Wednesday, April 26, 2006

so you say you wanna new ballpark...

The DC City Council reached an agreement with Major League Baseball ot build a baseball-only stadium for $535 million. Renowned stadium design firm HOK of Kansas City designed the park, and, according to the artist's renderings, it''s no Camden Yards. It's certainly no PNC Bank Park in Pittsburgh, currently the prettiest stadium in baseball.

And...for 535 million bucks, I'm not sure if it's even decrepit old RFK.'s Tuesday Morning Quarterback chimes in with this story that masquarades as a sports business story.

Take Me Out of This Ballpark
Recently the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission unveiled the design of the Washington Nationals' new baseball park, and the announcement made yours truly glad he does not reside in the District of Columbia. Local taxpayers will be on the hook for $535 million in bonds to support this potential white elephant. Not only is there a strong chance the stadium will flop in the marketplace -- more on that in a moment -- the price tag seems likely to include substantial graft. Consider that Citizens Bank Park in nearby Philadelphia, the Phillies' new home, opened in 2004 and was built for $346 million, only $174 million of it foisted upon local taxpayers. Citizens Bank Park is larger than the planned Washington Nationals park, sits on similar downtown land bought at similar downtown prices, yet cost taxpayers only about a third as much. Recently opened Gillette Field, financed mainly at Patriots owner Robert Kraft's expense, came in at $325 million and is substantially larger than the planned Nats ballpark. The just-announced new Yankee Stadium is projected to cost $800 million, but will be larger than the Washington ballpark and will sit on 22 acres of the most expensive land in North America. Yet taxpayers are contributing about $300 million to the Yankee Stadium project, less than the bill to be handed to taxpayers for the smaller Washington facility.

All yours, D.C. baseball fans, for $535 million -- and don't forget the cost overruns!It's easy to be careless with other people's money, especially with the money of taxpayers, who cannot demand refunds or sue for breach of contract. Gillette Field was built using private funds under market discipline; the Washington stadium will be built at taxpayer expense with no fiscal discipline. Surely that's a reason the price is so high. But another reason may be that some portion of the price is likely to be stolen by cronies of the District's top-heavy, inept government. Indeed, the D.C. Council seemed determined to push the stadium cost well above the price of comparable facilities, in order to assure there was plenty in the pot to steal. George W. Bush, the most baseball-obsessed president since William Howard Taft, has allowed this tax-subsidized pocket-picking directly under his nose, while making no attempt to pressure his pals in the corporate suites of Major League Baseball into building the stadium the free-market way. Maybe the naming rights should be sold to Halliburton. ... Welcome to Halliburton Field, where hot dogs are $6,000 and all overhead costs are billed to the defense budget.

Why might the Washington ballpark lack customers? First, it's situated at one of the worst traffic choke points in the nation's capital -- and that's now, before stadium traffic. Many stadia are hard to get in and out of. Experience shows that customers will bear traffic gridlock for football games, which happen only a few times a year, but won't frequent the much-more-regular MLB games unless access is convenient, and the Nats' field is being plunked down at one of the hardest-to-reach spots on the East Coast. Second, the high $535 million price will include a ridiculously low 1,225 parking places, some of which will be reserved for D.C. government officials. That's one parking space for every 34 seats. The new Yankee Stadium will have decked garages with 10,000 parking spaces, one space for every 5.3 seats. The Arizona Cardinals' new stadium, rising in Glendale, Ariz., will have 14,000 dedicated parking spaces for 63,000 seats, one space per 4.5 seats. No matter how good the Nats might be, suburbanites, who are the core demographic for all professional sports, might come to the new ballpark once, discover traffic is backed up and there's nowhere to park, and never return. When the ballpark project zeroes out the D.C. government's bond rating, please, congressional committees, don't say you weren't warned.

Now, I'm not sure what President Bush has to do with the new Nationals' stadium. He'll probably be out of the White House by the time the building is completed, and, if my memory of the DC City Council and MLB's battles serves me correct, the White House had *nothing* to do with this scenario at all. I don't see what point blasting the President has to do with this story. It clouds the real point of this message - this is a White Elephant waiting to happen. How the hell are people going to get there?

The main roads near the new stadium are I-395, I-295 and South Capitol Street. It'll be a couple of blocks away from the Navy Yard Metro station. I-395 is a parking lot every weekday from 4pm until 6:30pm, and not much better than that at 3 and 7. South Capitol takes a massive amount of traffic because it's a quick-ish way for Maryland-bound commuters to avoid the Pennsylvania Avenue interchange to connect to 295. See, in its infinite wisdom, The Powers That Be never bothered to connect 395 fully with 295. If you want to reach northbound 295, and make a quick exit out of DC towards Annapolis and Baltimore, you have to sit on the Souza Bridge on Penn Ave...and I do mean sit. It literally takes 30 minutes to go 1.5 miles most days. So, poor South Cap takes it on the chin. It'll usually take about 10 minutes to go 1.5 miles on South Cap to 295 - a much better proposition. Still, it'll take a car about 30 to 60 minutes to travel the 3.3 miles from my office to the new stadium.

And then...I'll need to find a parking spot.

For half-a-billion dollars, is it too much to ask for parking (like I could possibly drive there anyway?) or a better transportation situation?

The more I look at the neighborhood, and the transportation mess, the less I like the location of this stadium.

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