Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The Washington Nationals moved one big step closer to getting their stadium in Southeast yesterday when the D.C. Council voted 9-4 in favor of a contract requiring the ballpark to be built for a guaranteed maximum price.

Under the contract, Clark Construction of Bethesda, Smoot Construction of the District and Hunt Construction Group of Scottsdale, Ariz., are required to build the ballpark for no more than $320 million, plus $68 million in “soft costs” like insurance. The deal is expected to help the city comply with legislation capping the District’s costs for the project at $611 million, which the council also approved on a temporary basis.

The contract’s approval came one day after Major League Baseball and the city signed a lease agreement for the new ballpark, and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi said he would move forward with the sale of bonds to finance the project.

“I think we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, and I don’t think it’s a moving train,” said Sharon Ambrose, a Ward 6 Democrat who supported the Nationals’ move to the city. “I think that a baseball stadium is going to be good for baseball, good for the city and good for the residents of the District of Columbia.”

The construction contract requires the Clark-Hunt-Smoot team to build a 41,000-seat ballpark with a contemporary design. It must be on par in quality to newer ballparks in San Diego, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Detroit.

The stadium, to be built along South Capitol Street near the Anacostia River waterfront, is required to have a northeast orientation, allowing for a view of the U.S. Capitol. Designs call for steel and glass facades.

The provision calling for a guaranteed price was crafted last month after the council said it would not approve a lease agreement for the stadium unless costs for the city were contained. Despite the contract, the council insisted on capping the city’s costs of the full project and Feb. 8 passed an emergency bill calling for a $611 million maximum contribution.

The legislation called for any overruns to be paid for by the team owner, private sources or the federal government. On Sunday, MLB approved a stadium lease and the terms of the cost cap.

“I don’t think anyone is happy with this whole piece,” council chairman Linda Cropp said. “But everyone has played a role in making it a little bit better.”

Cropp suggested the creation of a task force of experts and council members to oversee the stadium construction and ensure it is on time and on budget.

“It will be very important for us to have some serious monitoring and evaluation,” she said. “We want it to be on cost, and we want it to be timely.”

David Catania, an at-large independent who has opposed the stadium project, said he supported the task force idea and also recommended that the city create a for-profit subsidiary that would allow it to collect tax breaks on the depreciation of the ballpark.

With the lease and construction contract in place, work on the stadium could begin this month. The city first must gain possession of the land at the ballpark site. The city gained title on most of the land through eminent domain last year, and D.C. Superior Court Judge Joan Zeldon said Feb. 24 she would force landowners to clear the way once the city and MLB signed the lease.

Clark officials already have locked in prices on most of the stadium materials, including steel. Those prices remain valid as long as construction begins before June.

Sports commission officials said the construction team can complete the stadium in time for Opening Day in 2008 provided they have access to the land soon. However, the stadium could open as late as July 31 of that season without penalty from the league.

With the contract and stadium lease approved, MLB could name a new owner for the Nationals within a month.

“This is a huge step forward,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. “It’s a huge victory for the city. After months and months of debate we now can move forward, and this will be the beginning of some very important times.”

Approval of the construction contract did not come without debate. Several council members argued the contract was flawed and left open the possibility the city would pay for cost overruns.

“I think we need to stop sticking our heads in the sand and denying reality,” Catania said. “When these costs come home to roost, they will be borne by the city.”

But even council members who had voted against the stadium in the past voted to allow construction to proceed.

“I still hate this deal, but I do like baseball and would like to see it here,” said Carol Schwartz, an at-large Republican who had opposed the project until supporting the cap legislation and construction contract. “We’re sort of stuck with it.”

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