- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Workers began installing sod for the new playing field for the Washington Nationals yesterday, one of the last major steps in the frenetic, $18.4 million renovation of RFK Stadium.

The installation of the field was delayed by more than two weeks because of bad weather, but city officials said the stadium will be ready for the April 3 exhibition game between the District’s new major league baseball team and the New York Mets.

“The schedule, obviously, is very tight, but I feel good about where we are,” said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive officer of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “There is a magical energy driving the entire organization.”

The laying of the sod is one of several significant events expected to occur this week in the hurried effort to establish the Nationals in Washington. Natwar Gandhi, the District’s chief financial officer, will tell D.C. Council members today that two of the eight private financing offers for a new ballpark near the Anacostia River met the standards of a program designed to fund at least half of the hard stadium costs.

According to D.C. sources, a curbside parking program from the Cleveland-based Gates Group and a loan program from German financial giant Deutsche Bank will be certified. Both matched the $486.2 million stadium development cost first issued by Mr. Gandhi five months ago and presented “no legal obstacles.”

The search for private money was required by amendments to the stadium financing bill ushered in by D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp at the end of the whirlwind debate over the District’s role in funding the stadium near the Anacostia River waterfront.

The parking program was among the first private financing offers to surface last fall but presents some operational questions about the management of car flow before and after games.

The Deutsche Bank proposal, meanwhile, calls for the District to turn over some revenue streams pegged for stadium bonds, including ballpark-related sales taxes and annual lease payments from the Nationals, to pay off the loan. The Deutsche Bank bid also calls for the retirement of the gross-receipts tax on large D.C. businesses, one of the key funding tools for the stadium, in just three years.

Several of the other private financing proposals, including one from Georgetown developer Herb Miller, rely on the acquisition of some portion of land development rights to the ballpark project. Significant concern within city offices, however, exists that the District may not be able to acquire land for the stadium effort through eminent domain and then transfer it to a private company without competitive bidding.

By the end of this week, Mr. Gandhi also is expected to issue a report re-evaluating the projected costs for land acquisition, environmental remediation and infrastructure development for the new stadium.

If the estimated cost, previously pegged by Mr. Gandhi at $115 million, exceeds $165 million, D.C. officials must search for a less expensive site.

The sports commission also is close to choosing an architect to design the new stadium. A recommendation from a six-person evaluation team will be forwarded to Mr. Lew later this week, with a formal ratification by the commission to follow early next week.

HOK Sport, which has designed 10 of the last 14 major league baseball stadiums, is the favorite. The tight time frame likely adds to HOK’s advantage.

The RFK Stadium sod, 111,000 square feet of turf cut into 35-foot strips, arrived late Sunday night from Georgia and will require three to five days to install.

The field of thick-cut Bermuda grass will be overseeded with perennial rye, then temporarily covered with a special heat-absorbing tarp to promote root growth.

The Georgia-grown sod is a switch from the locally developed variety that originally was ordered but was no longer usable for the project after several snowstorms pushed back the installation date.

The switch cost the sports commission $160,000, but Mr. Lew said the project remains on budget.

The delays made time an issue for officials and workers. However, further difficulties await in the form of four field conversions planned for April to shift the facility back and forth for baseball and soccer games.

The sports commission hopes to complete each conversion within 48 hours, a process that involves moving more than 4,000 seats on the northwest end of the stadium and remarking of the field.

Also central to that conversion process is a hydraulic platform supporting the pitcher’s mound.

The mound automatically will retract into the ground for the games of D.C. United, the Major League Soccer team that also will use RFK Stadium. The mound then will be covered by a deep base of sand and a layer of sod.

Other work nearing completion at RFK includes significant upgrades to the clubhouses and press box and the creation of two batting tunnels, the home team dugout and a series of new camera and television positions.

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