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As you’ve probably heard, D.C. United has hit a snag in its plans for new, $350 million stadium at Buzzards Point in Southwest. Developers who had hoped to build around the stadium have cried foul on the design. They say it’s poorly integrated with the neighborhood and will stifle redevelopment, citing a lack of storefronts and a prominently situated loading dock among other deficits. United, for its part, received a letter from the developers—obtained by the Post—asking the team to sign over its retail leases, a move the team interprets as strong-arming.

It’s hard to untangle the competing claims here, and no doubt more information will emerge at the zoning commission hearing on Nov. 2. But one claim the developers make is likely to resonate with District residents and soccer fans: “The stadium is a far cry from the original concepts published during the legislative process,” when the city agreed to donate the land on which the 19,000-seat stadium will sit, valued at $150 million. The developers’ letter seems to suggest a bait and switch. 

So was there? There’s no reason to doubt the team’s and the designers’ good intentions, but it has arguably turned out that way. Renderings published in 2014 whetted the public’s appetite for a stadium with an encircling, translucent canopy. There were dramatic touches on the north side: a curved, multicolored wall above apparent retail space and a sculptural ramp leading up to the concourse. This design had some zing, a wow factor. 

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The updated design is much more utilitarian. It’s a simple shed with canopies on the east and west, but not the north and south. The curved wall and ramp are gone, as is a landscaped plaza at the northeast corner. Given that this will be the most expensive stadium in MLS history (or one of them —L.A.’s new stadium may surpass it), it’s no wonder the developers, some fans, and Ward 6 residents are disappointed.

Whatever happened behind the scenes between 2014 and now, architectural renderings played a role in the sense of dashed expectations. Renderings are now so advanced that they can combine a photographic level of verisimilitude with Hollywood CGI. The buildings in renderings are like real buildings, only better (they glow!). 

Renderings are used more and more as a selling tool, and they’re shared with the public earlier and earlier in the design process. This is especially true of sports facilities, since team owners need to woo officials for support and, often, funding. The sexier the concept they present, the better their chances of getting a deal. 

Early-concept renderings seem particularly badly suited to urban infill development, where projects are more likely to run up against constraints that will shift the final design. That’s what happened at Buzzard Point: The designers had to cram the stadium bowl into a narrow site and grappled with a Pepco easement on one side, as well as accommodating a mid-course request to keep First Street SW open. 

Ideally, renderings would be used judiciously on urban infill projects that are seeking public funding or incentives. Why couldn’t designers and developers stick to less detailed images at the early stages, so as not to put the cart before the horse? (Oddly, on this project, the early renderings were more detailed than the later ones.) This might also help officials judge an architecture firm on its ideas and track record, rather than the wizardry of its rendering shop. 

Of course, that’s never going to happen. So when we see the first renderings of a sports facility, we should take them with a heap of salt. Earlier this year, splashy renderings of the future Washington football stadium were released not only before design of that stadium had properly begun, but before a site—a state, even—had been chosen for it. Wherever it ends up being built, I wouldn’t get too excited about rappelling down the outside or surfing in the moatlike the people in the renderings do.