Official Raises Doubts On Stadium Parking Plan

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006

The city's chief financial officer says the parking plan for a new Nationals stadium crafted by Mayor Anthony A. Williams carries risks that could throw the project off schedule and blow its budget.

Natwar M. Gandhi is expected to outline his concerns in testimony today before the D.C. Council. It marks a setback for Williams (D) and another twist in the argument over the shape of the stadium, how much it should cost, who should pay for it and who will profit from it.

The chief financial officer doubts the mayor's parking plan can be implemented by April 2008, when the city has promised Major League Baseball that the stadium will be ready, according to the written testimony. Gandhi is also skeptical that financing for the plan and several other legal hurdles can be cleared by September, when construction would have to begin.

On a pivotal day when the D.C. Council will consider the mayor's parking plan and the zoning commission is set to rule on it, Williams is in South Africa for a conference, "Urban Age Johannesburg."

The mayor's spokesman said Williams believes that Gandhi's concerns can be addressed. "We'll continue to meet with council members, the sports commission, the Lerners and the community until we work this out," Vincent Morris said.

The mayor initially wanted to sink parking below ground to allow for shops, restaurants and condos to be built on the land adjacent to the stadium. But the owner of the Washington Nationals, Theodore N. Lerner, objected to that idea because underground parking takes longer to build than aboveground garages and Lerner doubted it could be completed by the 2008 baseball season.

If the stadium does not open on time, the risks are great for the city and Lerner. The District has sold more than $535 million in bonds to finance construction of the stadium, and any delay threatens the city's ability to repay those bonds and makes it vulnerable to lawsuits from investors. The District also faces significant financial penalties from Major League Baseball if it does not provide the stadium and garages by 2008. The city could lose $50 million if the stadium isn't ready for the 2008 season, Gandhi said.

Lerner, who paid $450 million to buy the Nationals from Major League Baseball, could lose millions if the stadium and parking lots are not open on time.

Lerner has proposed simple parking garages, boxy structures common at shopping malls and Metro stations. But members of the D.C. zoning commission have dismissed them as ugly. Zoning laws require underground parking; any variance requires the commission's approval.

The Williams administration said aboveground parking garages would be a "dead zone" in the middle of the stadium area, defeating efforts to create a district that will pulse with street life 365 days a year.

Two weeks ago, Williams came up with what he termed a compromise -- a plan to build 900 spaces on two levels underground and 925 aboveground in two 13-story structures, masked by 660 condominiums, shops and a swanky hotel that would constitute the heart of a revitalized Southeast neighborhood.

The mayor's plan is the brainchild of Herbert S. Miller, president of Western Development, one of four companies working with the city to create an entertainment district near the ballpark. Miller, who built many of the shops, entertainment spots, condos and eateries around Verizon Center, wants the D.C. Council to give him development rights to the land around the baseball stadium.

In addition to stretching out the timetable for stadium construction, underground parking would add to costs. The plan envisioned by Williams would increase the $21 million parking budget by $29 million -- money the District does not have because the D.C. Council has capped spending on the stadium at $611 million.

Miller has said the California Public Employees' Retirement System will finance the $300 million tab for the complex. But construction on the mayor's parking proposal would need to begin in September, and Gandhi said it seemed doubtful that Miller could firm up the financing in less than two months.

On Monday, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) sent a letter to Williams suggesting the council would support his parking plan if the mayor embraced a proposal by the Cincinnati-based Gates Group. The company has offered to lend the District as much as $100 million at an interest rate of 10 percent, about double what the city pays when it secures financing through Wall Street.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company