D.C. Council gives preliminary OK to baseball stadium


WASHINGTON - The D.C. Council narrowly gave preliminary approval yesterday to Mayor Anthony A. Williams' plan to build a baseball stadium with public money, but only after dismantling a portion of his blueprint, adding a provision to contain costs and urging him to reopen talks with Major League Baseball to get a better deal.

After a bruising all-day meeting, the council voted 6-4 to approve the mayor's plan and keep the city on track to have the Washington Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, beginning this spring.

Council Chairman Linda Cropp and two other council members - Phil Mendelson and Kathy Patterson - voted "present," signaling their votes are still up for grabs when a final vote on the deal is taken in a few weeks.

A conciliatory Williams thanked members and said publicly for the first time that he would grant a request by Cropp and others to reopen talks with Major League Baseball on ways to improve the deal financially for the District.

Any modifications, Williams said, would need to be "consistent" with the outline of an agreement he signed with baseball Sept. 29. The changes would have to be completed before the agreement's Dec. 31 deadline to finalize stadium funding - or risk losing the team.

"I got the idea it is possible to make some changes," Cropp said. "I want baseball to come to the District of Columbia. The difference perhaps between me and some others is that I don't want baseball to come at any cost."

The council's endorsement came only after it had tinkered with the mayor's plan and after a handful of members criticized him for negotiating what one called a "giveaway." Several other sites had been considered for the Expos, including one in Northern Virginia.

"I've never seen such a giveaway, an unbelievable giveaway, all at public expense," said council member Carol Schwartz, who voted against the deal.

The mayor was also criticized by council member David Catania for not successfully negotiating for the stadium's naming rights, worth millions of dollars. Those rights will go to the team.

Council member Jack Evans, a Williams ally on baseball, said: "Of course, we wanted it. Major League Baseball naming rights have always belonged to the team owner."

Williams sat in the council meeting room for hours, quietly listening. Cropp said it was the first time she could remember a mayor attending a meeting as a spectator.

Under the stadium deal, the city would fund the 41,000-seat stadium - estimated by the D.C. chief financial officer to cost $530 million - with a gross receipts tax on large businesses, a tax on stadium concessions and stadium rent paid by the team's not-yet-selected owners.

Saying it was not too late to improve the deal, the council voted 10-3 to adopt Cropp's amendment under which stadium costs are to be re-evaluated by the city before the facility is built. If the costs are more than $100 million above current estimates, the city would pursue a cheaper site - possibly one adjacent to RFK Stadium - subject to baseball's approval. The team is to play at RFK while the new facility is built.

Williams said he would discuss the cost-containment measure when he reopens talks with baseball soon.

Asked whether baseball would agree to reopen talks, John McHale, a Major League Baseball vice president who was involved in the negotiations over the Expos' relocation, said: "Renegotiating? I suppose I ought to reserve comment on that until the mayor asks us to engage in those discussions. But I have not sensed great willingness on the part of the [owners'] relocation committee to do that."

Cropp said her cost-reduction efforts were "not a deal-breaker." The council approved a second Cropp amendment establishing a formal review process for the city to consider private stadium funding proposals. Without offering details, Cropp said there is the potential for at least $100 million in private financing.

Williams said he was not opposed to seeking private funding. His tone has softened since Nov. 8, when he said, "When Major League Baseball awarded us a team, we endorsed that commitment. I'm keeping it. It's time for others to keep it, too."

Yesterday, though, he told the council after the 7 1/2 -hour meeting: "I think we have made a lot of progress today."

Williams appeared amiable even though the council - in addition to altering his stadium plan - voted yesterday to delete $75 million in funds he had promised in the stadium package for community projects, including $45 million for libraries. The library money would have come from the new baseball tax on businesses.

The lure of community money had helped Williams win over at least one critical vote, council member Jim Graham, a libraries advocate. But Cropp and other critics said the projects further bloated an already expensive bill. After the funds were eliminated on a 10-3 vote, a frustrated Graham sided against the bill. "The libraries have been crumbling," he said.

While the vote on the stadium deal was close, there was little drama: Most members had privately counted the votes in advance and spread the word that the mayor was going to prevail.

Cropp said she would not have let the deal crumble. Asked why she voted "present," she replied: "I want to keep people's feet to the fire."

Sun staff writer Ed Waldman contributed to this article.

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