Plans for a $13.7 million renovation of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, critical to bringing a baseball team back to Washington, are stalled as a result of congressional blockage of a plan to transfer ownership of the stadium from the federal government to the District government.
Jim Dalrymple, general manager of the D.C. Armory Board, said that it would be possible to install a new seating configuration and turf necessary to get the stadium ready for baseball between the end of the Redskins football season in December and the beginning of baseball season in April next year, but only if the transfer issue is resolved soon.
The Houston Astros' primary owner, John J. McMullen, has expressed dissatisfaction with declining attendance in the Astrodome, the city of Houston and Harris County. Recent reports indicate that he is considering moving the team from Houston and that he is interested in Washington, which has not had major league baseball since 1971.
"We can be ready, but it takes time," Dalrymple said of whether or not baseball could be played at RFK in 1987. "Some decisions have to be made now."
Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) has held up action on ownership-transfer legislation in the Senate since last December, citing objections by a local group called the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.
District of Columbia officials said this week that more delays in the transfer and the stadium renovation could endanger the city's efforts to get a team, because decisions may be made soon on team moves.
"By their acts alone, they the opponents to the transfer may be depriving this city of a sports franchise," said D.C. City Council Member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), chairman of the D.C. Baseball Commission. "They are being irresponsible."
The D.C. Armory Board's renovation plan includes replacing some of the existing bleachers and fixed seats with retractable, or as he called them, "telescopic," seats that can be used for football.
It also calls for extending the current Prescription Athletic Turf system now used for football to include a natural grass baseball playing area, as well as construction of two exterior glassed elevators and other improvements.
The District, in competition with several other cities for a baseball team if major league owners approve expansion or if an existing team decides to move, last year approved issuing $13.7 million in general obligation bonds to pay for the renovations, but only if the transfer legislation pending in the Senate becomes law.
Smith said one alternative being discussed is retaining federal ownership but providing the city with a 99-year lease. But he said he had talked to a bond counsel yesterday who questioned whether the city has the authority to issue bonds for the renovations if it does not own the stadium. If it could issue the bonds, lack of ownership would affect the bond rating and cost the city more, he added.
Smith said that owner of major league teams considering expansion have said they prefer city ownership and that the current delay in the Senate is an example of why.
The Committee of 100 had objected on the basis that the stadium violates the original L'Enfant plan for the city and because it did not adhere to a policy of having the National Park Service plan and operate the recreation system of the nation's capital.
The House passed the bill easily last June, and city officials had foreseen no problems in the Senate until Hatfield's last-minute objections in the final days of Congress. Since that time, however, several other groups have opposed the bill, including the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Rock Creek Sierra Club and the Environmental Policy Institute.
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who took the lead in pushing the bill through committee and onto the Senate floor, told Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Herrity in a letter Monday that the added opposition has "imposed new burdens on the legislation." Warner said he has asked the District to address the concerns expressed by Hatfield and others.
But Smith called the objections of the Committee of 100 "flimsy" and said he may ask to meet with the entire group to make a case for ownership transfer. Legislative strategists also are considering adding the transfer provisions to some other bill passed by the House to bring the issue to a vote on the Senate floor in that way, he added.
Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Redskins who has sought an expansion baseball team, as well as trying to buy the San Francisco Giants and bring them to Washington, said yesterday that the stadium needs some work done on it but disputed the idea that ownership -- federal or city -- of the stadium was a significant issue.
"I don't think it means beans," he said in an telephone interview. "The stadium is still there and was origially built for baseball."
The stadium, opened in 1961, had a mechanism for switching from football to baseball, but because of disuse the once-movable seats have settled and frozen in place.
The federal and city governments split the $19.8 million cost of construction, and the District paid an additional $12.8 million in interest. The city and federal governments started negotiating a transfer plan before baseball became a live issue, but the ownership status has taken on more importance because of the campaign to get a team here.
In addition to the turf and retractable seats, the armory board's plan calls for $1.5 million improvements in office and storage areas; $1.7 million to upgrade locker rooms, concession stands, restrooms and the ticket office; and $1.2 million in general repairs, such as painting and fixing the roof.
Dalrymple said some of the general repairs have begun already, with the money coming from the stadium's regular budget.
A proposal to create luxury skyboxes at a cost of $2.3 million has been reconsidered because it would mean losing some current seating, which cannot happen because Redskins season tickets are sold out for the entire stadium, Dalrymple said.