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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.

By Marc Fisher |  November 15, 2006; 7:20 AM ET
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Comments

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There's a lot of development going on down here now; maybe the city can work with the people that are putting stuff in to get some more parking. Maybe even enough to limit the size, and therefore the impact and ultimate demolition, of the above ground garages.

Posted by: Stick | November 15, 2006 8:25 AM

How can the Lerners say that they're open to building underground parking in the future? If there's not enough time to do it between now and April 2008, when would there be enough time to do it during a normal off-season?

The Lerners have no financial interest in the success of the "baseball district". They want people to spend all their money inside the stadium.

Posted by: Reid | November 15, 2006 8:59 AM

Reid is absolutely right. The city has been shamelessly used by Major League Baseball and the Lerners have given absolutely no indication that they care about anything other than their bottom. I love baseball, but the only reasonable argument for building a giant, city-funded stadium in the District is to promote development around the area. This parking garage decision is horrible and we'll be feeling the repercussions for a long time to come. Very, very disappointing.

Posted by: Phoebe | November 15, 2006 9:41 AM

The District government is the only organization that should be blamed for the continual delays in getting the baseball stadium and surrounding parking issues resolved. They have dragged their feet for so long now that the only option available is to build above ground garages.

I suspect the majority of baseball fans will take Metro to the games now that parking will be limited. It will be years from now when the city realizes their foolishness cost them millions in tax revenue they could have received had they gotten the garages built underground with retail stores at ground level.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2006 9:42 AM

It is simply not true, as Marc says, that "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."

In fact, the original plans for the stadium clearly showed the two above-ground garages, despite the fact that the architects themselves didn't like them and the mayor "hoped" that the plans could be changed to accommodate below-ground parking.

Fenty's -- and the city's -- hands were tied, once again, by the lopsided deal Mayor Williams cut originally with Major League Baseball. As long as the Lerners were legally entitled to insist on the above-ground garages, there was little if anything the city could do to prevent it.

While the area retains significant potential as an entertainment district -- Fenty is correct that the land to be occupied by the garages is a small portion of the total developable land surrounding the stadium -- the unfortunate fact is that the garages, with no ground-level retail, expand the dead zone that the ballpark will create on the 284 days a year there is no game. That is an urban planning tragedy.

On the question of general parking -- that is, for fans beyond the 1,200 or so premium seat holders who will get to use these garages -- EVERYONE including MLB knew exactly what they were getting when they traded parking-friendly RFK for a more urban location that, by definition, could not be surrounded by a moat of parking and still provide the development and entertainment amenities that the District wants the stadium to generate. To suddenly treat this as a "crisis" is absurd.

Other urban ballparks manage. Most Orioles fans, especially since the construction of the adjacent football stadium eliminated thousands of parking spaces, park in nearby garages. Older parks, such as Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and Wrigley Field, have little dedicated parking yet they consistently lead the Major Leagues in attendance.

Once the area around the stadium is fully developed, there will be garages available for parking. Until then, temporary surface lots will probably be pressed into action. And, of course, there is Metro. But do not pretend this is a looming problem. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, knew exactly what they were getting into.

And I would especially admonish the Lerners, who have not been shy about insisting upon the letter of their agreement, that the District does NOT owe them any more parking than the three garages that will be built under the Fenty plan. If they want more, they can build it themselves. This is not the District's responsiblity. At $600 million and counting, we have done more than enough.

Posted by: Meridian | November 15, 2006 9:58 AM

Cars and Metro are fine, but I'd like to see someone talk about bringing buses into the mix. It seems to me that, especially with DC residents and people living in the close-in suburbs, creating a fleet of express buses to bring people to the stadium and take them away after the game would also be beneficial. As with other express buses, they would only pick up passengers on the way to the park and only allow passengers to exit heading away from the park. Maybe designate every third bus stop as an express pick-up stop. Send them only down main routes (Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, North Capitol, etc.), and have them stop picking up passengers at a certain point (before they reach the downtown core, perhaps).

Posted by: Tony | November 15, 2006 10:04 AM

Buses? Are you serious? Tell me you're joking! Unless you mean shuttle buses from RFK parking lots to the new stadium running on a dedicated service road.

