Journal staff reporter

With major league baseball teams now in spring training and the season opener just days away, many in the Northwest look forward to the time when a new Seattle ballpark can lend its presence to the game.

But determining where that presence will be is easier said than done. In fact the seven-member Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District, or PFD, is going to have a devil of a time choosing one of the five less-than-optimal sites now under consideration.

The challenges they face are suitably huge, considering the scale of the building to be built.

For starters, any site must be large enough for a building that will cover at least 12 acres. The site, or someplace nearby, also must have room for staging materials and equipment during construction.

Then there's transportation. The PFD's Site Evaluation Report, issued last week, lists several ballpark requirements including: two nearby major access points to state and interstate highways; major arterials directly connected to the site; "adequate" public transit service to the site and regional destinations; easy pedestrian access to other public open space, transit and surrounding neighborhoods; and potential linkage with future light rail or commuter rail trains.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Similar concerns attach to parking, environmental questions, effects on adjacent communities, urban design, cost, zoning, compatibility with other uses nearby and -- last but not least -- whether the chosen site "can contribute to the success of major league baseball in Seattle by maximizing regional access to the ballpark by persons living outside of the central Puget Sound area."

Rather than just throwing in the towel and going home, the PFD board members must decide by June 1 which site is best. Then construction will begin by the end of the first quarter of 1997.

But of the five sites under consideration, none leaps out as a clear winner. Each has some points to recommend it, but they all have serious drawbacks that will make any stadium project difficult at best.

The Bus Barn
At 10 acres, this site is the smallest on the list. Located just east of the Seattle Center, it has some advantages. One is that it is owned by the city and could be dedicated to the PFD, and another is that it could accommodate a sunken field. Part of the property already is below grade, having been excavated to provide for bus maintenance and parking operations. Half of the site is unused and the rest is parking lots.

But the bus barn property has three glaring shortcomings. One is its small size, leaving no spare room anywhere; another is the infamous "Mercer mess" traffic that oozes around it; and the third is that building the stadium there would wipe out parking that already is used for other activities in the area -- an area that would require still more parking were the stadium to be built in that location.

Fourth and Lander
This 17.7-acre site is bounded by Lander Street on the south, Fourth Avenue South on the east, Walker Street on the north and the Burlington Northern railroad tracks on the west. It is occupied by U.S. Post Office buildings. The Post Office plans to vacate the property, though a Texaco gas station and strip retail along Lander Street and Fourth Avenue would be displaced by a stadium.

The site is big enough for a stadium, for construction staging and event parking. Transportation links are good: I-5 and SR-99 are nearby, as is the E-3 busway through the area and the railroad tracks. A commuter rail station is a possibility.

So far so good. But big questions remain. One is how fast the Post Office can move; another is how to structure a lease of the property from the federal government. Other concerns are a lack of pedestrian access and support services.

And then there's the neighborhood. Fourth and Lander is in the heart of Seattle's industrial area, with hundreds of businesses and about 70,000 jobs. Auto, bus, truck and train traffic is heavy and expected to get worse. Burlington Northern, for example, plans to send trains through the area that are double the length of its current mile-long behemoths -- which already stop traffic at grade crossings for two hours per day. The longer trains are expected to cause delays totaling five and a half hours daily.

South Kingdome Lot C
Located on the south side of Royal Brougham Way but west of the BN tracks, Site C, also known as the Ackerley site, is the largest of the five at 19.4 acres. It is big enough for construction staging and parking. Transportation links are good, and pedestrian access to Pioneer Square and downtown is feasible. There is no height limit for the entire site.

Train traffic would be as much an issue at this site as at Fourth and Lander. To build a stadium with a sunken field would be an expensive proposition at this location, as the water table is close to the surface. And it would require moving a buried eight-foot-diameter sewer pipe that runs the length of the 710-foot property.

This site also has some vocal opposition from the community, mainly because the businesses now located on it would be forced out. The two main employers on the block, Filson and Thaw Corp., both manufacture sewn goods and say they would be unable to move their workforce elswhere. Filson's owners have said flatly the 100-year-old Seattle company would go out of business if the stadium were to take its place.

