Thursday, August 3, 2006

The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission yesterday got its first look at a proposal to fulfill a parking requirement at the Washington Nationals new ballpark and now has just days to decide whether to approve the plan or consider asking the D.C. Council for funds to construct something different.

Herb Miller, the president of D.C.-based Western Development, told the commission he is prepared to build two large parking garages for 925 cars at the north end of the stadium site in Southeast and mask them in 13 stories of condominiums, plus retail space and a hotel. The plan would satisfy about three-fourths of the city’s requirement to provide 1,225 parking spaces at the site.

“It was a very productive exchange of information,” sports commission chairman Mark Tuohey said following the meeting with Miller and more than 50 city officials, lawyers and executives from the stadium architecture and construction teams. “The Western people were very good. We’re still awaiting a written submission from them, but we’re going to move forward because we have to get the stadium done on time and on budget and in a way that conforms with our obligations.”

The session inside a cramped conference room at RFK Stadium was closed to reporters, but sources from inside described the atmosphere as relatively calm, though Miller frequently was asked to defend his ability to carry out the plan.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the D.C. Council and the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative have endorsed the Miller plan because it would meet most of the city’s parking requirement while also spurring economic development.

But the Nationals ownership group, led by the family of real estate developer Ted Lerner, has fought the plan on the grounds that the development of condos and retail near the parking garages would turn the area into a construction zone and disrupt the experience of fans attending games. The owners also questioned the wisdom of selecting a third party to carry out the parking requirement.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi also has criticized the plan as a threat to the city’s ability to get the stadium built in time for Opening Day 2008. Miller still has yet to acquire full private financing for his plan, which he estimated could cost $300 million. He also must show, in writing, that the city will not be held liable if he fails to complete the project on time.

“We’re ready to start construction,” Miller said. “Everybody’s trying to do what’s best for the city and team owner, and that’s our goal.”

Tuohey said the commission would be “moving forward on all fronts” and was waiting for written, legal assurances from Miller. He stopped short, however, of saying the commission would approve the Miller plan.

The sports commission could reject the Miller plan and recommend that the city find at least $44 million in additional funds to cover the cost of underground garages. Underground garages could be completed on time and would allow for commercial development to be built a street level at a later date.

But any additional spending on the stadium would require approval from the D.C. Council, which earlier this year passed a $611 cap on stadium expenditures. The council is not in session but has a special unrelated hearing scheduled for later this month.

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