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Council flexes muscle on Fenway proposal

By Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff, 8/3/2000

oston city councilors yesterday attempted to seize control of the debate over a new Fenway park, saying neither the Red Sox nor the mayor should move ahead with the ballpark plan with the assumption it will win council approval.

Despite Mayor Thomas M. Menino's wish that the council hold off deliberations until later this year, President James M. Kelly said two council committees will begin holding public hearings to scrutinize the deal.

Though Kelly and other councilors said they would be more thoughtful in their deliberations than the Legislature, which swiftly approved a deal last weekend, a majority of councilors made it clear that they are dead-set against the project.

"Here's one person who's not caving," declared Councilor Maura A. Hennigan of Jamaica Plain, one of the councilors the Menino administration hoped could be swayed to support the plan.

Despite the strong statements, even if the council holds hearings and quickly takes a vote against the plan, the proposal will not be killed.

The mayor will submit a more comprehensive proposal for the Fenway project after it is fully developed, probably months from now. The council would be required to vote again.

Menino said last night he believes he can win the necessary support of nine councilors as members learn more about the project. The administration expects the final plan to include benefits to the Fenway community and additional advantages, such as possible traffic improvements. He said the councilors' move yesterday was not a rebuke of the deal, but the launching of an "information-gathering" process.

"I'm pretty confident that eventually, we'll work with the council and get the votes when the time arrives," Menino said.

But some councilors said it should be made clear to Red Sox CEO John Harrington that the plan is in serious trouble.

"I think it would be almost inhumane to put a man like John Harrington, who is such a decent, good person ... going out looking for financing when in his heart, he knows that this body is not going to be able to support him at that site," said Councilor Maureen E. Feeney of Dorchester. "Every person in this city knows there are other opportunities for the Red Sox."

Six of the 13 councilors appear willing to listen to the administration's presentation. Councilor Paul Scapicchio of the North End, who said he remains undecided on the plan, cautioned against the "knee-jerk" reaction that he said some councilors have shown in coming out against the legislation before reading it.

"It's a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things," he said. "I think today we may be doing a desperate thing."

The $665 million Red Sox deal, crafted by the team, Menino, and state legislative leaders, would deliver $100 million in state-funded infrastructure improvements to the Fenway. But it is predicated on the city's cooperation in buying and clearing land for the stadium -- a process that will probably require eminent domain proceedings. To borrow the $140 million needed to pay for site acquisition and cleanup, the measure requires the approval of two-thirds of the City Council, or nine members. The city would also pick up the $72 million cost of a new, 3,000-car garage, the revenues from which would help repay the city's investment in the project.

Seven councilors have opposed the deal for months, and several characterize their position as an unwavering philosophical one: that sports franchises should not benefit from public subsidies. Councilor at Large Francis M. Roache said the administration is showing no consideration to Fenway residents in proposing to take private land by eminent domain for the Red Sox. "They just want to go in there and wipe out that neighborhood," he said.

But the mayor said land has been similarly claimed for the construction of a new convention center being built in South Boston, and 70 percent of those parcels have been purchased through negotiations rather than eminent domain takings.

The plan would ultimately be presented to the council in two parts. Ed Collins, the city's chief financial officer, said councilors will ultimately be asked to sign off on a development plan outlining the design of a new Fenway Park and the land takings to build it. A separate bond issue would support the necessary financing, which would be paid off by ballpark user fees.

Hennigan said the city's expenses could be contained if the Sox chose a more appropriate location that would require less extensive environmental cleanup. Noting the $140 million estimated cost of the land and cleanup, Hennigan said those "who believe that figure are probably the same people who brought us the Big Dig."

Kelly said the administration erred in insisting that the team rebuild in the Fenway neighborhood and should consider other locations. But the Boston Redevelopment Authority has studied stand-alone stadiums since 1994, and the city has looked at more than 20 sites, most of which have been eliminated from consideration over transportation concerns or limited space. Menino noted last night that the Fenway project does not call for taking any homes, and would generate new taxes for the city.

The deal puts councilors in a precarious position, as city employees' labor unions -- an important constituency for councilors -- have protested the concept of aiding the Red Sox at a time when the city has not sealed new labor contracts. Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy has said he would be more likely to support Fenway if those contracts were settled. Conversely, building trade unions, eager for jobs constructing a new stadium, are putting pressure on the council to approve the plan.

The issue could become even more prickly the longer it stalls: Councilors face reelection in the fall of 2001, and want to put as much distance as possible between an unusually difficult vote and their campaigns.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 8/3/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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