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The District Will Build a Soccer Stadium, But First It Has to Figure Out the Money

Where the DC United stadium plan stands today, and what details need to be figured out next.
Rendering courtesy of DC United.

The DC Council unanimously passed a bill Tuesday approving the assembly of land for and construction of a 20,000-seat stadium for the DC United soccer team, but not without making some major, potentially complicating changes to the plan initially laid out by Mayor Vince Gray when the stadium was first proposed 15 months ago. Under yesterday’s bill, which still needs to go through one more vote later this month, the District government will acquire a nine-acre plot on Buzzard Point in Southwest from a collection of land owners, but it will no longer trade the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets, Northwest, to the development firm Akridge in exchange for two acres of proposed stadium land. The cancellation of the land swap means the city might have to find additional cash to buy out Akridge, potentially raising the stadium project’s overall cost to taxpayers. But it appears after more than a year of bureaucratic grappling, DC United will finally get out of crusty, old RFK Stadium—as soon as a bunch of other questions are answered.

What happened with the Reeves Center?

Under the term sheet originally signed in July 2013 by Gray and DC United’s owners, the city would get Akridge’s land at Buzzard Point in exchange for the Reeves Center, which it could then redevelop in the heart of one of Washington’s busiest neighborhoods, with the government agencies housed there eventually moving to a new municipal building in Southeast. But irked by the fact that the initial deal valued the Reeves Center $11.2 million below its assessed value, stadium skeptics on the Council, led by Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, moved to remove the trade. Now, the District has to come up with $62 million to buy Akridge’s land at Buzzard Point.

Where is DC going to get the money?

Unclear. It’s extremely unlikely the District would try to borrow the funds, as the city is already skating close to its debt cap. Some groups that have been doubtful of the stadium plan, like the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, worry that $62 million will be moved from other capital projects such as schools or a replacement for the dilapidated DC General homeless shelter. Additionally, Gray and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson are now fighting over finding the money, with Gray saying it was “unlawful” for Mendelson to reintroduce a supplemental budget request Gray submitted and then withdrew in June. Mendelson’s not having any of the lame-duck mayor’s complaints, though. “I don’t want this funded next year, I want this funded now,” he said during a heated segment of yesterday’s session.

Is eminent domain a possibility?

If the mayor’s office and the Council can’t find the money to pay Akridge, we could see a small-scale repeat of how the city obtained the land where Nationals Park sits today. If District officials can’t negotiate a sale, they say they are prepared to use eminent domain as a last-ditch option. “We won’t be delayed in getting to build a new stadium,” Bowser said during the hearing.

What about the rest of the stadium land?

The deals for the other three parcels are still on, with the District buying plots from Mark Ein and Super Salvage, a local junkyard, and trading an urban farm at the Walker-Jones Education Campus at First and K streets, Northwest, to Pepco, which will turn it into a power transfer station. But an analysis commissioned by the Council last month found that the city is overpaying for these three parcels by $19.4 million.

What else is in this deal now?

Besides removing the Reeves Center from the stadium plan, the Council also took out a sales-tax abatement on concessions and merchandise sold at the stadium that would have cost the District an estimated $7 million, but United executives may try to add it back before the final vote. The team is still getting long-term property-tax breaks and will pay an annual rent of $1 for the first 40 seasons it plays there. But there are several community benefits, such as the promise of Circulator bus service to the stadium and an agreement by United that at least 51 percent of the jobs created by the stadium go to District residents.

Who are the big winners here?

The Washington Post couches the stadium plan’s passage as a victory for the current mayor, but it’s an even bigger one for the mayor-elect. While there was always a cluster of Council members against trading away the Reeves Center since the stadium was first proposed, the entire legislature followed Bowser’s lead over the past few weeks. The DC United stadium might go down as a Vince Gray legacy project, but it’ll be Bowser who oversees its actual creation. United is a victor, too. Despite the team’s first-round exit from the Major League Soccer playoffs, the team’s road out of RFK Stadium is as clear as ever, with the new stadium opening as early as 2017. Now it just has to pay for the construction of what that fiscal analysis projects will be the most expensive stadium in MLS history.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.