The D.C. Council today is expected to get its first look at two things critical to defining the future of baseball in the District: a lease agreement for a new ballpark along South Capitol Street and a new cost estimate for an alternative site near RFK Stadium.
The two items are expected to set off a flurry of debate on a heavily divided council, which now has just 12 days to decide whether baseball along the Anacostia River will become a reality.
The DC Sports and Entertainment Commission yesterday was still wrapping up final details on the lease before review by the council, which tentatively plans to hold a public roundtable on the lease Tuesday, with a vote scheduled for Dec. 20.
Meanwhile, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi plans to submit a new estimate for construction at the RFK site, complete with an analysis of the economic development potential there.
The city has until Dec. 31 to approve the lease or it will be in violation of the agreement it signed with Major League Baseball that brought the Nationals to Washington.
However, as of late last night the council’s ability to vote on Dec. 20 was still up in the air because the council had not yet seen the lease and was facing a noon deadline to enter a notice of the vote into the DC Register.
Legally, the council must have the lease in hand in order to enter it into the Register. But, the Register is published Dec. 16, and for an item to appear it must be submitted to the publisher at least a week in advance.
If the Register is published without notice of the vote, the council would be unable to act in time for baseball’s Dec. 31 deadline and would face monetary penalties from the league. The only alternative would be for the council to vote on the lease as emergency legislation, but that would require an unlikely nine votes instead of seven to pass.
Meanwhile, supporters continued to refute reports that the cost of the ballpark is spiraling out of control. Some estimates have the total cost of the ballpark project at more than $700 million, if you include the cost of infrastructure and other improvements that will not be paid for by the city. The District is authorized to borrow $535 million for the stadium, and has been making changes in the ballpark design to stay under budget. It is also talking with the federal government and private developers about picking up the cost of infrastructure and Metro upgrades.
“It’s disingenuous to throw out these numbers and say that’s the cost of the stadium when the city isn’t going to pay more than $535 million,” said Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and an ardent baseball supporter.
Rising costs have caused some council members including David Catania, at-large independent and Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, to advocate moving the ballpark to a site near RFK Stadium, arguing that it could be cheaper. City officials, in turn, insist that building near RFK will not provide any savings because of massive environmental issues and possible delays in getting the stadium built on time. Furthermore, they say the RFK site will not provide any economic development benefits, while the South Capitol project could speed up development along the Anacostia Waterfront.
“Any advocate for the RFK site doesn’t understand economic development at all,” Evans said.
It is still unclear whether the council has the seven votes to approve the lease if it votes on Dec. 20. Council sources said there are likely five votes in favor, with three still undecided, including Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican and Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat.
There were indications as recently as this week that Brown and Schwartz would support the lease, because it now includes a $20 million commitment from MLB to cover contingency on stadium construction costs. However, both voted in favor of a measure Tuesday that, if passed, could have hindered the city’s ability to build the stadium as planned.
The council narrowly rejected two bills that would have capped all ballpark costs $535 million and force the city to include all infrastructure and transportation costs in that total, even though the city has insisted those costs will be paid for by outside sources of money. Brown said he did so because he was getting mixed signals about the project’s true cost, and because he did not believe the sports commission had budgeted enough money for contingency.
“I want to know when the checkbook stops,” said Brown, who attended nearly every Nationals game at RFK this season. “I don’t have any information.”
Mendelson has said little about baseball except that he is undecided. Political observers said he is likely torn between two of his bases of support: pro-business groups, which support the stadium on South Capitol Street, and environmentalists, who generally have been ballpark opponents.
Schwartz is officially undecided but she also has stated several times publicly that the city could suffer a hit to credibility if it does not follow through on the deal it struck last year with MLB to build a ballpark in Southeast.
Mendelson and Schwartz both voted against the ballpark agreement with MLB last December. Brown came into office this year.
“I hope we have the seven,” Evans said. “It will come down to which council member wants to be the seventh vote to kill baseball, to be known as the person who drove baseball out of Washington.”