Council allows parking garages

The D.C. Council voted yesterday to allow the construction of three parking garages at the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark site, greatly lowering the chances the city could be sued for failing to complete the project on time.

By a vote of 10-3, the council agreed to allow two garages for 1,200 cars to be constructed at the north end of the stadium and a smaller garage for 130 cars at the south side. In approving the plan, the council technically voted to exempt the parking garages from D.C. zoning rules that require parking at the stadium to be built below ground.

The council’s action brings resolution to a contentious issue that had been much-debated since construction of the Nationals’ new ballpark began in May. But the plan also greatly reduces the amount of money the city could reap from the sale of development rights at the ballpark site.

“It’s not because we like this approach but because we’re finding ourselves in a situation where we have to comply,” said council member Jack Evans, a Ward 2 Democrat who supported the garage construction.

Council members David Catania, at-large independent; Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican; and Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, voted against the plan.

Some council members and officials from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission said the city could demolish the garages at a later date if the Nationals agreed on a new development plan.

The city presented plans for reinforced garages that would have allowed for the construction of commercial space. But the council rejected those plans because it would have cost at least an additional $30 million, thus violating a $611 million cap on the stadium’s cost.

Another plan by the city to partner with developer Herb Miller on a parking, condominium and retail complex fell through because of financing difficulties and time constraints. Miller is suing the city over the collapse of the deal.

“The fact is the city needs to do something,” council chairman Linda Cropp said. “If we do not take action today, we will be in a situation where we will not have the garages ready.”

The garages are expected to cost $32.9 million, about $3.1 million less than what is currently budgeted for parking structures. Sports commission officials said the city was able to save money because the Nationals relaxed their requirement for 300 spaces at the south side of the stadium. The stadium construction team, led by Clark Construction of Bethesda, said it can build the parking more inexpensively now with only 130 space at the south. Clark is expected to sign a contract guaranteeing it can complete the work on budget and before April 1, 2008.

“I’m very happy that the final piece of the baseball stadium puzzle is now in place,” said Bill Hall, chairman of the baseball committee for the sports commission. “Now we move forward with construction. It’s going to be on time, on budget, and there’s no stopping us now in terms of completing the stadium as promised.”

Cropp said the city could be liable for as much as $85 million in damages if the parking were delivered late, and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi has made similar statements. Catania refuted that statement, however, insisting that the damages would be less than $3 million.

Catania questioned whether the city actually had enough money in the project budget to complete the parking requirement. He also noted the council had previously voted to allow money from development to cover cost overruns associated with land acquisition and environmental remediation. Without those rights, he said, the city could find itself with a budget shortfall for the ballpark.

“By going through with this, we will have killed the golden goose, which is the economic development rights,” Catania said.

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