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D.C. threatens to shut down Nationals Park, putting events at risk

Stadium owner Events DC has failed to deliver the development it promised in its original agreement with the city

A dispute over a key license could threaten to close down concerts and other events at Nationals Park. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The District is playing hardball in a dispute with the owner of Nationals Park, effectively threatening to shut down the stadium if Events DC fails to develop the commercial and retail space it promised before the ballpark’s 2008 opening.

Under its original agreement with the city, Events DC had pledged to build 46,000 square feet of commercial and retail space around Nationals Park, located along the Anacostia River in the Navy Yard neighborhood. But the company — arguing that the “extremely unique circumstances” of the pandemic and other business factors have made those initial plans unworkable — now is seeking to be released from that responsibility.

If no deal is reached, the dispute could threaten games, concerts and other events scheduled to be held at the ballpark.

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Instead of the original development, Events DC has proposed to finish a considerably smaller, 17,000-square-foot structure that is already attached to the ballpark at First Street SE and Potomac Avenue SE as retail-only space.

“Events DC and the Washington Nationals are eager to move forward with the build out of the existing retail space and provide more options to the now vibrant Capitol Riverfront community,” Events DC spokeswoman Christy Goodman wrote in an email.

At the heart of the holdup is a routine piece of paper that businesses must have to operate. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, in a maneuver upping the pressure on Events DC to follow through on its promised development, has said it will not renew the temporary certificate of occupancy the ballpark has used to operate since Opening Day in March 2008.

That certificate is set to expire Sept. 30, according to the Washington Business Journal, which first reported the snafu. The Nationals’ final home game of the season is scheduled for Oct. 2.

Since 2008, the DCRA has issued conditional certificates of occupancy on the understanding that Events DC was making a “good faith” progress toward satisfying its agreement with the Zoning Commission to achieve its promised development target, DCRA spokesman Daniel Weaver said in an email. Once those targets were reached, the agreement would be fulfilled and the agency would issue a permanent certificate of occupancy. But he said that over that time, full compliance had been avoided through the use of temporary certificates.

“At this time, with no immediate construction occurring, a permanent solution is sought so that a permanent [certificate of occupancy] may be issued,” Weaver wrote. He said the agency also urged Events DC to apply to the Zoning Commission to properly modify the agreement rather than continue using temporary licensing.

“As Events DC has followed through on the filing request, DCRA will issue another [temporary certificate of occupancy] which will expire on December 31, 2023 to allow time for the Zoning Commission to issue a ruling, and or for Events DC to submit any construction plans for review and approval,” he wrote.

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The dispute comes near the end of a dispiriting season for the Nationals, and amid growing uncertainty about the real estate market. Earlier this year, three seasons removed from a triumphant World Series title, the Lerner family put the team up for sale, saying they hoped to receive initial bids before the last out of the regular season. At least five interested parties, including a mortgage mogul and a South Korean billionaire, have explored a purchase, The Post reported last month.

The Lerners, who own the team, have indicated they may explore selling the Nationals. The Post's Chelsea Janes explains what the sale could mean for fans. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

But Events DC, an entity that calls itself “the premier host of conventions, entertainment, sporting and cultural events in the nation’s capital,” is the owner of Nationals Park itself, in addition to city venues such as the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and RFK Stadium. The $611 million ballpark welcomed baseball back to the District with a walk-off win on March 30, 2008.

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In its public filings with the D.C. Zoning Commission, Events DC asked to be released from the agreement it made before that debut to build the full 46,000 square feet of commercial and retail space. It said reducing its prior commitment on development appears to be the only way to resolve the deadlock with the DCRA and obtain a permanent certificate of occupancy.

If the commission were to go along, the company said, it would also obtain the building permit for the project within six months of the decision. In the meantime, it would ask for yet another extension of the temporary certificate of occupancy.

The company’s vision for the 17,000 square feet of retail space is itself reduced from a grander design it submitted in August 2019. At the time, the vision included an additional 35,000 square feet as part of a destination for dining, commercial space and watching sports. The project received D.C. Council approval and a commitment from Events DC of $3.6 million, according to Events DC’s filing before the zoning commission.

But then covid-19 struck, as did difficulties lining up public financing. The dual impact, according to the filing, put that vision on hold, too.

“We are confident that as Events DC and the D.C. Zoning Commission work out the final terms of a permanent certificate of occupancy, we will continue to operate without restrictions as we always have,” Nationals spokeswoman Jennifer Giglio said in a written statement.

This story was updated with a statement from the Nationals and an additional one from a DCRA spokesman, who said that the agency plans to issue another temporary certificate of occupancy that is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2023.