Thursday, June 22, 2006

With the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark scheduled to open in less than 22 months, city officials believe approving a plan to build parking garages and condominiums at the Southeast site will pave the way for construction of the stadium to begin in earnest. But gaining such approval could prove difficult.

The plan, which is to be carried out by D.C.-based Western Development, was praised earlier this week as a deft compromise designed to ensure that stadium and required parking is built on time while also triggering economic development. It calls for two parking garages to be constructed beyond the stadium’s left-field wall with 660 condominiums around the garages and on eight stories above. The plan would satisfy most of a requirement by the city to allow for 1,225 parking spaces at the ballpark.

But several major questions remain. Financing for the plan has not been determined and must be certified by D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. The D.C. Council must sign off on the sale of the land to Western and its investors. And the D.C. Zoning Commission could reject it outright, sending planners scrambling for a new solution.

The family of Theodore Lerner, who will take control of the Nationals next month, has expressed concern a delay in these approvals will lead to a delay in the stadium opening.

“My experience certainly tells me the best assurance we have of making this ballpark and this ballclub a success is to open in April 2008 on time, on budget and on plan,” said incoming Nationals president Stan Kasten, who is also part of the ownership group. Kasten was instrumental in building Turner Field as president of the Atlanta Braves.

Approval by the D.C. Council, requiring seven votes, is considered likely if Western and its development partners are able to show how the project can be paid for without threatening the city’s $611 million spending cap for the stadium.

The zoning commission will hold a hearing on the project Monday, and approval there is less certain, according to people familiar with the process. Any above-ground parking structures require relief from certain zoning rules, and to receive an exemption the city must prove “practical difficulty” in building the parking below street level. In making its case, the city must prove that underground parking would be impossible to build on budget and in time for Opening Day 2008, as required by the deal the city struck with Major League Baseball in 2004. City officials said they also will tout the potential economic benefits of the project.

“We’re optimistic we can make a pretty strong case,” said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “We’ll be bringing everything we can bear to show them this is in the best interests of the city, and we understand they’ll be setting the threshold pretty high.”

Officials are so unsure of zoning commission approval that they have had discussions about a backup parking plan.

“[The Lerners’] concern is that if we have a glitch at the zoning board that we have a fallback,” City Administrator Robert Bobb said. “And those discussions are ongoing.”

Meanwhile, Kasten and the Lerners said they have outstanding questions regarding the parking plan and fan access to games.

“A number of issues and decisions on another 5,000 parking spaces and concerns about getting fan traffic safely and quickly in and out of the ballpark 81 games a year still have not been addressed,” Kasten said.

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