Wednesday, November 2, 2005

D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp said yesterday the city will build a baseball stadium in the mold of a “Buick or Ford” instead of a “Cadillac” because of rising costs that are reaching the upper end of the project’s budget.

Costs to build the new ballpark for the Washington Nationals are more than $150million higher than previously anticipated, according to some council members, and the city is working to find ways to stay under budget.

“There would be overruns if it were a Cadillac stadium,” Cropp said. “They may no longer do a Cadillac, but they may do a Buick or Ford.”

The city has budgeted $535 million for the stadium, to be located near the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast. The budget includes the cost of construction and land acquisition, plus as much as $12million needed to issue bonds.

Cropp spoke during a council session held before the monthly legislative meeting, in which the council voted to approve several amendments to the ballpark financing plan passed by the council last year. The council voted 10-2 in favor of four changes to the plan needed in order for Wall Street to provide investment-grade ratings on the bonds needed to pay for the ballpark. David Catania, at-large Independent, and Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, voted against the amendments. A second vote needed to submit the plan back to Wall Street is scheduled for December.

The city hopes to pay for the stadium using municipal bonds and a $246million payment from Deutsche Bank in exchange for stadium revenue and rent from the Nationals. Money also would come from a gross receipts and utility tax on businesses.

City officials declined to respond directly to Cropp’s remark about stadium costs but acknowledged they likely will try to keep costs down by removing some aspects of the stadium from the design. They insisted most changes would not be noticeable by fans.

“It will be a great design and a first-class facility,” said Steve Green, director of development in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “It’s something we’ll be proud of.”

A spokesman for Major League Baseball, which is negotiating with the city on a lease for the stadium, did not return calls requesting comment.

Green said the city can keep under budget by taking out some aspects of the stadium that aren’t baseball-related. For instance, he said the offices of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission might not be housed in the stadium as originally planned, and the city may not pay for additional “hardening” of the stadium to protect against explosions. But the city has made no official decisions since designs and specifications from the stadium’s architect, Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, are not complete.

Catania said yesterday he was told that costs from Clark Construction, the lead company building the stadium, are about $105 million more than estimated last spring. But city officials said they aren’t sure that figure is accurate and said the amount probably stems from an informal work product that includes extra items that would be part of a “dream” ballpark not included in the original plans.

Construction costs nationally generally have risen faster than the rate of inflation over the last five years, and some materials have spiked higher since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita knocked out supply and import centers near the Gulf of Mexico.

The city’s costs to acquire land at the ballpark site will be about $10 million to $15 million higher than estimates, but the city will save nearly $30 million because it will not have to remove a sewer pipe underneath the site as it originally thought, Green said.

Fenty and Catania voted against the amendments to the financing plan in part because they disagreed with one provision calling for the city to place money in reserve in case the private portion of the financing deal fell through. The councilmen said they believed the amendments were more than technical clarifications. Other council members who voted against the financing plan last year, including Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, and Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, voted in favor of these amendments because they said it was their duty to honor the deal previously passed by the council.

Fenty and Catania argued the city is moving too quickly on building the stadium without talking about the possibility of cost overruns and suggested the Nationals should continue to play in RFK Stadium.

“If you want a Buick, we have a Buick. It’s called RFK,” Catania said. “There’s no need to spend $535 million for something we already have.”

A council roundtable to discuss stadium costs and other related issues is scheduled for Nov. 28.

Green said once MLB chooses the new owner, the city likely will talk to the group about paying for some stadium-related costs. Franklin Haney, who is one of eight bidders for the Nationals, already has offered to pay for any cost overruns if he is selected to own the team. He said yesterday he would pay $100 million up-front to be placed in a joint account with the city if he is awarded the team.

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