YOU WANT to keep
thinking of Washington, D.C., as a gridlocked, do-nothing town? Go ahead. Try
to ignore the fact that, this Sunday, less than two years after breaking
ground, the Washington Nationals will open their season in a new, 41,222-seat
ballpark. Just try resisting the modernist gem that's inspiring near-universal
oohs for its green sensibility and piquant touches. Cherry trees dot the
outfield concourse, timed to blossom on Opening Day. The Capitol dome hovers
beyond leftfield, and the Nats' oval clubhouse pays homage to a certain White
House office. President Bush is scheduled to throw out the first pitch. It's
all going to feel so good.
Bud Selig will be smiling that night, and why not? In 2004, when baseball still
owned the franchise after rescuing it from Montreal, MLB negotiated an alltime
sweetheart deal. Then-mayor Anthony Williams and the city council agreed to
publicly finance a new stadium—now at $674 million and counting—even though it
was widely known that baseball wanted the team in Washington. At a time when
the civic burden for stadium construction was usually between 60% and 70%, D.C.
agreed to pick up a whopping 97% of the tab.
Lerner will be beaming too, having purchased the franchise from MLB in 2006 for
$450 million. Although he has spent "tens of millions more" in upgrades
to Nationals Park, according to team president Stan Kasten, Lerner was
obligated to pay only $20 million toward original construction costs. Under the
terms of his 30-year lease he will control all but 12 dates at the park
annually, in season and out, and rake in every dime from tickets, parking,
concessions and signage.
And D.C.'s new
go-go mayor, Adrian Fenty, will have a grin as well, though it may look mighty
forced. He can take credit for opening the ballpark on time, but as a
councilman he was a vociferous opponent of the deal, calling it
"horrible." Still, the council approved the construction—funding it
with taxes on stadium revenues, nonresidential utilities and businesses with
gross receipts of more than $5 million—in the hope that the ballpark would
revive the blighted Anacostia neighborhood the way the Verizon Center, built in
1997, spurred development in Chinatown. Although Fenty, as mayor, was in full
booster mode last week, he couldn't make completely nice. "I do think it
was a bad deal," he said.
Me? I'm a sucker
for a new ballpark. Roll out some grass and dirt and throw up a few brick
walls, add a few chaw-cheeked guys, and I'm there. When I first saw the
Nationals' massive new scoreboard, or that cool hydrotherapy room for the
players? I felt like a 12-year-old boy cut loose at The Sharper Image. Big
But as a District
resident for eight years I'm not woo-hooing. Ballpark opponents invariably cite
public schools and libraries as a more appropriate target for public
dollars—they were at the top of councilman Fenty's list—and in no city does
that argument resonate louder. The nation's capital has 37% adult illiteracy
and a high school graduation rate of 59%; only 9% of D.C. public school
students go on to graduate from college within five years.
Last week I
walked through Anacostia High, a five-minute drive from Nationals Park, where
the walls are peeling and garbage litters the halls. I drove past the Anacostia
Library, empty and surrounded by a cyclone fence. Like three other branch
libraries in the city, it has been closed since 2004; permanent replacements
aren't due before 2010. For those scoring at home, that will be three times
longer than it took to build the ballpark. "To invest $600 million there
and say it's the best way to spark economic development seems ludicrous,"
says Ed Lazere, director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. "I'm excited
the city has a baseball team. But it makes me bitter that it's costing so much
[money] that could've been used for more important things."
You want to
argue? Good luck. By the time I got to the ballpark for its first game, between
George Washington and Saint Joseph's last Saturday, it was hard to rhapsodize
about the city's shiny new monument. I kept thinking of my kids, trotting to
their overcrowded D.C. school next to a vacant lot where the library used to
be. Only one notion kept me afloat: the power of shame. After all, the D.C.
library system's construction chief, Jeff Bonvechio, said that citizen outrage
over the ballpark had forced the politicians to triple his budget. And Lazere
insisted that the District's 2005 decision to embark on a 10-year, $1 billion
program to repair school infrastructure "only came about because of the
guilt over the baseball stadium."
A deal so bad it
might do some good? Flimsy, I know. But we suckers have been known to fall for
If you have a comment on Nationals Park or stadium financing, send it to