A Top Test For the Nats: Scouting For Parking

Gregory McCarthy, a Nats executive working on parking and transportation issues, in the team's
Gregory McCarthy, a Nats executive working on parking and transportation issues, in the team's "situation room." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

High above Connecticut Avenue, the conference room walls are papered with satellite photos, architectural drawings and detailed maps. Posters specify their categories: Road/Sidewalk Improvements, Communications and Advertising, Signage.

And perhaps the most important: Game Day Operations, Pedestrian Movement and Public Transit.

This is the Washington Nationals' "situation room." Although it might have nothing to do with how the players perform, it has everything to do with whether the team's soon-to-open ballpark, a more than $600 million project in Southeast Washington, will succeed. The opening season could quickly sour if fans find it too difficult to get there and park.

Team executives, D.C. police representatives, officials from the city planning and transportation departments and Metro, and D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission staff members meet regularly in the situation room, working out the details of moving 41,000 fans in and out of the ballpark -- from identifying parking lots to figuring out where traffic officers will be.

"If you had just pedestrians, you'd be okay. If you had just the stadium, you'd be okay. If you had just cars, you'd be okay," said Gregory McCarthy, an aide to Anthony A. Williams when he was mayor who is now a Nationals executive working on parking and transportation issues.

"But getting those three factors working together, it's a Rubik's Cube," he said.

The search for parking might be the biggest challenge facing the team in its move to the new ballpark, which will open with an exhibition game March 29 against the Baltimore Orioles. Team officials estimate that they will need about 5,000 spaces for season ticket holders and those holding partial season ticket plans.

Last week, the Nationals mailed parking information to season ticket and partial season ticket holders, giving them until Jan. 28 to send in their money -- as much as $2,835 for the season -- to reserve a spot. McCarthy said the team would have enough spaces under contract by Opening Day to accommodate everyone who wants parking but declined to say how many of the 5,000 spots have been secured.

The sports commission, which owns the ballpark and leases it to the team, was obligated to provide 1,225 spaces. Those are in parking garages being built adjacent to the stadium, and the Nationals are making them available to buyers of the ballpark's deluxe suites and most expensive seats.

The team is cobbling together surface lots and parking garages north and east of the ballpark for the remaining 3,800 spaces. The prices range from $15 to $35 per game, depending on how close the parking is to the ballpark. Fans will be limited to one parking space initially, regardless of how many season tickets they hold.

Season ticket holders paid $12 a game to park last season at RFK Stadium.

"The RFK model was limitless supply. It was a suburban stadium built at the edge of the city," McCarthy said.

That is not the case with the new ballpark. There will not be enough spaces near the ballpark to accommodate everyone who the team anticipates will drive to games.

So the team is negotiating with the sports commission to provide free parking at RFK, and the Nationals will run shuttle buses to and from the new ballpark on South Capitol Street. The talks have been going on for several months, and the sports commission's chief executive, Gregory O'Dell, said that "we're confident we're going to make access available."

Figuring out the parking is difficult for the Nationals because fans, lacking a team here for many years, don't have an established way for getting to the ballpark as fans do, for example, in Boston, where they know that Fenway Park is best reached by public transit.

And in Washington the past few years, the team's temporary home at RFK allowed easy parking. But the new ballpark is packed into a dense neighborhood. Weeknight games at 7:10 or 7:35 will come on the heels of rush hour on nearby M and South Capitol streets.

Neighborhood residents are concerned that more cars will be parked on their streets. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) proposed new parking restrictions, which would include charging as much as $35 on meters.

McCarthy said the team wants to work with Wells but is concerned about the proposal's current form. "How do you prevent 1,000 cars circling for 100 spaces?" he said.

Team officials have gone block by block through the area to locate parking. Some parking will be in existing garages, and other spaces will be in lots, many of which have yet to be paved.

The team has hired an advertising agency to focus solely on the issue, and in mid-February the Nationals will launch a campaign to educate fans about where to park and to encourage the use of Metro. The Navy Yard Station is close to the stadium.

The situation room, in a building developed by the Lerner family, which owns the Nationals, shows signs of planners' looking for every edge to reduce the volume of cars.

One sketch outlines the location of 16 bike racks around the ballpark. Another map shows the route of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.

Next month, the team will hold job fairs to hire ushers and other ballpark workers. Both fairs will be in the neighborhood by the stadium. It makes for good community relations, team executives said -- plus those workers won't have to drive to games and compete for parking, too.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company