n the eve of a crucial City Council hearing on the new $627 million Fenway Park plan, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday declined to say whether he could support any of the proposals offered by Red Sox CEO John Harrington to pay back the city's investment in the project.
Ballpark boosters fear the mayor's silence may spell trouble for the Sox. With only six weeks left in the legislative session this year to push a ballpark bill through on Beacon Hill, team officials have been seeking an audience with the mayor for weeks.
Menino, who initially scoffed at several of the team's suggestions after Harrington unveiled them Saturday, promised to sit down with Harrington this week. However, neither the Red Sox nor city officials could confirm whether a meeting had been scheduled.
''With all the zigs and zags he's been doing, everyone is wondering what the mayor is up to,'' said one business source who is not working on the project. ''There isn't much time left. Either he's trying to strong-arm the Red Sox or he's running out the clock. No one's sure which.''
Meanwhile, critics of the new ballpark are expected to urge city councilors to block the project tonight. Already six of the 13 councilors have said that they will oppose the project unless the plan is changed.
State lawmakers would have to approve a ballpark bill before the City Council would have a chance to vote on the measure. Two-thirds of the City Council must agree to seize the ballpark site by eminent domain, meaning it would take only five votes to block the required land takings.
''It's a legal, fiscal, and environmental disaster,'' said James Morgan, a neighborhood resident and leader of the Fenway Action Coalition. ''We hope the council continues to stand firm against this, because right now it seems we have the votes to block the land takings the Red Sox need to build it.''
But Harrington said last weekend that he would announce soon a ''preliminary'' land-swap agreement with a key Fenway landowner, the owners of the Howard Johnson's hotel on Boylston Street. Since Menino had urged the team to reach such an agreement with the hoteliers and another major Fenway landowner, the D'Angelo family, Harrington hoped the announcement would help secure the mayor's support.
Although any plan would require city zoning and other approvals, the tentative proposal calls for the hotel to be relocated to land the team owns near Brookline Avenue or for a new hotel to be built on top of a garage the team plans to construct on the current Boylston Street hotel site.
But the owners of the hotel said yesterday that they are not as close to an agreement as the Red Sox had hoped.
''We've had recent meetings, but we have no deal,'' said Robert Sage, the owner of the hotel. ''It doesn't mean we could not make one in the future. We just need to sit down with our architects and our attorneys to see if what they are suggesting is feasible.''
The Red Sox's negotiations with the D'Angelo family, who own about one-third of the proposed ballpark site, have gone more slowly. However, the family patriarch is expected to offer the Red Sox encouraging words at tonight's hearing.
''I think a new ballpark is a good idea,'' said Arthur D'Angelo, founder of the Twins Enterprise souvenir shops, as he greeted customers outside Fenway Park yesterday. ''I just want to be sure that we are treated fairly.''
To build the ballpark, the team and city will need to relocate a string of the family's souvenir shops, which have been a fixture in the Fenway area for about 50 years.
Working with their children and grandchildren, Arthur and his late twin brother, Henry, who emigrated from Italy in 1939, steadily built up the souvenir business, acquiring land in the Fenway area along the way. Today their business is worth millions, and the family controls about 3 of the 10 acres slated to be seized for the ballpark.
Harrington has been unable to convince Menino that the team's plan will allow the city to recoup the $140 million the city will need to invest to acquire the site, but the mayor and the Red Sox agree on one point: A development deal with Sage and the D'Angelos could give the city more confidence in the Red Sox plan.
Since the two families control about 37 percent of the land the city would need to seize, a development agreement between the Red Sox and the two families could go a long way toward capping the city's cost for acquiring the new ballpark site.
The team has discussed relocating the D'Angelo family's souvenir business to retail shops at several corners of the new ballpark. Harrington said he also offered to guarantee that the D'Angelos make at least as much in the new sites as they do in their current locations across the street from 88-year-old Fenway Park.
But the D'Angelos have spent years amassing their property, and they are now the largest landowner in the proposed ballpark site. In exchange for their land, the family would probably want more than a promise that they would maintain their current sales. Most likely, they would want a chance to sell souvenirs inside the new ballpark.
The problem is the Red Sox's largest limited partner, Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp., already controls the ballpark souvenir business, as well as the food concessions. The $7 billion company also is the limited partner with the deepest pockets.
The Red Sox are seeking up to $275 million in public funds for infrastructure, parking, and land acquisition, and Harrington has said that the team will have to ''stretch a long ways'' to come up with the $352 million it will need to finance the construction privately.
The team has also agreed to cover any construction cost overruns, making the team's commitment the largest such private investment in the history of professional sports.
To deliver on that pledge, Harrington will have to ask Aramark to come up with a sizable up-front contribution toward the project. Food concessions are far more lucrative, but Sox boosters note that it would be difficult for Harrington to ask Aramark to give up T-shirt, cap, and other souvenir sales at the same time the team is pressing the company for tens of millions of dollars to fund the new ballpark.
''The D'Angelos are key, and they are very shrewd businessmen who could no doubt do a great job inside a new ballpark,'' a sports-financing specialist said.
''But Ararmark is a huge corporation and they play hardball. Why should they give up sales? It really puts the Sox in a tough place.''