The District's tentative lease agreement with Major League Baseball for a new ballpark removes "huge hurdles" and could end the push to move the site to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium grounds, according to D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp.
Still, Cropp (D) said she could not guarantee that the council will approve the lease, which is expected to be sent to council members this week. "I hope that there are no other issues," she said, noting that her opposition to the baseball financing deal last year began only once she had seen the proposal.
City sources said baseball officials have made a number of concessions, including agreeing to meet the city's request for $20 million to help pay for construction. In return, baseball officials asked for a concession from the city, the nature of which has not been disclosed.
In addition to the $20 million, city sources said baseball officials agreed to provide the District with a letter of credit to cover stadium rent payments for one or two seasons in the event of a terrorist attack or a players' strike. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi has said the guarantees are needed to secure an investment-grade rating on stadium construction bonds.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, stressed that the deal is not final.
"We're making some real progress. We've got a long way to go," Evans said Saturday. "We still don't have a deal. Hopefully [by] Monday they will work out the agreement. And then the bond agencies still have to sign off on it."
The city had requested a $24 million letter of credit to cover four seasons of rent payments and must find out whether Major League Baseball's compromise will satisfy Wall Street.
In a discussion last week with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, baseball's lead negotiator on the lease, council members warned that they would push to move the project to a site adjacent to RFK Stadium to save money if baseball officials did not make concessions.
But Cropp and other council members said progress on the lease has pushed the discussion of building near RFK further off the table. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) favors building the stadium for the Washington Nationals at the site off South Capitol Street near the Anacostia River.
"RFK would be in the mix if we could not reconcile differences at the South Capitol site," Cropp said. "If those issues had not been addressed, the RFK site looks much better."
Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who, like Cropp, is running for mayor, said he believes the tentative lease agreement clears the way for groundbreaking at South Capitol Street next year.
Recent discussions about the challenges of building at the RFK site underscore that it is an unrealistic option "unless council members want a three-year delay and no savings whatsoever," Orange said. "And that is what the RFK site represents."
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who opposed the baseball financing package last year, said baseball officials' reported concessions make it easier for her to consider supporting the package.
"Absolutely, we are moving in the right direction, no question about it," she said.
Some political observers saw recent weeks as a frame-by-frame repeat of last year's cliffhanger over the stadium financing deal, which Cropp held up for two weeks to get private financing for the $535 million project, to be largely paid for with public funds. They say Cropp used the debate last year to establish her populist credentials and take credit for improving what many called a bad deal for the city.
Cropp acknowledged the parallels between this year and last. This time, observers wondered whether putting RFK on the table was a ploy to get more money from Major League Baseball.
"While it may have helped in strategy," Cropp said, "we were extremely serious that the District wasn't going to put up any additional dollars."
During the meeting with Reinsdorf, Cropp and the council aimed to impress upon Major League Baseball just how much concern there was about rising costs. Council members warned that baseball officials' early position on the lease was a non-starter and that the council would reject it and go to arbitration or move the stadium to the RFK site.
With progress on the lease, Evans predicted that the council vote on the lease will have an outcome similar to that of the stadium financing package last December: a close but affirmative vote that will allow the stadium to be built at the South Capitol Street site.
Cropp said a public hearing on the finalized lease agreement will be held before the council vote, which could come as early as Dec. 20.