Thursday, February 9, 2006

Major League Baseball officials said yesterday they were “very concerned” about the lease agreement approved by the D.C. Council, a measure that would cap the city’s costs for the construction of a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams urged the league to sign off on the deal and allow construction of the stadium to begin.

“I’m looking to get the project under way so we can talk about the benefits,” Williams said. “I would hope they sign it as quickly as possible so they can name an owner.”

The council voted 9-4 early yesterday morning to approve the lease agreement, which was attached to a bill that capped the city’s costs for the stadium at $611 million.

That vote climaxed a wild night in which the council initially rejected the lease, drawing a strong rebuke from Major League Baseball, regrouped and passed the measure.

The council voted down the stadium lease at about 8:40 p.m. Tuesday after failing to hold a vote on the cost cap measure. MLB responded with a statement in which the league vowed to take the city to arbitration and to “explore whatever options are available.”

The council recessed about an hour later and discussed ways to resurrect the deal.

Members reconvened in a special session at about 10:30 p.m. with plans to vote once on the lease, with approval contingent on the cost cap being in place. At about 12:40 a.m., members approved the measure.

The deal still must be approved by MLB, and city officials were assembling documents yesterday to present to the league. MLB also has not yet received copies of the construction contract submitted to the council Friday, nor had it received letters of commitment from developers who promised last week to pay the city $70 million for land at the ballpark site.

“We are very concerned about what we heard during the debate, and we need to read the materials and the legislative language so we can determine whether they are consistent with the agreements between Major League Baseball and the City,” MLB spokesman Rich Levin said.

Reached by e-mail, MLB president Bob DuPuy declined to comment further.

MLB’s support for the cost cap likely depends on whether officials believe the team owner will be stuck with overruns. The cap legislation allows for the team’s owner to pay for overruns but does not require it. Overruns also could be paid for by other outside entities, such as the federal government or private developers, or through savings on the construction of the stadium’s structure.

Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and staunch baseball supporter, credited council chairman Linda W. Cropp with keeping the deal alive when it appeared to be dead.

“I’m very, very proud of the chairman,” Evans said. “We both felt it was absolutely imperative we have a vote. Without her steadfast ability to pull people together, we never would have got this done.”

The cap on the city’s costs allowed swing votes, including Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, and Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, to support the ballpark deal after speaking against it for more than a year. City officials yesterday said they also were reviewing the deal with D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi to ensure it will allow the city to get investment grade ratings on the bonds used to finance the stadium.

Officials from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission said they would speak to DuPuy, Nationals president Tony Tavares and other baseball officials to persuade them to sign off on the lease and cap.

“We’re in communication with baseball,” sports commission chairman Mark Tuohey said. “I think they’re relieved. I take my hat off to Bob DuPuy, who sat through all of this.”

If MLB approves of the lease and cost cap, the league could name an owner within weeks, Tuohey said. Other city and industry sources were more skeptical, believing the league will name an owner only after construction of the stadium is under way.

The construction team, which includes Clark Construction, Hunt Construction Group and Smoot Construction, has told the city it would like to begin preparing the site for construction by March 1. But first, the city must gain possession of 14 acres at the ballpark site. It filed a court order in D.C. Superior Court asking a judge to force out property owners by last Tuesday, but a ruling is not expected until Feb. 24. The city is focused on acquiring land in the south section of the ballpark site first because that is where the heaviest construction must take place.

Meanwhile, in a somewhat surprising development, consultants hired by the sports commission to handle environmental remediation on the ballpark site have reduced their fee from $8 million to about $6.3 million because initial tests of the site do not show as much contamination as expected, said William Hall, the chairman of the sports commission’s baseball committee. Heavy environmental problems had been expected because of the presence of an asphalt plant, trash transfer facility and other industrial buildings.

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