As Stadium Clock Ticks, D.C. Officials Bicker
Monday, September 19, 2005
District officials were meeting to discuss the design of a stadium when Jack Evans, a baseball booster and chairman of the D.C. Council's Committee on Finance and Revenue, barged in, uninvited and angry. The view from the stands, at least according to the working design, was not what he expected.
"You can't see the Capitol!" he recalled yelling.
Shortly after that meeting last month, Evans led a group outing for a firsthand look at the potential sightlines and demanded that city planners find ways to ensure that more fans see the U.S. Capitol's iconic dome. Suddenly, a fast-track project was back on the drawing board, threatening to delay construction on a ballpark that under the agreement with Major League Baseball must open by March 2008.
As the episode illustrates, District leaders have been far from unified in their quest to ensure that the $535 million ballpark is a significant architectural addition to the skyline and a catalyst for economic development in the city.
Administration officials, council members and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, a quasi-independent agency overseeing the project, have bickered over who has final decision-making authority. Different sets of attorneys representing the administration and the commission often sit in on negotiations with Major League Baseball. City leaders and planners have given architects conflicting instructions.
The lack of consensus threatens to delay construction and the timeline by which Major League Baseball, which owns the Washington Nationals, will sell the team. Although Commissioner Bud Selig has said he hopes to sell the Nationals this month, the sale might not close until November if a stadium lease agreement with the city is not completed soon, baseball sources familiar with the negotiations said. The lease agreement includes the annual rent payment by the Nationals and sponsorship rights inside and outside the ballpark.
Baseball executives involved in the stadium project said they are uncertain about who is making the decisions.
"The city has no one in charge of the project," said a high-level baseball official who spoke on the condition he not be named because lease negotiations are ongoing. "Find out who speaks for the city on the project -- let us know who it is."
The concerns grew louder two weeks ago when Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) left town for a business trip to Europe. He is scheduled to return today.
Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the sports commission, acknowledged in an interview that the city is in danger of missing his timeline to complete stadium designs. Clark Construction, which has been hired to build the stadium, needs to get the final plans by next month to determine whether the materials and design are manageable and within budget.
Other city officials say the debates are natural for an expensive, high-stakes project.
"It's taking longer than if this was being done by a private developer, where one guy makes a single decision, but it's not longer than one should reasonably expect in a public environment," said Development Director Stephen M. Green, who is overseeing the stadium development on a daily basis for Williams. "This is a public building. There are a lot of voices, and there should be. Ultimately, the mayor makes the call, and he's good at hearing multiple voices."