The District government significantly underestimated the price of a state-of-the-art stadium for the Washington Nationals and as a result has been forced to shift $55 million set aside for infrastructure improvements to cover escalating costs.
City officials had included money to repave roads and expand a Metro station near the stadium in the $535 million budget approved by the D.C. Council last year. Those funds now will go instead toward labor and building materials and to cover the cost of land for the stadium, which also is more expensive than anticipated.
The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which is overseeing the construction, determined that the cost of the distinctive ballpark designed by its architects has risen from $244 million to $337 million. That set off a scramble by top city officials who have since reduced the cost to $300 million but still are seeking money to complete the project.
The commission will ask the federal government and private developers to pay for the public works projects that have been removed from the budget, said its chairman, Mark H. Tuohey. Improving the roads and the nearby Metro stations is considered one key to creating a lively entertainment district around the ballpark. Some city officials fear that if the agency is unsuccessful in tapping those channels, the District may be forced to cover the void with city money.
D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who voted against the publicly funded ballpark, said the budget changes violate the law that authorized the stadium financing.
Infrastructure costs "are plainly included," he said. "Any effort to place them outside those categories is a violation. . . . This is business as usual around here where the people in power play hide-the-facts."
The sports commission and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) view the significant shift of money as necessary to meet the terms of the September 2004 stadium agreement with Major League Baseball. The promise of a stadium and all the revenue sources that come with it has allowed the league, whose 29 owners bought the Nationals three years ago for $120 million, to command $450 million for the franchise.
Mayoral advisers said that although the stadium will not go above budget, the money allotted to the project is not set in various categories and can be allocated according to changing needs.
"We're generally concerned about holding to a bottom line, but simply moving various line-items is standard," said Stephen M. Green, the city's development director, who is closely involved in the stadium project. "This is a massive undertaking. We'd like to have had everything completely thought through perfectly from the start, but we didn't even have drawings last year, so that's not reality."
The financial deliberations are delaying completion of a stadium lease agreement and the sale of the Nationals. Last week, District officials asked the league for $20 million to build underground parking. But baseball officials said they negotiated a detailed agreement that includes parking and expect the city to abide by it -- even if costs are rising.
The Nationals are scheduled to play their next two seasons at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. When the new stadium is complete, the team is expected to pay an average of $6 million per year in rent.
"Baseball cut a deal in good faith when they came on board here," Nationals President Tony Tavares said. "They entered into very detailed negotiations that were comprehensively written and that were expanded into a full lease on RFK and a new building with all the accoutrements that come with it. Bottom line: Baseball has stayed the course and done everything it said it was going to do. The [stadium agreement] clearly stated that cost overruns were clearly the responsibility of the city."
The cost of the stadium, scheduled to open in March 2008 along the Anacostia River near South Capitol Street SE and the Navy Yard, has caused significant debate among city officials.
When the city made the deal with baseball, mayoral aides estimated that the 41,000-seat stadium would cost $395 million but included no money for infrastructure. Green, the city official who developed that budget, said the city expected Metro and the federal government, which has its own development projects nearby, to cover those expenses.
But D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi raised the estimate to $533 million, including $76 million in infrastructure, saying that most cities building stadiums pay such costs. The D.C. Council based the stadium budget that it approved in December on Gandhi's report.
When the architectural team recently submitted designs for a stadium made primarily of glass, stone and steel, the price soared from $244 million to $337 million, said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the sports commission. He ordered cutbacks that reduced the price to $300 million. Lew said he can go no further without violating the agreement with baseball or compromising the design.
Lew credited inflation for some of the added cost for materials and labor but acknowledged that "the other half is driven by enhanced architecture."
He added: "The numbers from  are based on an average building. We wanted something iconic and timeless, and there's a price tag to it."
Other costs have risen, as well. The District offered landowners on the stadium site a total of $98 million, about $21 million more than Gandhi had projected.
To help make up the differences, Lew and other city officials limited infrastructure costs. The budget called for $12 million to widen and repave roads, add lighting and do landscaping, but that has been cut to $4 million. When the sports commission determined it would not have to spend $28 million to move a major sewer line, it shifted that money to other ballpark costs.
"Do we really need to rebuild all the roads? Or just resurface them?" Green asked. Rebuilding roads "would not alter the fan experience in one shape or form. It's not essential."
Perhaps the most striking example of cutbacks involved Metro projects. Although the agency said it needed up to $40 million to expand the Navy Yard Station, on the Green Line, Gandhi budgeted only $20 million. That amount would have paid for a wider platform and new escalators and an elevator, increasing capacity from 5,000 people per hour to 15,000.
But the sports commission has given Metro just $250,000, which will pay for three new fare gates and increase capacity to 10,000 people per hour.
"All that other stuff will get done, just not by us," said Tuohey, the commission chairman. "I personally never felt Metro should have been part of the stadium budget. . . . We'll still do this stadium for the budget that was prepared, but the ancillary items will be paid by someone else."
Metro officials declined to comment.
Tuohey added that even the sports commission has taken its share of cuts. Although the agency's offices were supposed to be at the new stadium, the latest plans do not include them. Instead, Tuohey said, the commission may move from RFK to the D.C. Armory.
The mayor and D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) have told the commission and baseball that the city will not allow the project to exceed $535 million -- unless baseball officials name an owner who is willing to chip in. And Cropp warned at a council meeting that the quality of the stadium could be compromised if private money is not found.
Commission officials insisted that they will produce the promised state-of-the-art ballpark. They said architects may use less limestone, replacing it with pre-cast concrete to save money.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is getting more luxury boxes -- up from 74 to 78 -- and club seats -- up from 2,000 to 3,000 -- than the stadium agreement stipulated. Commission officials said the league gave up two in-stadium retail stores, office space and other items that offset the added costs.
If the commission succeeds in getting the league to pay $20 million, Lew's budget showed he still must reduce costs by about $15 million more to get down to the city's $535 million limit.
"This whole crowd will be gone by the time the true costs come home to roost," Catania said of the mayor, his aides and Gandhi. "By then it will be everyone else's problem, and it'll be too late."