Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The laborious wrangling between the D.C. Council and Major League Baseball finally has come to a fitful close, however unsatisfying the lease agreement involving the proposed ballpark threatens to be to the taxpayers of the city in the years ahead.

The cost of the proposed ballpark eventually will trickle down to the masses, as businesses pass along their tax increases to consumers, the first line of defense of a business looking to remain vital.

The construction of the ballpark may end up revitalizing a stretch of Southeast along the Anacostia River Waterfront, as Mayor Anthony A. Williams imagines. Or not. That is the unknown element of the land-grab move on Half Street, aided in part by the Supreme Court’s failure to uphold the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution in Kelo v. New London last year.

The heavy-handed taking of private property to enrich developers, speculators and the to-be-named ownership group of the Nationals remains distasteful. The public good of a baseball team is hardly in the company of a library, school or roadway, no matter how hard proponents of eminent domain argue the point.

The public good — meaning more tax money going to city coffers — is a justification with an infinite number of applications. After all, a high rise of condominiums certainly would benefit the city more than a single-family home sitting on the same plot of land.

If gentrification is the destiny of the neighborhood hard by the Navy Yard — like the rebirth the newly named Verizon Center has spurred in Chinatown — the change will be dependent in part on the mostly suburban crowd that worships at the altar of baseball.

All those dynamics are years in the making, and unknowable, considering the city’s next mayor may not be as developer-friendly as Mr. Williams.

This is an election year in the city, which contributed to the obtuse wrangling of the D.C. Council. It was easy to mock the political players, even if some of the grandstanding was understandable.

The ballpark voting record of each council member is apt to cut a lot of different ways with constituents, many of whom never could quite grasp that ballpark funding was distinct from the city’s eternally plagued public school system.

An absence of funds never has been the problem with the public school system. An absence of political will is. Even the closing of underutilized elementary schools in the city’s various neighborhoods is a vexing matter because of activists who don’t want to sacrifice their particular school, no matter how fiscally responsible consolidation would be.

Baseball in the city is a good thing. And Mr. Williams had no choice but to accommodate the owners of baseball to secure the team. Otherwise, the Northern Virginia Nationals possibly would have been the outcome. Where the deal becomes unsettling is with the implementation of eminent domain on those who will lose their businesses, with the fuzzy prospect of relocation.

As it is, the D.C. Council remains ever fearful of cost overruns, and rightly so. It is hard to find anyone who believes the project will meet the $611 million cap. The issue of who picks up the excess costs, if they come to be, remains to be determined.

A project as cumbersome as the building of a ballpark in a city with a rich history of mismanagement, graft and waste is almost predestined to come up against unforeseen forces.

Until then, baseball and city officials have forged an imperfect union. The team that has wallowed in uncertainty for so long appears to have a permanent home.

Now if baseball only could get around to selecting the ownership group, for it will be up to the ownership group to resolve the team’s absurd limited availability on television.

The Nationals, alas, remain a rumor on the airwaves, which is no way to build the fan base.

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