Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Major League Baseball yesterday warned the District that land near RFK Stadium is an unacceptable site for the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark.

The warning came as Mayor Anthony A. Williams acknowledged that winning D.C. Council approval for a stadium at baseball’s preferred location, South Capitol Street, will be difficult.

During more than four hours of testimony at a marathon council hearing, Mr. Williams said he did not know whether he had the seven council votes needed for approval of the lease agreement between the city and MLB for the South Capitol Street site.

However, the mayor said he was not considering moving the stadium elsewhere, including the site near RFK.

“Is this an uphill battle? Yes, for a lot of reasons,” Mr. Williams said. “Do I wish that baseball had acted differently? Absolutely. Do I wish that costs hadn’t gone up? Absolutely. It would be foolish to start looking for alternatives before we take a look at what we have before us.”

In a letter to Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, MLB President Bob DuPuy urged the city to approve the lease by year’s end.

“We are not prepared to summarily agree that the site ought to be moved and wish to dispel any suggestions that you may have heard to the contrary,” Mr. DuPuy wrote.

The council is expected to vote on the lease agreement on Tuesday. If the lease is not approved by Dec. 31, MLB can sue for damages if it thinks it has lost money because of the delays. The lease also could go before an arbitrator.

Several council members have urged the city to move the ballpark to the site near RFK on the grounds that the change could save the city money. Recent estimates by the city show that building near RFK would cost $605 million, compared to $667 million for the South Capitol Street site. However, city officials say the RFK site would not trigger as much economic development and would require drafting a new agreement with MLB.

Baseball officials yesterday said they did not want to renegotiate the lease. The city and MLB agreed that ground would be broken for a new stadium by March 2006.

“The deadlines negotiated in the Baseball Stadium Agreement are important to the long-term success of this franchise,” Mr. DuPuy wrote. “It does not appear to us at this time that those deadlines could possibly be met if the District were now to propose that the site be changed.”

The new estimates from D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi show the total cost of the stadium on South Capitol Street to be $667.5 million, including all infrastructure and financing costs — more than $100 million over estimates last year.

Mr. Gandhi testified that the city will not borrow more than the $535 million authorized by the council last December. He said $631 million of the project will be paid for using the money from the bond sale, plus $30 million in interest on that money, $9 million in premiums from the bonds, $37 million in baseball-related revenue from 2005 and a $20 million contribution from MLB.

The remaining costs, likely for infrastructure and upgrades to the Navy Yard Metro station, must be paid for by outside sources such as the federal government or private developers.

Mr. Williams said he has had “positive discussions” with both groups about taking on some costs. Other city sources said they expect support from Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting representative in Congress; Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat; and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican.

Some council members were skeptical, however.

“If those other sources don’t come through, we’re going to end up here squirming,” said Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat.

Officials from four developers selected by the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation (AWC) to create a retail and entertainment district around the stadium testified that they would help build infrastructure in the neighborhood as part of their agreement with AWC. They would not, however, commit to contributing to stadium cost overruns or infrastructure tied to the ballpark itself.

“You just basically made my decision for me, thank you,” said Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, who had asked whether the developers would contribute to paying the cost of the ballpark.

Mr. Brown said he likely would vote against the lease agreement unless something changes before Tuesday.

“We asked the private developers if they would contribute, and they all said no,” Mr. Brown said. “So that leaves us with one other option, and that’s the District of Columbia. I have an obligation to the residents of the District of Columbia to vote no. I don’t know what would change my mind.”

A vote against the lease by Mr. Brown could give victory to ballpark opponents on the council.

“I’m not counting to seven,” said Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat. “The political reality suggests there is not the support of this council to approve this lease.”

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