. Builders seeking LEED certification need only garner 26 of a possible 69 points covering a range of factors such as energy efficiency and water treatment to become approved. Based on the point total, structures are awarded gold, silver, or platinum ratings. Examining the scale more closely, it can be determined that teams looking to green their stadiums-whether from the outset or via retrofitting-can earn LEED certification by incorporating a minimal number of green features. It's the equivalent of a student scoring a 38 on a 100-point test and being given a passing grade. Moreover, the certification categories will almost inevitably confuse the layman-since when does silver trump gold?

District-based environmental groups devised a number of proposals to expand the green features of the Nationals' ballpark. One, a green roof, was slated to cost an additional $5 million, but the motion was denied, in part because of the expense. That decision begs the question: How serious then are HOK and the Nationals about their greening efforts? Only $1.2 million of the $2 million green allotment (or just 0.2 percent of the overall $611 million budget) is being spent on green features. In addition, the $611 million excludes the $20 million that MLB is footing for extra construction costs. The DC Sports and Entertainment Commission's December 2006 report showed that, to date, the project had exceeded the revised $631 million budget by close to $5 million. Why was budget a concern with the green roof, but not with other features that have led to these numbers' continuing growth?

A comment made in January by HOK Sport project manager Susan Klumpp, that "we worked hard to get that number down (to $1.2 million)," could easily cause one to misinterpret the company's devotion to the green component of the project. This is a little ironic, considering that HOK was a founding member of the US Green Building Council, and is considered a leader in green construction. But in a different report published around the same time, Klumpp hewed more closely to the public consumption-minded company line: "Sustainable design is inherent in all that we do (at HOK)," she said. "We'll be leaving the site in a much better condition than it was received." The site will also have a nationally recognized environmental certification. This recognition will look great on paper and be a positive talking point, but the certification itself cannot be considered an indicator that efficiency efforts are complete.

The ballpark is only one element in a larger revitalization program to the Southeast DC area. To people still working toward more stringent environmental policies for the stadium and the area on the banks of the Anacostia River, there is a sense that surrounding neighborhoods and public works projects are being neglected, and that the green stadium elements that have been publicized are hiding more serious and necessary measures that need to be taken. "There still has been no independent and extensive environmental study conducted on the site as occurred on the RFK Stadium site, which revealed previously unknown quantities of highly-concentrated lead," Ed Delaney, a DC-based advocate who worked for No DC Taxes For Baseball, a group that opposed public financing of the stadium, wrote in an e-mail message. "This makes the absence of whatever meaningful green measures, from enhanced stormwater management, to mitigation of water pollution, at the high level that was originally proposed for this riverside project quite troubling for anyone remotely concerned with the local environment and regional health."

The Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, Southeast DC residents and area activists are concerned that the hurried pace of construction will worsen the situation. At present, environmental considerations of parking structures and other zoning measures top the construction agenda. The DCSEC has two public space permits near the ballpark property pending approval. In the coming months, the exterior of the stadium will be completed, turf will be laid in October, and improvements on the interior will be made right up to Opening Day. Along the way, will the outlined green measures be upheld, or will the desire to complete the stadium quickly and amid constant budgetary questions compromise matters? In more ways than one, it's going to be an eventful and tumultuous year in Washington.

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Will Weiss's essay "Green-Lighting Environmental Change: How Baseball is Changing Its Outlook" appeared in Baseball Prospectus 2007 . You can contact Will here. His weekly blog analyzing media coverage of the New York Yankees can be found at Bronx Banter.

Related Content:  The Artist,  Site Features

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