Saturday, May 27, 2006

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams next week will meet with key players involved in the effort to build a new stadium for the Washington Nationals in an attempt to resolve a disagreement over parking that is threatening the city’s ability to construct the ballpark on time.

With the ballpark scheduled to be completed by Opening Day of 2008, officials from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission and Anacostia Waterfront Corporation are still at odds over whether parking facilities for more than 1,200 cars at the site will be built above ground or below the street surface.

The AWC has steadfastly supported the construction of underground parking on the ballpark site in Southeast, because it would allow for the development of street-level retail and other development that would blend in with plans for a larger entertainment district around the stadium.

The AWC was created by the city last year to guide development around the ballpark and nearby waterfront. It does not have the power to hold up the project, but its opinions are given heavy consideration by city officials, who have pushed hard for the redevelopment of the ballpark and waterfront areas.

“We are working on and preparing several different proposals to not have above-ground parking,” AWC president Adrian Washington said. “We think the waterfront district would be much better if that parking were below ground.”

But the sports commission, which is in charge of the project, has only about $20 million set aside in the $611 million project budget for parking, and is not required to put the spaces underground. Below-surface parking could cost as much as $30 million more than above-ground garages, and members of the sports commission have grown frustrated with the AWC’s failure to present financing plans for the parking’s move underground.

Designs for the ballpark were unveiled in March to mixed reviews, and construction began last month. Renderings of the project include depictions of two large parking structures beyond the stadium’s left-field wall.

In December, the AWC presented the D.C. Council with a plan to fund an underground parking garage through the sale of development rights on the site and through special taxes and other revenue derived from the development of commercial space above the garages. The plan was first presented as part of a package of documents designed to convince the D.C. Council that the city would not be responsible for overruns associated with stadium construction.

But the plan has yet to be presented to the AWC’s board of directors for approval, and any special taxes would require council approval.

“[The sport’s commission] has been given a tremendous challenge, build the stadium on time and on budget, and we don’t want to get in the way of that,” said Washington, who added that he believes parking can be built underground without disrupting the construction schedule. “We are aware of the deadline the sports commission has. No one needs to tell us things we already know.”

Meanwhile, the Lerner family, which recently was named owner of the Nationals, has expressed a preference for above-ground parking because it is more likely to be constructed in time for Opening Day of 2008, according to sources familiar with the family’s thinking.

Sports commission CEO Allen Lew said through a spokesman that he is awaiting input from Williams, but declined to comment further.

Williams will meet with all groups to determine which parking option is best.

“He’ll be working with the same issue, including wanting [construction] not to be delayed,” said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Williams. “I don’t think he wants to impose anything, but if it comes down to there being a dispute, I think he’ll weigh in on it. At some point, he may just say, ‘This is what we should do.’ But I think his preference is for people to work things out.”

Lew is expected to make a recommendation on the parking issue to the commission’s board of directors on June 7.

Last year, the AWC partnered with several developers to create a retail and entertainment district in the neighborhood around the stadium. The AWC is also expected to own all of the land where the ballpark will be built, allowing it to sell or lease development rights on the area immediately outside the stadium walls.

But the AWC’s development of a master plan for the area is several months behind schedule, and sports commission officials had hoped to see the plans before breaking ground on the stadium earlier this month.

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