Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday said he believes Major League Baseball eventually will sign off on a new lease for the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark and that legislation calling for a cap on city spending for the project will not be sent back to the D.C. Council.

He said negotiations involving the league and more than a half-dozen city leaders are ongoing but could be wrapped up by week’s end.

“I’m hopeful that over the next couple of days we will, one, sign the lease, and two, get certification of the legislation to the council,” Williams said. “I’d like to get this done as quickly as possible.”

After months of wrangling, the council last week approved a lease agreement for the stadium, contingent on MLB’s acceptance of a cap on the city’s expenditure for the project.

Under the legislation, the city is not permitted to spend more than $611 million toward the project. But the latest cost estimate is $667 million, with at least $34 million added to the budget if parking for about 1,250 cars is built underground at the site. The cap legislation calls for any overruns to be paid by the team owner, savings on the cost of construction or other outside money including private companies.

The most recent negotiations with MLB have focused on ensuring league officials that the team owner will not bear the total cost of overruns. MLB has agreed to pay $20 million toward the stadium but has resisted contributing more because it has no control over the project. Williams, along with City Administrator Robert Bobb, Director of Development Stephen Green and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, is involved in the talks. Stephen Goldsmith, the chairman of the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, is also involved and working out a plan involving private developers.

Private developers are expected to play a key role in covering the cost of the underground parking garage because its construction will allow for retail or office space to be built at street level. By gaining developer commitments to pay for the parking, city officials hope to lessen any fears from MLB that the league will be responsible for cost overruns.

Under a plan presented to the council at the end of January, the underground garage was to be paid for using money from the sale of land at the ballpark site to developers. But under the legislation passed by the council, all money from the sale must go toward overruns on the cost of land and environmental remediation, with any leftover funds deposited in a community benefits fund. The underground parking is estimated to cost $55 million, but only $21 million for parking — enough for an above-ground garage — is in the ballpark budget.

“I think the development community will pony up, or we just won’t build [underground parking],” said council member Jack Evans, a Ward 2 Democrat and ardent baseball supporter. “My goal is to get the stadium built. We just can’t get bogged down in this minutiae.”

Council chairman Linda Cropp said she will not ask the legislation to be changed to allow money for the underground parking to be included.

“There are a lot of eyes looking at this,” Cropp said. “I think things can be worked out. The lease won’t be coming back to the council [for changes].”

On Monday, Gandhi said the lease and legislation would allow him to sell bonds to finance the stadium as long as the city and MLB were in agreement.

MLB president Bob DuPuy, who is representing the league in these negotiations, did not reply to a request for comment.

MLB has until March 6 to sign off on the deal. After that, the D.C. Council must approve the cap legislation on a permanent basis.

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