- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

The D.C. Council met for more than four hours yesterday to discuss several proposals designed to improve the conditions of a lease agreement for the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark in Southeast, including hiring an outside consultant and possibly allowing Major League Baseball to build the stadium itself.

All 13 members met with lawyers from the Chicago firm of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, which has been involved in the construction of several stadiums including FedEx Field in Prince George’s County. Some members advocate hiring the firm to help renegotiate the deal with MLB that brought the Nationals to the District, but nothing was decided.

The support of the majority of the council is needed to approve the stadium lease so that construction can begin. Five council members already support the lease and are hoping for support from Vincent C. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat, and Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat. The city is eyeing a Feb. 7 date for the vote.

Central to the council’s talks yesterday was a 10-point proposal drafted by council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, a Democrat, that would cap the city’s responsibility for the ballpark’s cost and make other changes to the lease.

Many members said they saw nothing new in the measure Mrs. Cropp put forward, saying it was similar to proposals that have been suggested for months.

“I came up with that list a month ago,” Mr. Brown said. “That list has not changed.”

MLB has agreed to contribute only $20million for the stadium but has refused to provide more because it has no control over the design and construction. Council members said they are exploring the idea of providing a set amount of money directly to MLB and allowing the league to build the ballpark. Under such an arrangement, the city likely would still pay for the land and provide money for all other construction costs.

Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said that was one way to cap the city’s responsibility but that it was only one of many issues being discussed.

“That’s one possibility,” Mr. Morris said. “We’re still looking at a lot of options.”

The city has also reached out to the developers, asking whether they would pay toward cost overruns in exchange for development rights, and have asked the federal government for help in paying for infrastructure. It is also working with Clark Construction, the company selected to build the ballpark, on drafting a contract that guarantees a set price.

Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said he hopes a solution can be found that would cap all expenses paid by the city at $535million, the figure the council initially agreed upon, but said he is not satisfied that the city is being served well.

“I get the sense that our negotiators will not fight for what’s best, I just don’t know,” he said. “Our negotiators have to do some heavy lifting to have someone else cover the cost overruns.”

The most recent cost estimate for the stadium is $667million. Concerns about the cost of the stadium led to the postponement of a vote on the lease last month. After the city failed to approve the agreement by the deadline of Dec.31, MLB filed to have a mediator help end the dispute. City and council leaders, along with members of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said they think a deal can be struck without mediation.

The Piper Rudnick attorneys, led by partners Louis S. Cohen and Peter C.B. Bynoe, told council members that the District’s stadium deal — which calls for all costs to be borne by the city — is probably the most generous in the history of organized sports. But, they also said it was unfair to draw comparisons because it was the first time a team relocated while being owned by the league. The attorneys declined to comment after the meeting.

Vincent B. Orange Sr., Ward 5 Democrat and ballpark supporter, said the council showed some interest in hiring Piper Rudnick as a consultant, but to do so likely would mean the entire stadium deal would be scrapped in favor of a new one. MLB is unlikely to support such a move.

“There is some support for renegotiating the whole deal, as opposed to coming to a reasoned settlement based on what we have now,” Mr. Orange said. “I think that’s an exercise in futility.”

Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said he was impressed with Mr. Cohen’s presentation. Mr. Evans, a chief proponent of the city sticking by its deal with baseball to build a new stadium, told The Washington Times on Tuesday that he had grown tired of trying to persuade any of the eight members opposed to the current lease deal and saw no foreseeable event that would change their minds. Yesterday, Mr. Evans said there might be seven votes if the city can determine how it can cap costs.

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