Posted by: Bus? | November 15, 2006 10:23 AM

Unless DC government officials get a signed agreement from the Lerners on future development cooperation promises, there will be no future development whether DC wants it or not. This is the Lerners that DC is dealing with. They will use the fine print every time! I am not sure DC lawmakers can read the fine print on their own legislation! DC loses the right to develop that land as of September 2007. After that, we are at the mercy of the Lerners' led ownership group. DC officials are going to get some type of written agreement on future promises, right?

Posted by: otavio_dc | November 15, 2006 10:24 AM

What is it you object to about buses?

Posted by: Tony | November 15, 2006 10:57 AM

I actually think the bus idea is great. The city should have regular pick ups at all the hot spots around DC: Dupont, Adams Morgan, Eastern Market, U-Street and drop them off right in front of the stadium.

The Navy Yard Metro isn't big enough to accomodate that many people. And their isn't enough parking around the stadium.

Posted by: Justin | November 15, 2006 11:07 AM

I think buses will be even more critical for getting people out of the area after games, since the Metro will be jammed with everyone leaving at once. Along with the other suggestions, there should be express buses to Gallery Place, Metro Center and Farragut Square. And sure, one to RFK too -- though I wonder where a "dedicated service road" could be.

Posted by: Cosmo | November 15, 2006 11:27 AM

Is that abandoned space all around the Anacostia Metro and its garage still abandoned? Who owns it? We could build garages there and have shuttles to the stadium. We'd probably have to widen Howard Road too, which may be good, because that junk yard is pretty unsightly, and it could be developed further to provide businesses to serve the school kids and commuters.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2006 12:21 PM

I like the bus idea, too, as well as the notion that the RFK lots could be used as a pick-up point. RFK won't be torn down by '08, right? And, even if it were, couldn't the lots still be used for a while?

Posted by: Rocco | November 15, 2006 12:27 PM

Ah, the joy of sunk costs. With city bureaucrats eagerly awaiting next year's (and every year after) automatic 12% increase in everyone's property tax bill, why not keep making dumb decisions to subsidize this boondoggle? Let's build above-ground garages, and then tear them down and have the citizens pay to build some other free building for the hyper rich. We'll have plenty of money left for big raises for the council, the mayor, and $300,000 a year for the new Metro chief.

There's a reason no developer built a stadium, or any other "entertainment district" in Southeast -- because, unlike Pollin's arena, it's a money loser, a stupid idea. Gallery Place has a major metro station with three lines, was the historic retail center of the city, and had significant buildings only in need of renovation. The new stadium site has nothing, no buildings, no reason to be there on non-game-days, and a small and far-away metro station. The Pollin arena lends itself to non-sporting events and is programmed almost every day, while the stadium will sit fallow the majority of nights.

If below ground parking and an entertainment district made any sense, don't you think the Lehrners would be angling for a part of it, not killing it for the sake of 1,200 parking spaces? No, they know that this will at best be a drive in, drive out, stadium that some suckers bought them for free.

So, good for Adrian. Cut the losses, suck it up and move on to something else. But please, PLEASE, no more talk about more city subsides for more "entertainment district" development.

Posted by: Paul | November 15, 2006 12:27 PM

Buses clog up the roads. Last thing I'd ever want is more buses on the roads in rush hour.

Posted by: Bus? | November 15, 2006 1:01 PM

Paul: You are right when you say there is little there now. But you need to have a little vision. This is a massive piece of undeveloped land in the shadow of the US Capitol. It's got decent metro access (no, Navy Yard stop is not 'far away'). And it's got big money people coming in to build.

In five years we'll have a huge development down there. My only hope is that it has some charm and architectural interest and that developers avoid their gut instinct to just build huge ugly square boxes everywhere.

Posted by: Hillman | November 15, 2006 1:10 PM

You've got new townhomes/rowhouses, office building and condos going in now. These people new bars and restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, ad infinitum. They aren't buying/building there so they can live/work in an entertainment free zone.

Posted by: Stick | November 15, 2006 1:53 PM

"If below ground parking and an entertainment district made any sense, don't you think the Lehrners would be angling for a part of it, not killing it for the sake of 1,200 parking spaces?"

exactly because they know it makes sense, they wanted to force the City to lose development rights and anyone and everyone who want that land after Sep/07 must deal with them. They don't have to spend a dime to built nothing, just sit and wait for other developers to line up their pocket.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2006 2:13 PM

I love the fact that everyone here is slamming the Lerners. They are business people, and there is nothing wrong with that. God forbid they should try and make money so that they can building the Nationals into a competitive team! Perish the thought!

