- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

The D.C. Zoning Commission last night approved a plan endorsed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams to build two large parking garages with condominiums and retail outlets at the Washington Nationals new ballpark in Southeast, but the plan still faces several major hurdles.

City officials, who pushed for the plan because of its potential for economic development near the ballpark, expressed relief at the zoning commission’s decision. But they now have less than one month to finalize aspects of the plan to satisfy both the D.C. Council and the city’s independent chief financial officer, who presented a list of 11 questions that must be answered by Aug. 1.

The approved parking plan calls for a group led by District-based Western Development to build two garages at the northern side of the stadium site along Potomac Avenue Southeast and mask them with more than 600 condominiums, as much as 50,000 square feet of street-level retail use and a 180-room hotel. The $300 million project would provide about 900 parking spaces aboveground for use by Nationals’ fans and 900 spaces underground for the condominium owners.

Under the plan, the city would sell the rights to develop the land to Western for $61 million. Western and its partners would then be in charge of completing the parking portion of the project by April 2008, when the Nationals’ 41,000-seat ballpark is scheduled to open.

The city, led by the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, is required to provide 1,225 parking spaces at the stadium site, 300 of which will be built underground at the southern side of the stadium. Until recently, it had preferred to build all of the required parking underground to allow for more commercial development at the street level, but budget and time constraints necessitated a compromise.

The sale of development rights to Western requires approval from the D.C. Council’s Committee on Economic Development and the Committee on Government Operations, which votes today. The whole D.C. Council will vote on the plan on July 11. During a hearing on the issue yesterday, several council members voiced objections to the plan and questioned whether selling development rights is permitted under the legislation that capped the city’s expenditure for the stadium project at $611 million.

Meanwhile, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi said he will not sign off on the plan until Western and the city answer a series of questions relating to the financing and feasibility of the project. He said Western must identify who will be lending the money for the project and obtain assurances that the city would not be held liable for damages if Western did not complete its work on time. Mr. Gandhi also said the city faces a shortfall of about $9 million to complete the parking portion of the project. All of these issues must be resolved within the next month, Mr. Gandhi said.

“I want to emphasize that in order for the District to have the best chance to avoid contractual penalties under the District’s agreements with Baseball, all of these steps must be completed by August 1 to begin design and engineering so that construction may begin by Labor Day,” Mr. Gandhi said.

During a hearing before the council’s economic development committee, Western President Herb Miller said that his analysis of the city’s budget does not show a shortfall and that all of Mr. Gandhi’s issues can be addressed within the next few weeks. He is scheduled to meet with Mr. Gandhi this morning.

“What Nat Gandhi wants, we want,” said Mr. Miller, who has hired Japanese firm KUD to manage the project. “We’re basically in a position to proceed.”

If Western’s plan does not ultimately move forward, it is not clear how the city will proceed in providing the required parking. The zoning commission last night rejected a potential “backup” plan calling for two aboveground garages with no surrounding development.

“The zoning commission has spoken,” said Bill Hall, chairman of the sports commission’s baseball committee, “regarding a backup plan that may or may not have to be dealt with. All options are being discussed.”

City officials yesterday began discussions of a possible interim plan that would allow for 250 to 300 surface parking spots to the north of the stadium, 300 underground spots to the south and about 700 spaces on an adjacent lot to the southeast of the ballpark, which is currently controlled by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA).

Officials said the interim plan could be in place for about two years, while more permanent parking and commercial development was built.

“We could actually get a better project if we had more time,” said Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and supporter of the stadium project.

City officials acknowledged, however, that the interim plan would not satisfy the city’s requirement to provide 1,225 spaces at the stadium site — because the WASA lot is outside the ballpark footprint — and could expose the city to damages or an arbitration proceeding. In addition, such an arrangement might require the city to make some spaces unavailable while development was ongoing.

The Nationals new ownership group, led by the family of local real estate developer Theodore Lerner, have expressed a strong desire that the ballpark be fully completed by April 2008 as required and also cautioned that fans not be subjected to heavy ongoing construction on game days.

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