- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority is struggling to find a viable site for a ballpark to house a professional team, even as Major League Baseball nears a decision on the future home of the Montreal Expos.

Just two months before baseball plans to announce the fate of the Expos, the authority faces determined resistance from the public to its favored sites and has had no success in persuading owners to sell the land necessary to build a stadium.

While the District is wrestling with the political battle lines of a $338.7million stadium financing bill, Virginia’s struggles similarly are adding an extra layer of drama in the race for the Major League Baseball-owned Expos. Team owners are meeting today and tomorrow in New York, in part to determine the next steps with that franchise.

There have been few easy steps for the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority (VBSA) in finding a site.

Landowners and activists are mounting an organized resistance to the construction of a new ballpark. Already, numerous citizen and local advocacy groups have issued proclamations officially stating their opposition to a stadium.

More pressing, the owners of the land required under each of the five alternative proposals for a ballpark have refused to sell to the VBSA, the commonwealth’s lead entity in pursuing a team and building a ballpark.

“We are proceeding with our own development plans and have asked to be deleted from any [ballpark] site list,” said John Barron, attorney for the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.

The foundation, along with private partners and beneficiaries, owns a prime tract of land in Pentagon City that is widely viewed as Virginia’s first choice for a new stadium. The site has a clear view of the Washington Monument beyond what would be the center-field wall and provides robust access via car and rail.

But through a ground lease with Vienna-based KSI Industries, the south section of the parcel is already pegged for a large mixed-use development now under application with Arlington County officials. A similar venture is planned with a still-unnamed developer for the largely undeveloped north end of the Cafritz property near Army-Navy Drive.

“We have made our position well known to the authority, the governor and Major League Baseball,” Barron said.

Said Earl Glock, attorney for Samir Kawar, lead owner of a proposed site near Dulles International Airport and member of Jordan’s parliament, “A baseball stadium isn’t exactly high on the list.”

Gabe Paul, VBSA executive director, declined to address the specifics of the authority’s ongoing land negotiations.

But the authority is working with Dallas-based Lincoln Property Co. on site research and has approached the owners of five proposed ballpark sites to determine their willingness to sell. Two of the sites are in Pentagon City, one is in Rosslyn, one is near Dulles and the fifth is on the site of the Engineering Proving Grounds in Springfield.

The Dulles and Springfield sites are not favored among the Virginia baseball lobby, particularly the William Collins-led Virginia Baseball Club, because of their distance from the densely populated suburbs near the Potomac River and the lack of public transportation options.

A ballpark at the Rosslyn site, currently the home of the four-tower River Place apartments, is projected to cost $609.5million — a figure that far outstrips the financing model of a proposed $400million ballpark.

That leaves the two Pentagon City sites as the best remaining choices. But those proposed sites, already opposed by Cafritz, face an additional obstacle: A highly successful shopping center anchored by a Costco store sits on the second site, and its owners are loathe to contemplate any move of the stores.

“I can understand the interest in that site. It’s a great spot, and single-story retail may not be the best and highest use of that land,” said Graham Bullick, president of San Diego-based Price Legacy Corp., which owns the land. “But I want to emphasize that [shopping] center is not broken. There are some very successful retailers there. It’s a great asset for us.

“There’s no question it would be very expensive to convert that land into a ballpark. Just to start, you have to relocate Costco and the other retailers. I’d listen to what [the authority] would have to say, but this is not something we’re going to actively pursue.”

The state and local counties have power of eminent domain but remain reluctant to even talk about using it. Arlington County has said publicly it will not invoke its own power of land condemnation. State officials also have refrained from saying they will get involved in that process. The stadium authority itself can only formally request a local government to exercise eminent domain.

“That’s a very serious step. Taking property is probably the most intrusive power a government has,” said Michael Frey, stadium authority chairman. “We’re nowhere near any formal consideration of that.”

There is no such formal opposition in the District to the proposed ballpark along New York Avenue NE, the favored site. But there is growing concern about the $338.7million public-financing package.

At the New York Avenue site, some of the land is already city-owned or up for sale.

“We are marketing our property and are amenable to speaking with any potential purchaser,” said Thomas Kirk, president and chief operating officer of Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc. The Bethesda-based company owns and operates a clinic on Patterson Street NE and owns the site of the adjacent drug treatment center.

“We want to maintain a presence [in the District], but we’re looking at other options besides owning property,” Kirk said.

Virginia stadium authority officials say the opposition to their proposed sites is overstated but nonetheless are becoming much more engaged in the local debate. Three public forums on the matter are scheduled for later this month, the first to be held Monday in Arlington. Several local fan groups, including the Arlington Baseball Coalition, have conducted their own pro-Virginia baseball events.

But some Virginia baseball boosters privately concede that mass support from citizens and landowners will not come unless Major League Baseball officials relocate the Expos to the commonwealth. Authority and state officials have asked baseball to be awarded the Expos conditionally in order to gain leverage in securing land and public financing.

“There are certainly less people who are going to stick their neck out until we actually get a team,” one source close to the authority said.

In the meantime, citizen groups like the No Arlington Stadium Coalition are continuing to gather members and support.

“There are still many, many questions that remain unanswered about this project,” said Sarah Summerville, coalition president. “I am very pleased the authority is having these public sessions. But we are gearing up for the [bigger] fight if Arlington is selected [to get the Expos.].”

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