- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday said building a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals near RFK Stadium would be far more expensive and problematic than proponents of that site realize.

Mr. Williams, speaking to editors and reporters at The Washington Times, also said he will spend the next five days urging D.C. Council members to approve a lease for the city’s planned stadium along South Capitol Street.

Mr. Williams called the South Capitol site “far superior” to RFK because of its economic development potential and said switching sites now, as some council members want, would cause more problems than it would solve.

New estimates from D.C. Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Natwar Gandhi place the cost of building a stadium on South Capitol Street at $667.5 million and at $605 million for a site near RFK.

However, Mr. Williams said the estimate for RFK fails to take into account many variables, including economic development potential and difficulty in getting approval to build. A stadium built near RFK likely would require the extension of a lease on land owned by the National Park Service, and any development spinoff could require a transfer of land from the federal government, he said. Both of those processes could delay the project by at least a year and slow the pace of surrounding development.

“I think the CFO was conservative in looking at the programmatic and financial issues for RFK,” Mr. Williams said. “This notion that you’re going to get some land from the federal government overnight is ridiculous. It’s a cardinal rule in the pantheon of rules that you can’t take Park Service land and turn it to economic use. We may think that in some cases it should, but that is the policy.”

The city last year agreed, as part of the deal to bring the Nationals to the District, to build a new ballpark on South Capitol Street, with plans to open it by 2008.

Rising costs for the project caused some council members to consider rejecting the lease agreement for the stadium and call for the ballpark to be built on a site near RFK, which they say would be less expensive. The lease agreement must be approved by Dec. 31 or Major League Baseball (MLB) could seek damages or arbitration.

Mr. Williams said yesterday that he thinks Mr. Gandhi underestimated the cost of building near RFK, including the construction of parking facilities. Mr. Gandhi reported that parking lots at RFK would cost about $6 million to build, or about $35 million less than the cost of underground parking at the South Capitol site.

Mr. Williams also said a stadium on South Capitol Street would help create more than $100 million in new tax revenue annually, because of millions of square feet of new retail, office and housing construction. The RFK site, he said, would result in little or no development spinoff.

“How can you have economic development around the stadium and have the parking only $6 million?” he said. “You can’t have surface parking around the stadium and economic development. If you’re going to have economic development, it’s going to bring up the cost.”

Several city sources said the RFK site likely would need heavy environmental remediation because of lead that seeped into the ground from cars parked there during Washington Redskins games. Furthermore, an agreement to build on the site might trigger a complex environmental study that could push construction back as much as three years.

If a stadium is not built by 2010, MLB has the right to move the franchise to another city.

For the ballpark to be built near RFK, city officials and MLB would have to craft a new agreement, something neither side has shown willingness to do.

In a letter to Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp on Tuesday, MLB President Bob DuPuy warned that RFK was not an acceptable site. But city officials also said they do not expect MLB to move the franchise to another city if the council rejects the lease.

“Do I think that they would pick up and move to Las Vegas on Sunday morning? No, I don’t think that,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. “But I don’t think that we should assume that baseball would go down to 21st and C, near RFK.”

Mr. Williams said he anticipates that the council will approve the lease on Tuesday, but he is expected to meet with nearly every member in the next few days in an effort to gain support. Seven votes are needed for approval, and council sources said there are only five positive votes, with three undecideds. Sources said other members could be swayed if the mayor makes the right overtures.

“We want to help [council members] who have been supportive of this in any way we can, including helping them with strategic investments in their wards,” Mr. Williams said. “We want to work with them over the next seven, eight, nine months — understanding this is a difficult vote — to be supportive of them in a political sense. I’m confident we will prevail, but it is uphill.”

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