Washington baseball stadium proposal strikes out

So now it’s a baseball stadium. Get this straight, please – I’m in favor of baseball in the District of Columbia. As a former player and current fan, I like the game. The game of baseball, that is.

But there’s another game going on in downtown Washington that I don’t like, and neither should any thinking citizen, even if the city gets a team and a stadium, preferably in that order.

The current Downtown Development Game might be called “We’ve Made a Deal,” and only a few can play. The average citizen and local business, those who foot a large part of the bills for any trophy in the Downtown Deal Game, can’t play at all. If they raise any thoughtful questions about the game or its rules, they’re dismissed as a bunch of civic cranks.

The recent announcement of the baseball stadium project was part of a familiar pattern. It goes like this:

1) An ad hoc group, selected by former mayor-for-life Marion Barry, works behind closed doors with a privately selected consultant paid with public funds to develop a superficial scheme for developing key parcels and facilities in downtown;

2) The so-called plan, sans validating documentation but dripping with dropped names and inaccurate “eyewash” renderings, is sprung on the public with industrial-strength hoopla but no public hearings or open discussion, even in the printed media, where such discussion conceivably might occur, if only in well-controlled letters to editors;

3) The city council adopts “emergency” legislation adopting the hurry-up scheme, giving authority to pre-selected inside developers to proceed with sole-source property acquisition (in a red-hot real estate market, yet), sometimes with the questionable use, or threat of use, of the D.C. power of eminent domain, and approves special tax on local businesses to pay, pay and pay; (the city council adopts whatever amendments the 1989 Adopted Comprehensive Plan may require the appearance of conformance, so that appropriate zoning changes can be made – the zoning commission can be counted on to go along with the deal.)

4) Initial widely touted, public-relations-based cost estimates escalate dramatically, but the Control Board declares non-involvement in this “detail” of local government, mutter, mutter, mutter .;

5) Congress assures – vaguely – that underwriting of last resort will be found if necessary, full faith and credit, etc., mumble, mumble, harrumph;

6) National Capital Planning Commission, predictably, endorses project as complementary to, not contrary to, not inconsistent with (whatever) to “Federal Interest”;

7) Construction proceeds, often before official actions by city council or NCPC, to shoehorn facility into undersized site;

8) D.C. public schools remain strapped and marginally functional; potholes persist; obsolete water/sewer infrastructure continues to break down; and unemployment among young D.C. men and women remains high.

All of the foregoing steps have been taken to bring us the MCI Center arena, the new Washington Convention Center and, now, the baseball stadium. No one responsible has offered a serious clue as to what will be done with the “old” Washington Convention Center or its 11-acre site after the new one is built.

It is a classic case of making up the future of our once-dignified, historic and vital downtown – and Chinatown – one project at a time. Due process has become a bad joke.

There is NO capability within the local government to conduct objective, professional analyses of the plans du jour. The organs of local government simply go along and, apparently, get along. As New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable suggests in her description of New York City’s Columbus Circle fiasco, “This is city planning by the Marx brothers.” Except we pay our city council more than New York City does.

Maybe the proposed baseball stadium will become a reality on the artfully chosen site east of Mt. Vernon Square (see map). If it does, it will represent yet another triumph of locker room logic over the thoughtful plans prepared in the 1980s and early 1990s to use the same lands for the diversified housing and related year-round commercial uses needed to make the “living downtown” a reality rather than a catch phrase often mouthed by politicians, but honored mainly in the breach.

There is a good place for a modern baseball stadium in the District – it is called the RFK Memorial Stadium.

It was built for baseball, but it needs rebuilding or replacement. Surely it could become what it was until the departure of the Washington Senators 28 years ago. It has designed Metro access, a dignified monumental site, adequate parking and a long tradition of serving the region. It would provide the same number of jobs as a stadium in the already overstuffed Mt. Vernon Square area, and it would fit the city policies carefully developed in the 1980s before city planning under Marion Barry bit the dust.

Newly elected Mayor Anthony Williams has a great opportunity to help the city “get it right,” for a change, since many well-informed citizens are beginning to ask why we need to have the baseball stadium even before we have a team. Especially at the Mt. Vernon Square location.

The mayor has full authority – and indeed the responsibility – under the 1973 Home Rule Act, to function as the city’s principal planner, which requires him to put these fast-track, impulsive, secretive projects into the bigger perspective of a comprehensive plan for the District. Will he rise to this challenge? Wait and see.

Jan. 26 was Johnny Cash’s birthday. The country singer has been known for many colorful songs, but one of these would be an especially appropriate theme for the Downtown Development Game; it’s called “I Got It One Piece At A Time.” The song describes how Johnny built a car by welding, screwing and hammering together mismatched parts from various models from various years until he had a ludicrous hybrid, a sort of 1957 Chevy with Cadillac fins and bumpers by Ford and GMC. It ran, sort of, but it never added up to the efficient vehicle or dignified image that most Americans seek. It evolved, after a while, but it never had a coherent plan.

That is what is happening to the D.C. downtown – a sprawling collection of deals without a unifying concept or credible plan. The proposed baseball stadium is only the latest of these.

Spring training has begun, another baseball season lies ahead. Grow up, and get a life, D.C. Don’t keep us in the minors any longer – we could be a big-league city again!

-Dorn McGrath is chair of the department of geography and a professor of urban and regional planning. He is a former president of the American Institute of Planners.

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