Building 'Skins take no timeouts Stadium going up in Prince George's at a record pace

March 20, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

RALJON, MD. — RALJON -- After searching for nearly a decade for a place to build a new football stadium, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke is on a course to set an NFL record for getting it constructed.

About 1,000 people, split between two shifts, are furiously pounding, welding, digging and otherwise working 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day on 200 acres of a former dairy farm near Landover, just inside the Capitol Beltway in Prince George's County.

The playing field still looks like a battlefield, but the white, steel supports are up and the outer wall is in place, forming the distinctive bowl shape. Wallboard is being installed in sky boxes.

"If we keep getting weather like this, we'll be in fine shape," project manager Walter Lynch said recently as he carefully steered his green Mitsubishi Monterro around excavated water pipes on the site.

On the front of his construction helmet, beneath the Redskins logo, is a simple reminder for the crew: "9-1-97." That's the target date, the beginning of this year's NFL season. Lynch assures that he will make the date, although others in the industry say October is a better bet and that the team has requested its early season be played on the road (the team won't say and the NFL schedule hasn't come out).

If he makes his date, Lynch will have guided the project from groundbreaking to kickoff in 18 months. The previous record, he said, is the 22 1/2 months taken to construct the Miami Dolphins' stadium, which opened in 1987. The Ravens' stadium in Baltimore is on a comparatively leisurely, 25-month pace.

Redskins owner Cooke has never been known for an abundance of patience. As a prominent entrepreneur in 1960, the Canadian-born Cooke received his U.S. citizenship in one day -- through an act of Congress. And he completed The Fabulous Forum, now the Great Western Forum, in Los Angeles in a record 15 months, opening it in 1967.

Replacing the outdated and undersized RFK Stadium is taking longer, a process his critics say was prolonged by Cooke's impatience with political and community sensibilities. First were the plans, unveiled nine years ago, for Cooke to build his own, $150 million stadium adjacent to RFK, the team's home field since 1961.

But the sports tycoon tired of the negotiations with federal and local officials, both of whom had jurisdiction. So Cooke jumped across state lines, announcing plans to build in an old rail yard in Alexandria, Va. Neighborhood opposition scotched that plan, and Cooke was then back in Washington. Again the talks broke down, and he announced, in 1993, he was building in Laurel on 100 acres at the Laurel Park racetrack.

Blocked by zoning laws in Anne Arundel County, Cooke finally found a home in Prince George's County, about five miles from RFK. The county had bought the 200 acres with the intention of building a community center there.

After protracted talks, the state and county agreed to let Cooke build, at his own expense, the $180 million stadium. In exchange, Cooke agreed to help finance a recreation center nearby and make other charitable contributions.

Ground was broken last May. Cooke, exercising the prerogative of developer, gave the site a name: "Raljon" is an amalgamation of his two son's names, John, an executive vice president of the team, and Ralph, who died in 1995.

The state agreed to $73 million worth of road and infrastructure work, a figure that was subsequently reduced to $70.5 million by a decision to pare some lanes from a bridge. Most of the work centers around getting motorists off the beltway before traffic backs up to Richmond or Philadelphia.

The governor's most recent capital budget also includes a $9.4 million request for northbound ramps at Arena Drive that will serve USAir Arena -- which is about to lose its major-league tenants to a downtown Washington arena -- and points north.

This work is not required for the stadium and won't be completed until next year, well after the stadium opens, said Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Chuck Brown.

JTC When the season begins, visitors to the stadium will be drawn in from the 23,000-space parking lot by gas-fueled torches and broad, landscaped walkways. There will also be space for 30 corporate tents outside, for upscale tailgating.

Inside will be many of the money-making fan extras that have prompted so many teams to pursue new stadiums in the last decade: an interactive Hall of Fame exhibit, boutique food purveyors such as Haagen-Dazs ice cream, a microbrewery and a pizza factory. There will be sit-down restaurants specializing in Mexican and Italian cuisine.

The stadium's design is reminiscent of Giants Stadium in New Jersey. A pair of gently curving, oval seating decks will overlap without columns. A pair of giant scoreboards will be recessed into the lower decks at each end zone, a design innovation that should spare some neck-craning to check the game clock.

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