- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

Washington's baseball dreams, more than three decades in the making, now boil down in large part to a rundown section of New York Avenue NE dotted by anonymous warehouses, fast-food joints and car washes.

The area, less than two miles from the U.S. Capitol but to some a world away, has seen more than its share of false promises; at one point in the mid-1990s, the area was a potential home for the new Washington Convention Center. Now a mishmash of residential, office and industrial buildings all co-exist in the neighborhood bordered by Florida Avenue NE, North Capitol St., and M Street NE without any obvious link to each other. Tens of thousands of cars rush by each day. Few stop.

But with Major League Baseball perhaps 10 weeks away from making its long-awaited decision on the future home of the struggling Montreal Expos, Mayor Anthony Williams, other District officials and prospective team owner Fred Malek are touting the area as the home of baseball's next great ballpark.

A proposed $430 million open-air stadium would seek to replicate MCI Center's power to spur nearby development in yet another area of east Washington. A Metro station will open on an adjacent site late next year, serving in part the forthcoming headquarters of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

City planners, operating in part at the urging of the federal government, are soliciting bids to build restaurants and retail near the Metro stop. Across New York Avenue, a vacated Peoples Drugstore warehouse once marked with shattered windows and mounds of trash has been revived into a new office building.

At the same time, opponents of the potential ballpark site point to the area's propensity for crime and absence of tourist activity, in part due to the presence a nearby drug treatment clinic.

The New York Avenue site was one of five first announced last fall as potential ballpark spots in the District. Since then, two spots along Massachusetts Avenue NE have been dropped due to cost and civic opposition. The RFK Stadium property and another spot near the District waterfront along M Street SE remain on the table. But heavy political support for New York Avenue makes it the District's best, and probably last, hope for baseball.

"New York Avenue is finally seeing some exciting things happen, with the Metro, ATF and so forth," said Andy Altman, city director of planning. "The area is changing, so the question now is how do we channel that energy for the next generation? A ballpark, with 81 dates a year drawing in people, could really contribute to a powerful revitalization of that area."

MLB owners will meet May 14-15 in New York, in part to consider the next step with the Expos, owned and operated by MLB.

D.C. City Council member Sharon Ambrose, whose Ward 6 includes the New York Avenue area where the ballpark would go, is in favor of the idea, but is pushing hard for private financing. The city is trying to piece together about $275 million in public-sector bonds for a stadium, backed by ballpark-related sales taxes, an income tax on ballplayer salaries, and a return of a gross-receipts tax used to help pay for the construction of MCI Center. Private money is expected to fund the rest of the stadium project.

Legislation is needed for the latter two elements, and has not yet been introduced. District officials are waiting to settle the 2004 city budget before returning to stadium financing, and the winnowing amount of time before baseball's expected decision on the Expos is adding to the pressure. MLB officials want to see as much public stadium financing legislation on the books as possible before a relocation selection is made.

"New York Avenue could be a very attractive site [for a stadium]. So could the others," Ambrose said. "But where is the ground swell to find the money to pay for this? We're knee-deep now in the budget, and there's nothing there to get this [stadium] going, such as assembling property. And I'm very reluctant to keep imposing taxes to pay for this."

Stadium advocates argue the cost estimates, and corresponding bond amounts, include all soft costs such as land acquisition and environmental surveys. Prominent business leaders have indicated support for reviving the gross-receipts tax for a ballpark, but still under debate are the specific revenue thresholds the tax would use to determine yearly bills or, in the case of small businesses, exempt status from the tax.

"The idea is to tap into but-for revenues, in other words, revenues that would not exist but for the presence of baseball," said Steve Green, special assistant in the District office for planning and economic development.

The District also proposed the RFK Stadium and District waterfront options to MLB officials during formal meetings in January and March. The RFK site, in which a new stadium would be built along the Anacostia River just north of the existing RFK Stadium, is seen as the fallback option. The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission already leases the land from the National Park Service, and because of that existing relationship, building a stadium there is pegged as the least expensive option, estimated at $343 million. City planners, however, concede the site's more limited potential for collateral development.

The M Street site, similar to the New York Avenue site, is seen as an intended catalyst to spike redevelopment in a fairly industrialized area. But several leaders within city government and prospective ownership groups deem the site as still too far removed from major anchors of downtown Washington life and transportation, such as the Mall, Union Station and K Street business corridor.

"That's the perfect site for the next generation ballpark site, when it's needed in 30 years or so and the city has more time to grow in that direction," said one source involved in the baseball effort.

In the District's favor with the New York Avenue site is a lack of vocal, organized opposition. Such opposition helped derail efforts to have a site near Mount Vernon Square be the city's favored spot for baseball, and is now quickly forming to combat each of the five proposed ballpark sites in Northern Virginia.

Some individual fears of displacing low-income minorities, particularly along nearby residential areas of North Capitol Street, have surfaced, fears Altman dismisses.

"We're not trying to push anybody out," he said. "Affordable housing is still a critical component of this city."

Plenty of challenges, however, remain with the site. The majority of the area, perhaps as much as 80 percent, is held by private owners, and assembling enough acres to make a ballpark site could be a struggle. Property owners in the area only have been loosely briefed of the city's hopes for baseball there; more formal talks likely will not begin unless and until MLB picks Washington as the Expos' new home. The city does have power of eminent domain, but Altman is reluctant to even handicap the likelihood of that power being needed.

Traffic also is a concern, as the stretch of New York Avenue between 3rd Street NW and 1st Street NE is the most clogged part of an already tough trip during rush hours. City officials are clearly banking another repeat of MCI Center here, as the majority of arena patrons travel there by Metro. That, in turn, makes developing the area between the proposed ballpark and Union Station to the south critical to tap into the additional rail lines there.

"This is a very important location in the future of this city," Altman said.

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