Here's what I find particularly interesting: Fenty has been no fan of MLB, the stadium deal, or anything else associated with this shole effort. But what does he do? Rolls over and cuts the deal for above-ground parking. Seems to me that if the reality matched the rhetoric of holding MLB's feet to the fire, or the Lerners for that matter, Fenty would have played it differently.

Now, for the record, I did not support Fenty for Mayor at first, but was gradually won over by him. Still, it seems riddiculous that everyone is taking the Lerners to task on this.

Posted by: Glover Park | November 15, 2006 4:14 PM

Why can't they put shops/restaurants/etc. in the bottom floor of the parking decks?

Posted by: baseball fan | November 15, 2006 5:27 PM

Glover:

I did not slam the Lerners. I said they had every right to insist on the letter of the agreement that MLB (not the Lerners) cut with the District.

Given that agreement, there was no fire to which the Lerners' feet could be held. In fact it was the opposite: the Lerners, understandably, held the District's feet to the fire and the District had no choice but to yield.

However, District has no obligation to provide parking beyond the 1,200 called for the in the agreement, and the orchestrated effort by Kasten et al to manufacture a "crisis" over his demand for 5,000 to 9,000 more spaces, as though he suddenly discovered that an urban ballpark would not be surrounded by a large parking lot, should be dismissed. The District has as much right as the Lerners to hold to the letter of the agreement and has no obligation to provide additional parking facilities. If the Lerners want more than they're entitled to, they should pay for it.

Posted by: Meridian | November 16, 2006 7:51 AM

We can't fault the Lerners in this. They put up half a billion dollars - almost as much as DC - and bargained in good faith.
A deal is a deal.

The DC Council, with it's tyical waffling and backsliding, is trying to renege on their end of the deal.

DC has a nasty habit of building large venues with no public parking then crowing that the facility is "convenient to Metro". Anyone who drives to an event is left to the mercy of the operators of the crummy little parking lots nearby. They did it with the Arena and the Convention Center. The Lerners and MLB aren't having it with the stadium.

Personally, I would like to see the underground faciltiy, topped by mixed-use. It would be great to turn the area into something other than the wasteland it currently is.

But DC needs to realize they are in no position to do things "their way" this time. They wanted to play with the big boys and be recognized as top-tier. Now they need to step up.

Posted by: CEEAF | November 16, 2006 11:16 AM

CEEAF:

The Council has not reneged -- it has approved the construction of the above-ground garages, overruling the zoning board in the process.

If by "needs to step up" you suggest the DC government has an obligation to provide further parking beyond the 1200 spaces, I say that obligation now rests with the Lerners or other elements of the private sector. There was no obligation to provide it in either the master agreement with MLB or the stadium lease, and there is no reason for the government to make further investment in this project. If MLB wanted acres of parking around the stadium, they had other options, including RFK or a suburban location. You want an urban stadium, then your rely on private parking providers and public transportation.

Posted by: Meridian | November 17, 2006 9:42 AM

"The Council has not reneged -- it has approved the construction of the above-ground garages, overruling the zoning board in the process."

OK. I stand corrected. But the above-ground garages are a second-rate offereing. I thought the goal in this was to turn the area around the ballpark into a neighborhood and an attraction. Much more can be done with below-ground parking that's out of the way. Watch for the Council to end up giving you a paved -over lot.

I suppose they can use it for circuses and tractor pulls like the paved-over former convention center site (talk about wasting prime real estate!).

"If by "needs to step up" you suggest the DC government has an obligation to provide further parking beyond the 1200 spaces, I say that obligation now rests with the Lerners or other elements of the private sector."

By "stepping up, I mean for the Council to fulfill its end of the deal with a first-class solution - the undeground garages. And you're right about the Lerners' end - they should put in more parking - about 5,000 spaces worth.

"There was no obligation to provide it in either the master agreement with MLB or the stadium lease, and there is no reason for the government to make further investment in this project. "

There is the parking obligation. The Council is pussy-footing around. I won't be surprised if they try to get off with pen lots or - nothing at all.

"MLB wanted acres of parking around the stadium, they had other options, including RFK or a suburban location. You want an urban stadium, then your rely on private parking providers and public transportation."

That wasn't the deal.

Posted by: CEEAF | November 17, 2006 5:04 PM

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