- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

The vista of the Jefferson Memorial, District waterfront and Arlington from Benjamin Banneker Park in Southwest is stunning, even in the cold of winter.

The projected costs and physical complexities of redeveloping the property for baseball are just as eye-popping.

That, in a nutshell, is the city’s high-risk, high-reward debate for using Banneker Park for a new ballpark.

As Major League Baseball continues to search for a new home for the orphaned Montreal Expos, city officials have spent the last two months quietly studying the pros and cons of Banneker Park as a stadium site.

The site can be accessed from four Metro stations and L’Enfant Plaza and is much closer to central Washington than the other three ballpark site candidates, the RFK Stadium property, New York Avenue NE and M Street SE.

Developing the Banneker site — even if a free land transfer from the National Park Service is negotiated — could cost near or even more than $500million, a step up from the $436million estimate given for a District ballpark last year. More pressing, the site most likely would require at least some elevated construction over the heavily trafficked Interstate 395, which abuts the park.

“This is still very much in the conceptual stage. But at least on paper, I believe this is without question the most exciting site prospect we have, far more than the other ones,” said Jack Evans, chairman of the D.C. Council’s finance committee and a leading proponent of the idea. “If this comes to fruition, I think it would be much, much better than even Pittsburgh [PNC Park] or Baltimore [Camden Yards].”

Evans and other District officials said the recent addition of Banneker to the list of sites being considered is not driven by dissatisfaction within Major League Baseball with the city’s current proposal. It is the result, they said, of ongoing efforts to redevelop the Southwest waterfront area and L’Enfant Plaza.

Additionally, the Banneker site has drawn interest from local private developers in the property, particularly Herb Miller, chairman of District-based Western Development Corp. and a friend to Evans.

“Herb is the one that first mentioned the idea to me. The question now is whether this is really feasible and affordable,” Evans said. “But this could be quite formidable.”

Officials from the Williams administration have long eyed the Banneker site for some type of prominent redevelopment. Both the administration and National Park Service, managers of the federally owned Banneker site, have placed the site in long-range planning documents as a candidate for a museum or memorial. The site is one of four finalists to be the home of the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture.

But no project of that type would generate the teeming crowds, car traffic or radical design concepts produced by a ballpark. One preliminary sketch of a ballpark at the Banneker site calls for a large part of the seats along the third base and left-field line being constructed over Interstate 395.

“There’s no question the location and sightlines of that site are just super,” said Fred Malek, chairman of a prospective District-based ownership group. “The hurdles, however, are certainly there. But I’m intrigued to see where this goes.”

While developing part of the ballpark over the highway, as well as the hilly nature of the site itself, present daunting engineering challenges, this general type of construction is visible in many U.S. cities. Several arenas, hotels, office buildings and cultural facilities exist over major roadways and rail lines, including MCI Center. Decking part of an outdoor stadium over a roadway, however, is believed to be without precedent in America.

It is because of such uniqueness Banneker Park was not included in the 2002 ballpark site evaluation study led by the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission and later forwarded to MLB executives. The goal of that study instead was to find potential ballpark sites that could be more readily developed without any disruption to roadways.

But as baseball’s efforts to relocate the Expos grind maddeningly along, the District’s desire to redevelop the broad waterfront area has advanced, and so has its curiosity about seeking new financing vehicles for a stadium.

If a Banneker ballpark were developed, Evans said he likely would seek to replace a proposed tax on the gross receipts of District businesses with some combination of other funding elements that could include federal transportation funds or additional private capital from developers.

Bonds paid off by ballpark-generated revenue still would be the leading financing tool. Mayor Anthony Williams and his staff, however, have lobbied for a gross receipts tax also to help fund a ballpark, setting up a potential political fight. And whether an infusion of more private money would satisfy baseball, which is seeking maximum public-sector involvement, is also an open question.

“In theory, this is all doable, even building over 395. It’s just a question of whether the pieces, and obviously the money, all fit into place. We don’t know that yet,” Evans said. “I’d certainly like to do this without raising taxes.”

National Park Service spokesman Bill Line said the agency has not been notified of any official attempt to name Banneker Park as a ballpark site candidate.

“What we do know is that any of the other three sites would be quite fine,” Line said.

The Banneker site will be mentioned during further discussions city officials likely will have with MLB later this winter. MLB officials, despite two solid years of delays in finding a new home for the Expos, now intend to move the team in time for the 2005 season. Activity from baseball on the Expos is expected to heighten once a pending sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, now dominating the time of several senior baseball executives, is settled.

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