By Thomas Heath and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 6, 2006
Major League Baseball signed a lease for a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals yesterday, a development baseball officials believe will clear the way for the city to begin construction near the Anacostia River in Southeast and for MLB to choose an owner for the team.
Major League Baseball delivered a signed document to attorneys for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission yesterday afternoon, agreeing to the city's condition that the cost of its investment not exceed the $611 million cap that the D.C. Council approved last month.
MLB, which owns the Nationals, also agreed to contribute $20 million toward the cost of the stadium, proposed for a 20-acre site near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard, although it did not agree to cover stadium overruns, a key sticking point in the negotiations between the District and baseball officials. And it attached several conditions to the agreement.
Vince Morris, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said in a written statement that the mayor is "delighted, and I'm betting millions of Nats fans are, too. This clears one of the last hurdles in the process and gets us ready to finally break ground."
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said she was pleased by the news. Cropp said she had spoken directly with top baseball officials several times in the past two weeks and "implored them to support the council's action."
"It is extremely important that the cap the council voted on maintains its sanctity," Cropp said. The cap "was very important to the council, and I believe it was very important to the citizens." Baseball officials' acceptance of the cap "is an indication that baseball would like to be good partners with the city," she said.
The document was delivered less than a day before a deadline that would send the matter to binding arbitration was to expire. If the District rejects baseball's response, the matter could still result in arbitration and the relocation of the franchise to another city.
The legislation passed by the council last month says that the lease is approved when the mayor and sports commission provide documentation stating that the team and commission agree with the legislation.
"This is the next step we anticipated, and we look forward to beginning construction on the new stadium," said sports commission Chairman Mark H. Tuohey. "We are going to be submitting documentation Monday. It's done."
The document contains a number of conditions, however, including the provision that it does not become legally binding if the city enacts further legislation that is contrary to the stadium funding plan that the council passed.
Another condition calls for excess ballpark tax revenue earmarked for debt service for the bonds to be available for cost overruns. Cropp and some other council members have voiced strong opposition to that clause, but baseball officials called on the city to compromise in the interest of getting the stadium built.
Another condition says that the lease will not go into effect until the city can "move forward and secure funding for the stadium," the MLB statement said. Baseball officials could not be reached late yesterday to explain precisely what that means.
"We have worked very hard to accommodate the requests from the Mayor and the Council that changed the terms of the agreement that brought the Expos to Washington," said MLB President Robert A. DuPuy in a statement. "Because we believe in the future of Baseball in the nation's capital, we have signed a lease that honors the 2004 agreement, while conforming to the emergency legislation that the Council passed last month.
"Everyone has to compromise so the Nationals can enjoy a strong future," DuPuy said. "We are offering a compromise that I call on District leaders to support."
Some District government officials were relieved but cautious.
"It's good that they have signed the lease and good that they have accepted the cap," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), one of the stadium's most ardent supporters. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens. The devil is in the details."
Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi was traveling in India and could not be reached for comment.
Gandhi's spokeswoman, Mary Ann Young, said his aides had not been notified of the agreement and would not comment until they had read it.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who cast one of four votes against the lease agreement, said he was not surprised that MLB had accepted it "because the cap is not ironclad."
"The good news is that baseball's here," Mendelson said. "But the bad news is, for everybody who wanted to have a limit on how much public dollars would go into a new stadium, we don't have that."
Teams of lawyers from the city and MLB had been poring over the four-page document since the council approved the spending cap Feb. 8. Both sides worked round-the-clock over the weekend, seeking to nail down the legal specifics of the legislation.
A publicly built stadium is crucial to Major League Baseball's plan to sell the Nationals to one of eight groups whose members have agreed to pay $450 million for the team.
Baseball officials had wanted an airtight legal document that would prevent MLB or the team's new owner from being saddled with cost overruns on the project.
Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.