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Grand Plan For Ballpark Raises Stakes

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page B01

Throughout last fall's bruising battle over whether to bring baseball to the District, the two sides couldn't believe that their opponents were blind to some self-evident truths: Boosters insisted that with baseball, Washington could finally build a waterfront attraction on a par with Baltimore's Inner Harbor, while detractors shouted that the city was nuts to pay for a ballpark when private investors would happily build it on their own dime.

Turns out they were both right.

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Next week, the city's chief financial officer will reveal his ranking of eight proposals for private financing of the Washington Nationals' ballpark near the Anacostia River in Southeast. The plan that has created the most buzz in the D.C. government is one put together by developer Herb Miller, who built Georgetown Park, Washington Harbor and the new Gallery Place complex next to MCI Center.

Miller proposes to pay for the ballpark and give it to the city. He would also pay for the environmental cleanup and most of the street and utility work. In exchange, he wants the District to acquire not only the stadium site but also the blocks north to M Street, letting Miller use that land to build a baseball village -- an urban center with 750 apartments, plus restaurants, clubs, small shops, hotels and a few big-box retailers.

The anti-big box crowd -- like any city lover, I'm a proud member of that pesky group, but I'm also a hypocrite, happily depositing my dollars at Price Club -- is aghast at putting megastores in what should be a pedestrian-scaled area.

But Miller is no enemy of urban spaces. In Washington Harbor, he built the city's only people magnet along the Potomac River. He knows big-box retailers are eager to enter the District market, with its underserved local population, huge commuter influx and thriving tourist traffic. Big-box bosses are even willing to forgo the usual asphalt nightmare of parking lots out to the horizon.

Miller proposes to stack big boxes atop one another, Target over Costco, with underground parking serving both the retail and the ballpark. The result is an alluring space that offers plenty of reasons to hang out. "People want to be where people are," Miller says.

His plan, which ultimately would include a marina, more housing and a new bridge across the Anacostia, is more ambitious than others submitted to the city. But Miller would also deliver more of the payoff that boosters said baseball would generate.

Some of the other proposals are tax tricks and lending schemes. They might allow council Chairman Linda Cropp to claim in her mayoral campaign that she saved the city from having to pay for baseball, but they wouldn't give Washington what it needs: an expanded tax base and a fighting chance to compete with suburban retail complexes that siphon off the city's consumer spending.

Miller's 1 million square feet of retail would finally give the city an escape from a tightening noose of competition: Potomac Yards, Pentagon City, Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, the new Capital Centre complex and National Harbor.

"Washington has the nation's number one per-capita income," Miller says, "but that doesn't matter if the money all goes out of the city. I remember as a kid when they built D.C. Stadium, which became RFK. They said there'd be new stores, restaurants. There hasn't been one shop, one restaurant, one apartment built. If you don't do it at the beginning, you'll never get it."

Miller is a master salesman, so take his pitch with a shaker of salt. Already, baseball opponents such as council member David Catania are attacking the plan. Even if Miller pays for the ballpark, Catania argues, the cost of the land will bust the city's budget. Catania believes the stadium site would easily fill with offices -- without public subsidy.

Would the city have gotten a better deal if it had rebuffed Cropp's grandstanding and let investors wait and see baseball's success? Possibly. But the deal with baseball requires a quick march toward a new stadium. Miller's plan faces huge hurdles, as does any new idea in this risk-averse town. (Watch as creative ideas for the new stadium's design are rejected in favor of the safest possible route.)

That doesn't faze Miller: "One reason I became successful is I don't quit. I learned that because I followed the Senators for 25 years."

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