Owners Want City to Shift Gears on Parking
Thursday, May 25, 2006
The Washington Nationals' ownership group is pushing District officials to build massive parking garages for the baseball stadium aboveground, contrary to the wishes of city planners, who say the structures should go underground to make way for a potentially lucrative entertainment district.
The outcome of the negotiations, which could be decided in a few weeks, could drastically affect the look of the ballpark area in Southeast Washington and determine whether the city, which has committed $611 million in public money to the stadium, reaps as much tax revenue from related development as promised by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
Although the group headed by Theodore N. Lerner has mostly been mum in public about its plans, the Lerners' foray behind the scenes in the parking debate is the first indication that they intend to be active and opinionated when it comes to shaping the franchise and the ballpark.
"Everyone has legitimate interests here, and people feel strongly about their own perspective," said Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., chartered by Williams to oversee development of the area. "It's not surprising that an owner would want structured parking close to the stadium. But at the same time, we're trying to create a place where the District can capture retail dollars lost to the suburbs. Our interests are slightly different."
The Lerners were in meetings yesterday, a spokesman said, and did not respond to a series of e-mail questions.
In private meetings with city officials, Lerner, his son Mark D. Lerner, and his sons-in-law Edward L. Cohen and Robert K. Tanenbaum have told the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission that they favor building garages for 1,200 cars aboveground, said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the commission. About 900 spaces would be built at the north entrance of the stadium, near South Capitol and N streets, with 300 at the ballpark's southern entrance, at Potomac Avenue.
In architectural drawings released by the sports commission in March, two boxy parking structures shown just beyond the outfield drew sharp criticism from city leaders and architecture critics, who said the garages were unsightly and a poor use of space. But the Lerners, developers of suburban shopping malls with surface-level and aboveground garages, have told city officials that they believe such structures are safer and easier to access than underground lots.
The Lerners also want to ensure that the garages open at the same time as the ballpark and fear that underground lots are more complicated to build, city officials said. The stadium budget includes $21 million for aboveground parking structures. Underground lots would cost up to $50 million, city officials have estimated, and it is not clear who would pay the difference. Underground lots could require an extra year to complete, Lew said.
"The fundamental problem is: Can we get underground parking ready in time for '08?" said Lew, who will make a parking recommendation to the commission's board of directors June 7. "The Lerners have said they want the parking structures, team store and ticket counters ready in time. They do not want to rely on temporary facilities."
Stan Kasten, who is in line to become team president when the Lerners officially take over in a few weeks, said: "We don't have any comment on stadium issues yet. We are still trying to absorb a great deal of information."
Goldsmith and his developers say bulky garages would limit the potential for an entertainment area with offices, condos, stores and restaurants that the mayor has sought. The stadium project is part of a larger effort to redevelop the long-neglected strip along the Anacostia River.
Vince Morris, spokesman for Williams, said the mayor "believes that putting cars underground is a little more appealing, but he's also open to an aboveground structure. . . . Our main goal is to make sure we get this stadium built on budget and on time."
Two developers hired by the waterfront corporation to work on the entertainment district said putting parking underground is critical to making the area a financial success.
"The D.C. Council approved the stadium as part of a $3 billion mixed-use area of retail, shopping, housing and offices -- it's part of the whole rebirth of the Anacostia," said Herbert S. Miller, president of Western Development, who helped develop Gallery Place near the Verizon Center and is part of Goldsmith's team for the ballpark district. "If you put significant parking right in the middle of that, it defeats the whole objective."
Goldsmith is scrambling to devise a compromise that would satisfy the Lerners, who are scheduled to meet with the sports commission today. Miller said he offered a plan to put some parking spots on one level underground and the rest aboveground, hidden by stores and offices.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said it would be better in the long run to build the parking structures underground. But he stressed that he agrees with the Lerners that the garages should be built aboveground if they cannot be completed underground by April 2008.
"If it's not feasible to get it done underground, they can be built aboveground in plenty of time," Evans said. "So that may end up being the decision."
Staff writers Thomas Heath and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.