By Lori Montgomery and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
After 18 months of frustration, mistrust and divisive debate, the D.C. Council sealed a deal to build a baseball stadium along the Anacostia River in Southeast last night, guaranteeing the Washington Nationals a permanent home in the nation's capital.
By a vote of 9 to 4, the council approved a construction contract for a state-of-the-art stadium with a contemporary glass-and-stone facade, seats for 41,000 fans and a view of the U.S. Capitol. The council also voted 9 to 4 to reaffirm its demand that public spending on the project be limited to $611 million.
Major League Baseball accepted that condition Sunday, clearing the way for the council's action. Under the contract, the team of Clark-Hunt-Smoot will take responsibility for keeping much of the project within budget.
The votes were the final actions needed to satisfy the terms of a deal struck in September 2004 to bring the former Montreal Expos to Washington and return the national pastime to the federal city after an absence of 33 years.
"This is a great day in Washington history because it means baseball is going to stay in Washington, D.C., for generations to come," said Bill Hall, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission's baseball committee. "After this, it's full steam ahead."
After watching the council repeatedly take last-minute action that threatened to derail the deal, baseball's highest officials monitored yesterday's session with queasy anticipation.
"We are gratified that we can move forward in making Washington the permanent and successful home of the Nationals," said MLB President Robert A. DuPuy from Orlando, where he was attending the World Baseball Classic. DuPuy thanked Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and other baseball boosters on the council for "bringing this to fruition."
DuPuy declined to set a date for selling the team to one of eight groups of private investors, each of which has agreed to pay $450 million for the franchise. But DuPuy said the council's actions "will make it possible for [Commissioner Bud Selig] to move promptly."
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he expects MLB, which owns the team, to name a new owner by April 15.
On both votes, Evans was among the nine-member majority that voted reluctantly for the baseball bills, approving one of the most generous public stadium deals ever. The others were Cropp, Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).
"This is nothing we should put our chest in the air [about] and say we created the best deal for the residents of the District of Columbia," Brown said. "But we probably couldn't have done any better. It was this or zero."
Council members Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), David A. Catania (I-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) voted no.
"In 2008, when thousands of fans watch the first pitch at our beautiful new stadium on the banks of the Anacostia, we'll remember today as a final step in a long, long process," Williams said in a written statement. "I look forward to announcing the ballpark design next week, welcoming the new owners later this month and breaking ground this spring."
City sports officials now begin a frantic effort to get the ballpark built in time for the 2008 season. The city's chief financial officer is moving forward with plans to issue bonds, with a potential sale date in early May.
Meanwhile, city officials must win a court order permitting them to push a bunch of small businesses off the 20-acre stadium site near the Navy Yard at South Capitol and M Street SE. City and baseball sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said the construction team is likely to begin demolition by late April, which will make it difficult, but not impossible, for the stadium to open on schedule in March 2008.
"We're anxious to get ownership named and get a new ballpark, so we can feel what I call 'whole' as a franchise," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said from Viera, Fla., where the team is in spring training.
Since their relocation to the District was announced, the Washington Nationals have been on shaky ground. By the time the team made its home debut at an exhibition game last March at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, MLB officials and the D.C. Council had been through several rounds of calamity and crisis.
From the start, the proposed stadium generated a bitter public debate that divided the city along lines of race and class. Williams argued that a new ballpark was the price the District must pay to win a premier attraction that would revitalize a forgotten part of town, much as the Verizon Center had done for Gallery Place.
But the escalating price tag infuriated many city residents, who tended to view the ballpark as an extravagant gift to MLB's millionaire team owners at the expense of city schoolchildren, the poor and other groups in need of city funding.
Political observers say Williams did a terrible job of selling baseball to the public. He was out of town at critical moments. A promised public relations campaign fizzled. And he had no control over the council, a fact that confounded baseball
With five of the council's 13 members seeking higher office this year -- including three who are running to succeed the retiring Williams -- baseball became a political football. Fenty, a mayoral candidate, staked out a position in opposition to the stadium, arguing that the money could be put to better use fixing crumbling schools.
Cropp, who is also running for mayor, backed the baseball deal but wavered as stadium opponents rallied around Fenty. Ultimately, she tried to cast herself as a baseball booster who is also a responsible steward of city funds by coming up with a variety of proposals for limiting public spending on the project. The latest, which she proposed yesterday, is a task force to monitor stadium construction.
The result was a string of unpredictable council actions that threw the deal into chaos. In the past few months, the council missed a deadline to approve a stadium lease agreement because the mayor failed to line up support. When the council voted in February, it rejected the agreement, only to reverse course hours later and approve the measure along with a $611 million spending cap.
The council defended its vacillation by criticizing the deal as unfortunate but necessary.
"We don't like what came to the council in the first place. But the challenge of leadership is not just saying no to what you don't like," Cropp said. The challenge is "to pull groups of people together to make something a go."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report from Viera, Fla.