Thursday, August 4, 2005

District officials yesterday affirmed their intention of completing construction of the Washington Nationals’ stadium by its March 2008 target date despite a growing wave of pessimism among bidding groups seeking to buy the club.

Several suitors for the club in recent weeks quietly have prepared financial models for the Nationals to play at least the 2008 season in RFK Stadium, with some even bracing for a fifth season in the outdated facility. The fiscal forecasting is based on a strong belief the complex building project near the Southeast waterfront will not be complete 31 months from now.

However, D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission executives said such a mindset is unwarranted.

“[The prospective owners] haven’t been at the table. We’ve committed to this timetable, and we’re going to get it done. It’s that simple,” said Mark Tuohey, sports commission chairman.

To that end, the commission yesterday approved an $11.5million relocation of Pepco utility lines to help make way for the ballpark near South Capitol and M streets SE. HOK Sport and Devroaux & Purnell, architects on the project, continue to work on preliminary models. Designers have selected a northeast orientation for the stadium, which will give views of the Capitol dome over the left-field wall. A construction manager to oversee the $607million ballpark will be selected within three weeks.

Perhaps most pressing, the city’s office of property management will begin making bids on the 33 parcels of land in the stadium footprint later this month. If deals cannot be struck, District officials will begin efforts to seize the land through eminent domain.

That power of eminent domain contains a quick-take provision that allows for rapid assumption of the property. But the construction calendar with Major League Baseball calls for a full acquisition and rezoning of the land, as well as an environmental assessment, by Dec.31 — just 118 days from now.

The nascent development of the stadium already has faced several hurdles. Three property owners in the stadium footprint sued the city last month in federal court, claiming the District’s attempt to seize their property tramples upon their civil rights. More legal challenges are expected in coming weeks.

The D.C. Council, already strongly divided on baseball and the city’s investment in the stadium, has split further over preferred choices on the Nationals’ new owner and remains a volatile political body.

“There are simply a lot of things out of everybody’s direct control right now, whether they be lawsuits and what a judge might do, what ends up happening with the environmental aspect of this, or contracts coming before the council,” said one prospective owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I just don’t see [the new stadium] happening for 2008.”

RFK Stadium itself also is a flash point in the timetable debate. Sports commission officials readied the 44-year-old facility for baseball in four months, about half the time originally planned in negotiations between MLB and the city. But since opening for Nationals games, RFK has been beset by a series of operational problems, ranging from poor food service and erratic field quality to several high-profile lapses in security.

“Everything’s moving ahead for 2008. If they weren’t, why would be approve this utility contract today?” said Allen Y. Lew, sports commission chief executive officer. “We know what we have to do, and quite frankly I wouldn’t bet against us.”

In the original relocation deal between the District and Major League Baseball, owner of the Nationals, the city would have been potentially liable for tens of millions of dollars in monetary damages if the stadium was not completed on time. But largely through the insistence of council chairman Linda Cropp, changes were made last December under which the Nationals now are able to recoup only their planned $5.3million lease payment if they are still playing at RFK in 2008.

If the stadium still isn’t ready for the 2009 season, the city’s fiscal liability is limited to $19million. A recently struck project labor agreement with local building trade unions for the stadium effort also prevents the possibility of a work stoppage to slow construction.

But even with the risk abatement in place for the city, delayed completion of the new stadium would preclude the Nationals from immediately accessing key revenue streams like ballpark naming rights and high-end luxury seat contracts.

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