- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

Two proposed baseball stadium sites near Mount Vernon Square, long the center of baseball discussion in the District, received a tough reception during a public meeting last night on the city's quest for a major league team.

Most of the more than 250 people who packed a meeting room in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library were unabashedly in favor of Washington-area baseball. But the wide divergence of opinion on preferred stadium locations and financing models showed a community not yet in clear consensus on those two key points.

The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, Washington Baseball Club and the city Office of Planning recently narrowed a list of 32 possible stadium sites to five: the RFK Stadium property, two spots along Massachusetts Avenue NW between Mount Vernon Square and Union Station, a location near the Southeast Federal Center and District waterfront, and land north of Union Station near New York Ave NE. A report detailing those potential ballpark locations will be presented to Major League Baseball later this month.

"The only acceptable site is RFK Stadium. It's the perfect place. It is designed to sports use," said Janet Brown, a 41-year District resident. "The other sites are much too valuable. A stadium just won't work in those other neighborhoods."

City officials and local baseball boosters were not at all surprised at the vitriol directed against a baseball stadium near Mount Vernon Square. Because of nearby developments such as MCI Center and the new Washington Convention Center, the area has risen exponentially in prominence and value. Numerous meetings on preferred development strategies have been held, and many involved parties favor a plan tilting toward mixed-use and residential growth for the area.

"I'm not at all surprised by what we heard. A key element of this whole process is generating community feedback," said Andrew Altman, District director of planning. "This is exactly the kind of dialogue that ought be happening. We don't want to do anything to chill development in the [Mount Vernon Square] area. We have identified sites where baseball could potentially work in the city. Now we need to drill down further and really examine how these five sites really work in the long-range plan and vision for the city."

The baseball stadium site evaluation project, costing $300,000 and involving more than four months of work, is designed to begin clarifying the city's desire and ability to support a MLB franchise. Two years ago, Mayor Anthony Williams pledged to MLB $200million in land and financing assistance toward a new ballpark, but the details of where the stadium would be and how it would be paid for were not finalized.

Financing plans remain under development, but a few details emerged during last night's meeting: a District-based stadium will cost between $250million and $450million for a 41,000 seat stadium, with the higher figure more probable; a public-private partnership between the city and Washington Baseball Club, led by financier Fred Malek, will be pursued; and any financing plan will not involve in a redistribution of funds away from other public uses. District officials earlier this week closed a $323million budget deficit for 2003, but did so in part by cutting budgets for public education, safety and social services.

Even with the lack of clarity on paying for a stadium, debate was heavy on this point, too. Some at the meeting were upset at Williams' pledge of public assistance and pointed to the success of Pac Bell Park in San Francisco, built almost entirely with private funds. But others pointed to the anecdotal success of the area around MCI Center and stadium and arena districts in other cities spurred at least in part by taxpayer dollars.

The timing of the submission of the new report is important because MLB officials are currently reviewing their options for the Montreal Expos in 2003, and a decision is expected in the next several weeks. The Expos, owned and operated by MLB owners, are the biggest money-losers in the majors and their overachieving roster will likely require a massive payroll bump from $37million to more than $60million to keep together next year. Many owners are loath to continue pouring money into that no-win situation, but there is also a reluctance among baseball executives to not botch another new market entry, pointing to the possibility of another year in Montreal for the Expos.

It is not yet certain whether all five potential sites will be submitted to MLB in the final report.

"We can talk about sites until we're blue in the face. But we're not getting a team until we fight the political battle," said Aviva Kempner, an outspoken advocate for Washington baseball and director of the film "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." "I want to cheer for Vladimir [Guerrero, Montreal's star outfielder] here in Washington. A lot of people do, but it's not going to happen until we turn up the pressure."

Last night's meeting marked the third open forum this year hosted by the sports commission and Washington Baseball Club. A rarity in Washington's long quest for baseball, the first session in June drew more than 100 people, and the second in August drew nearly that many.

Each of the five sites hold unique and compelling advantages, furthering the spirited debate. The downtown locations, while holding true to baseball's recent trend toward urban development, will unquestionably be the most expensive and difficult to assemble in a single parcel. The New York Ave., Southeast Washington and RFK sites, while each primed for aggressive redevelopment, remain further out from existing tourist and business transit patterns.

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