- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Members of the D.C. Zoning Commission last night roundly criticized a proposal to build two parking garages with condominiums and other development at the north side of the Washington Nationals new ballpark, and said it was clear that plans for the project had been rushed.

“I’m a little concerned,” commission member Greg Jeffries said after watching an hour-long presentation from city officials and stadium architect Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum. “How much time was put into this plan? It has to be five days or seven days. It just does not seem like it’s fully developed.”

Indeed, city officials finalized the concept just last Friday, after intense talks with D.C.-based Western Development, which will lead the project. The plan calls for two garages for about 900 of those spaces wrapped in and topped by about 600 condominiums. The project is designed to satisfy much of the city’s requirement to provide 1,225 parking spaces at the ballpark, while also sparking some commercial development in the neighborhood.

Commission members were not impressed, particularly with renderings of the garages that appeared to show that cars would be visible from inside the stadium.

“Having exposed garages is not what we want to see,” said commission member Michael Turnbull, Architect of the Capitol. “We have this fear that we’re going to build this temporary thing for 50 years that’s not going to look good.”

An architect for Western said facades and a special screen would be constructed to make the garages largely invisible from the outside.

Zoning commission approval is a key step in getting the ballpark built by Opening Day of 2008. The ballpark construction team, led by Bethesda-based Clark Construction, broke ground on the stadium in May, but has held off performing major excavations and construction work in deference to the commission. The company has told city officials it must begin major work by Aug. 1 in order to complete the project on time.

City officials were hopeful last night that the zoning commission would approve at least the basic stadium plan, if not the parking plan, but interest in the stadium solicited testimony from dozens of officials and city residents, causing the hearing to extend until nearly midnight.

The commission asked the city and archtitects for responses to the testimony of several project opponents, and said it would issue its ruling at a public hearing on July 6 at 5:30 p.m.

The issue of the parking garages has been a contentious one in recent weeks, as city officials sought to craft a plan that could be completed on time while also spurring economic development. The city also sought approval last night for an alternate plan involving two garages without any surrounding development, in case the Western plan falls through. The more basic plan would be paid for directly using $21 million out of the sports commission’s budget for the ballpark. The Western plan, which also calls for 50,000 square feet of retail and a 180-room hotel, would require the sale of land at the ballpark site to the developer. That plan still requires D.C. Council approval and certification from D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi.

“The preference is the [Western] proposal advocated by the mayor,” said D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission chairman Mark Tuohey, whose group has ultimate oversight of the stadium project. “We believe the proposal is reasonable and doable. But the back-up plan is essential because we must have the stadium and parking available when this opens in ‘08.”

The city had originally advocated for a parking plan involving solely underground garages, because it would have allowed for retail and other development to be built at street level.

A key member of the D.C. Council last night urged the zoning commission to hold off approval of the Western parking plan indefinitely, arguing that financing of the project would violate a law passed by the council earlier this year.

Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, said the plan goes against a council rule prohibiting money from the sale of ballpark land to be used for stadium construction. Under Western plan, the city would sell or lease land at the ballpark site the developer, who would build the parking garages and commercial space. The land for parking at the site is valued at about $70 million.

The council will vote on the plan on July 11.

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