Wednesday, December 21, 2005

D.C. officials said yesterday that the D.C. Council will not vote on a lease agreement for a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals before a Dec. 31 deadline. However, they said they think Major League Baseball will negotiate with the city rather than pursue arbitration.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams and officials from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission said the city will not schedule a D.C. Council vote on the lease this year.

The city is continuing to negotiate with Major League Baseball (MLB) for minor changes to the document in an effort to persuade seven council members to approve it. A vote had been scheduled for yesterday, but it was postponed until at least Jan. 3.

The delay technically places the city in violation of the baseball stadium agreement approved by the council last year. Officials, however, said they don’t expect the matter to go to arbitration, which could make the city liable for millions of dollars in damages.

“The fact that we are going to be a few weeks late on this is, in my judgment, not going to be an issue,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the sports commission. “We’re in regular conversations. … We are going to be working with baseball over the next few weeks to prepare the document that will go before the council.”

Mr. Tuohey said the cost and construction timeline for the stadium — to be located on South Capitol Street near the Anacostia River — would be unaffected. He did, however, acknowledge an extensive delay would be a problem.

“The contractors and the architects will not be affected at all by a three- or four-week delay,” he said. “If it were three or four months, it would be a very important delay.”

Mr. Tuohey and William Hall, the chairman of the commission’s baseball committee, met yesterday morning with Richard Weiss, an attorney for MLB and partner at the Foley & Lardner law firm.

Mr. Weiss declined to comment on the talks, and calls to MLB officials were not returned. In a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp Monday night, MLB President Bob DuPuy said the league would “have no choice but to prepare for arbitration” if the lease were not approved by year’s end.

The mayor requested late Monday that the council delay the lease vote, citing the need for small changes, such as adding more free seats for disadvantaged youth. But several council sources said the vote was delayed because the council likely would have rejected the measure.

Five council members solidly support the lease, and the mayor has been lobbying others. Five members are considered to be swing votes — Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican; Vincent C. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat; Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat; Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat; and Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat.

Mr. Barry, however, said yesterday that he likely would vote against the lease unless MLB agreed to more sizable concessions.

“If we lose the team, it’s because of them,” Mr. Barry said. “I have no responsibility.”

Council staffers said changes to the lease could sway some council members but also said the city will get seven votes in favor of the lease only if it receives commitments from private developers and the federal government to pay for infrastructure and Metro upgrades.

The city plans to borrow $535 million, an amount it says can support a $631 million building project. However, the most recent cost estimate for the stadium is $667 million. The city has asked outside sources to pay for non-ballpark costs.

Council members have been unhappy with the rising costs and, according to several sources in the city government, were swayed by a news report over the weekend that showed the city’s responsibilities for stadium cost overruns are higher than in most cities.

Mr. Williams yesterday said a group of developers has agreed to provide money for infrastructure, but the city has yet to receive word from the federal government about contributions for upgrades to Metro.

“I think that we’ll be satisfied that by the time this thing is done — and I’m very, very confident of this — that we’ll have the Metro taken care of,” Mr. Williams said.

If the sides enter arbitration, they likely will select an arbitrator from a list provided by the American Arbitration Association (AAA), a New York-based nonprofit group.

Several persons with knowledge of the lease situation said an arbitrator could rule that the city must pay for all of MLB’s costs associated with the stadium deal in the past year. However, an arbitrator also could rule that the baseball stadium agreement signed last year is invalid without the lease in place and free both the league and city from any obligations. It is seen as unlikely that the arbitrator would force the city to build the stadium.

The arbitration process likely would take at least a year, and some lawyers with arbitration experience said it would be one of the most complicated cases in history.

“The planned baseball stadium in D.C. is a $600 million-plus endeavor, with the eminent domain issue lingering over it as well as the holdup over selecting the Nationals’ team owner before the stadium lease is settled,” said Larry Parker, director of communications for AAA. “Given those facts, it would be one of the more complex cases our organization has ever decided if the AAA were to be involved, even given our 80-year history of settling complicated disputes.”

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