South Kingdome Lot B
On the south side of the Kingdome itself, Site B shares many advantages with Site A on the north side. One obvious advantage is the fact that a stadium is already there, with access and support issues well understood. Parking is available, no contamination is known to exist and no height restrictions apply east of Occidental Avenue.

But putting a stadium on 15.4-acre Site B would require closing Occidental and displacing some businesses and jobs on that street. As with sites C and A, the water table is near the surface and the sewer line would have to be moved. And west of Occidental an 85-foot height restriction is in place, requiring either a conditional use permit or a rezone from the city -- in an area where Pioneer Square Preservation District use and development regulations apply.

North Kingdome
The north Kingdome lot is attractive to many because it is believed a good design would be an asset to the neighboring communities of Pioneer Square and the International District, and therefore benefit the city and region. Transportation access is good, with rail, bus, trolley and highway access nearby. Pedestrian access is the best of all five sites.

The site is small. At 13.3 acres it would be a feat to build a retractable-roof stadium on the site and still meet criteria for design compatibility with the historic buildings. And the entire site is subject to an 85-foot height restriction and Pioneer Square Preservation District use and development regulations. As with parts of the south lot, a conditional use permit or rezone would be required to accommodate a structure that is over 200 feet high.

This site, too, has strong opposition from the Pioneer Square business community. They fear the congestion resulting from simultaneous ballpark and Kingdome events would suffocate their businesses, and many are convinced that the size of the ballpark would overwhelm the low-rise brick buildings in the area.

Shelly Yapp, a PFD board member who has made no secret of her distaste for the north site, said the site-selection process so far has yielded no clear favorite, either for her or for the other members.

"We all hoped some very viable sites would arise, and we all feel nothing did," she said. "Whatever site is selected is going to be constrained. And I'm convinced it would be close to impossible to find a site in a developed city without some displacement and major dislocations."

At this point the PFD is relying on its staff to provide additional information on the Fourth and Lander site and the bus barn site, and it is relying on its teams of architects and engineers to surmount the technical and aesthetic obstacles present at all five possible ballpark locations.

They seem ready for the challenge. Kurt Nordquist, stadium project manager with the Seattle engineering firm of Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire, said there are four main concerns. One is how to support the weight of the structure; he said the Kingdome sites would require driving piles down to a firm layer, while the other sites might use spread footings on glacial till.

Another issue is the seismic "spectrum" of each site, or its expected behavior in an earthquake. Nordquist said seismic codes and requirements have changed in the 20 years since the Kingdome was built, for example, and reflect greater knowledge.

As for a playing field built below grade, the issue around the Kingdome is water. Nordquist said such a field would require building a "cutoff wall," something like an underground dam, to stop water from seeping onto the field, while the field itself would require constant dewatering. He said that when Skilling studied such a process for a project in Hawaii, the costs were very high: $1 million to lower the field by one foot.

The engineers are also looking at another water issue, which is contamination.

"It's a major concern if you have permanent dewatering," Nordquist said. "If it becomes contaminated, you have to put in decontamination equipment."

The architects likewise have some thorny problems to wrestle with. Those include small sites, blending a huge new building into a small-scale historic area, integrating the roof design, working around the Kingdome and trying to create a building that is fun for fans and lucrative for the team.

In a joint telephone interview, PFD Executive Director Ken Johnsen and NBBJ architect Michael Hallmark, the partner in charge of stadium design, discussed some of their approaches.

"The small sites for us are useful," Hallmark said. "They force some discipline. On large sites you are always fighting creeping growth."

At the moment NBBJ is testing a "generic ballpark footprint" in various arrangements. Another problem under study is how to stack concourses in such a way as to achieve a greater degree of intimacy.

"It's harder to achieve because they tend to get bigger," Hallmark said. "It's a nice discipline."

Likewise the Pioneer Square area's historic buildings are imposing their own kind of design discipline, one that Hallmark says the architects are delighted to have working for them. He said stadium design would be much more difficult in a "bean field," without architectural context.

For the architects and engineers, the PFD's eventual selection of a best site will eliminate some of the problems they have to think about, ennabling them to focus on the ballpark. Then they will be expected to prove that the PFD's choice will work.

Published: 03/26/1996


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