Nats Stadium Follies: The Parking Debacle
Sometimes, when things go bad, no one, and everyone, is at fault. In the long, mindnumbingly stupid saga of the parking garages at the new Nationals baseball stadium, four parties aiming to do the right thing ended up with the wrong decision. Most amazing of all, the bad decision will, in the end, turn out to be the least important piece of a much larger problem.
The quick history: When the District of Columbia agreed to build a baseball stadium as the price for winning the franchise now known as the Washington Nationals, the deal required the city to build 1,225 parking spaces to go along with the ballpark. Since the whole justification for spending public dollars on the stadium was that the project would spark development of a previously dead chunk of the city, all the early talk about that parking garage focused on putting the parking spaces underground and using the street-level space for retail and entertainment facilities that would extend fans' stay in the neighborhood and rake in the tax revenues.
The city made a deal with developer Herb Miller to plan and produce that piece of the stadium project. But the Miller deal fell apart after months of negotiations. With the clock was ticking toward the March 2008 deadline for completing the stadium and the parking, the city ditched Miller. Miller is now suing over that decision. (He's so embittered that he now calls the city's baseball deal "nothing more than a high-priced bait and switch.")
Meanwhile, the team's new owners, the Lerner family, decided that time was too short to build an underground garage; they need parking to be ready when the stadium opens in 2008, so they told the city the parking had to be aboveground, which would be cheaper and faster to build.
The District dallied. The Lerners said they couldn't find a reliable partner in Mayor Tony Williams' administration who had the authority to make decisions and get things done. D.C. council members bickered over the price, scope and design of the garage.
Yesterday, in Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty's first successful power play in the council, the aboveground garage deal won an emergency green light by a 10-3 vote, overriding the city zoning board's objections to aboveground parking.
That's good news for Fenty--he's showing his political muscle early, which is essential to his success. But it's bad news for taxpayers who want to guarantee a return on the city's investment in baseball. Smart urban planning is the key to creating a lively, walkable entertainment zone around the stadium. Putting a big, ugly garage between the ballpark and the surrounding development puts an obstacle where an inviting, interesting building should be.
Some folks blame the council for this mess, but the council is only trying to protect the taxpayers against the big penalties that the District would owe Major League Baseball should the parking not be ready by Opening Day 2008. Some folks blame the Lerners for insisting on the aboveground parking, but the Lerners are only trying to assure that everything is a go for fans when the stadium opens. (Members of the ownership group tell me that contrary to what's being said around town, they agree that the optimal solution was underground parking; they just reluctantly concluded that time for that ambitious project had run out. They remain open to replacing the above-ground parking garages with a more pedestrian-friendly underground development some years down the road.) Some folks blame Mayor Williams for dropping the ball on his signature project, and there is some merit to that claim--the mayor has pretty much vanished from the scene this fall--but even if he had been fully engaged, it's not clear that the Miller plan for the garages would have come to fruition.
The search for blame is always fun and sometimes useful, but in this case, it's a pretty circular search. And falling into that trap pulls us away from the real problem the city and the Nats face: Even after these 1,200 parking spaces are built, the new stadium will be ridiculously short on parking.
To some extent, that's ok--the important lesson to learn from the MCI Center is that if you build a big downtown people magnet with little or no parking, people will still come. They'll use mass transit. Even suburban hockey and hoops fans have happily used Metro to get to the Abe Pollin Center, where the proportion of visitors riding the rails has greatly outstripped all predictions.
But the baseball stadium, despite a planned expansion of the Navy Yard Metro station, will still need far more parking than is likely to be supplied by 2008. Eventually, the garages that accompany the various office, retail and hotel projects planned for the stadium neighborhood will absorb all those cars. But that could take several years, and nobody wants to see fans disillusioned in the interim. That's the problem that the city, the Lerners and the other developers who have a piece of the stadium area must solve, pronto.
Developers who ordinarily compete with one another must come together to build underground garages now, even before their aboveground projects get started. Some developers have already shown a williingness to have their land used for surface lots while they're still planning and financing their eventual projects, and that's a start. But the Fenty administration must show leadership soon to create a workable map of real parking solutions--not the fantasy map that the Williams folks put together some months back. That's the real parking story behind yesterday's vote.
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