Nationals Say No to Underground Parking
Thursday, June 8, 2006
The Washington Nationals ownership group firmly told District government leaders yesterday that it expects a new baseball stadium to be completed by April 2008 with aboveground parking garages, insisting that city planners have run out of time to build parking underground to make way for an entertainment district.
Meanwhile, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which is overseeing the project, authorized spending nearly half of the stadium's $19.3 million in contingency funds just one month into construction.
The commission's board of directors voted to spend $2.9 million in contingencies to help remediate unexpected environmental problems at the site after workers found 53 unreported tanks of oil under the soil. The board also agreed to spend $6.5 million to help create retail space along First Street SE, a concept mandated by the D.C. Zoning Commission.
The day's events illustrate the type of challenges the city is beginning to face as it tries to meet the timetable for construction of the $611 million publicly funded stadium along the Anacostia River in Southeast.
"I remain confident that we can build this stadium on budget and on time," said William N. Hall, a sports commission board member who heads the commission's baseball committee. "I have no reason to believe otherwise."
In a closed-door meeting at the John A. Wilson Building that lasted more than two hours, representatives for the Theodore N. Lerner family, which owns the team, laid out their position that building underground parking is too expensive and time-consuming. City planners, who want to use some of the garage space for retail shops, presented several alternatives featuring at least some underground parking, but the Lerner representatives did not budge.
In the meeting with District officials, including City Administrator Robert C. Bobb and D.C. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Kwame Brown (D-At Large), Robert K. Tanenbaum, Lerner's son-in-law, and Stan Kasten, the team's designated president, did most of the talking. A Washington Post reporter, who was denied entrance to the meeting, overheard some of the discussions from the hallway.
Tanenbaum was forceful, saying the city has a contract with Major League Baseball to complete the stadium, with parking, by Opening Day 2008. If the stadium opens with parking lots that are not serviceable because underground lots are not finished, the city and team will be embarrassed and fans will be inconvenienced and sour on the ballpark experience, Tanenbaum said.
"We understand you have a political problem. But it's my job to keep you from having a bigger problem," he said. "There are obligations and agreements, and we intend to make it work. Our position is to stay on time."
At one point, an unidentified city official could be heard asking for a chance to develop another proposal: "There are lots of experts who say this [aboveground parking] is a bad deal in the long term. Can't we have more time to craft something?"
Later, Tanenbaum said that city officials could tell the public that the city has a contract and there is no time to build anything but aboveground parking. "This will take care of itself, Jack," Tanenbaum told Evans. "Time is out."
Theodore Lerner and his son Mark D. Lerner were not in attendance. Nor was Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who left yesterday for South Korea.
After the meeting, in a brief interview, Tanenbaum said: "We want to do everything we can to engage the spirit of cooperation. We are proud to be stewards of this team for the long term. We are committed to developing a first-class major league ballpark. . . . Everyone shares the same vision."
The 1,225 parking spots on the site of the 41,000-seat stadium probably will go to holders of high-priced tickets and patrons of luxury suites. Also, Williams (D) promised the creation of a mixed-use entertainment area featuring shops, restaurants, condos and office buildings to reap tax dividends from the project. Developers hired by the city have said that building parking underground is crucial to realizing that goal.
City officials have said that underground parking could cost $29 million more than the $21 million budgeted for garages.
Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., which was chartered by the mayor to oversee development along the Anacostia River, including the stadium entertainment district, has been pushing to build the parking underground. Goldsmith, who chaired yesterday's meeting as head of the city's newly created Office of Baseball, said afterward that he will continue to seek a compromise.
Bobb said that no final decision has been made and stressed that the ballpark entertainment district will extend far beyond the parking garages, so the city can benefit even if parking is built aboveground. The city is trying to reach consensus in time for a June 26 hearing before the D.C. Zoning Commission, which would have to approve plans to build aboveground garages.
As for the contingency funds, sports commission Chief Executive Allen Y. Lew told the board at a morning meeting that the stadium site was significantly more contaminated than expected. The city had included $8.5 million in the budget for environmental remediation, but construction crews have requested the additional $2.9 million approved by the commission yesterday. Lew added that more funds could be necessary for environmental work in the next two months.