Unless you’re driving or in an Uber, getting to the site of the future D.C. United arena is a colossal pain. The spot where the 19,000-seat stadium will rise is about a 20-minute walk from both the Waterfront and Navy Yard–Ballpark Metro stations. On top of its relatively remote location, there’s not a whole lot to do in the area once you arrive. It can feel like you’re on the very edge of the District, or in the part of town where you might have concentrated industry in a game of SimCity.
This is Buzzard Point, one of the most isolated corners of D.C. In less than two years, the Major League Soccer franchise and the District government aim to open a facility here that will replace Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium as United’s home field. The team’s target date is “late spring 2018,” partly because of the region’s fickle weather in March, when the MLS regular season begins.
Last year, the District exercised eminent domain to gain control of two acres of land needed for the project, just as it did more than a decade ago to redevelop 14 acres into Nationals Park. City contractors completed pre-construction and infrastructure improvements this month, accounting for $150 million in public investment in the stadium.
D.C. United was poised to start building the facility, having hired Turner Construction during the summer. But companies that control parcels south of the arena site—on an area bounded by Potomac Avenue and Second, T, and R streets SW—protested the latest design. They pointed to what they viewed as a shortage of retail space and issues with accessibility.
It seemed like a squabble over architectural planning could have tied up the project, which the District has promised will produce nearly 1,000 jobs and “$1 billion in economic activity” over the next few decades. But United, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, and the developers, headed by local firm Akridge, met last Friday to work out a solution.
While its specifics haven’t been shared publicly, documents filed with the D.C. Zoning Commission this week indicate that the parties have brokered an “agreeable” deal.
So have all the vested interests made nice? Adam Gooch, Akridge’s director of development, says in a statement that the site’s institutional neighbors were “encouraged by the recent design changes the team is pursuing to make the stadium a better fit for the neighborhood.” He adds that if revised plans submitted to the zoning commission for upcoming review “are consistent with the ones we have recently seen, there will be no need for us to testify at [a Nov. 28 zoning] hearing.” Just three weeks ago, the companies had threatened “to actively contest” United’s plans “and seek to have the Zoning Commission compel … changes,” hiring alternative architects and a PR firm.
Developers looking to maximize their long-term profits from building in Buzzard Point, however, aren’t the only ones who have had concerns about the project. Community activists and residents say it could contribute to gentrification and pollution, disproportionately affecting low-income people who live south of P Street SW and east of Fort McNair. And they have many questions about the stadium’s impact on transit and parking.
Keya Chatterjee, who directs US Climate Action Network and has lived a few blocks northwest of the stadium site for almost 14 years, says she’s mostly worried about how visitors will enter and exit Buzzard Point. “We just don’t have a lot of ways in and out of that area, and it doesn’t seem like there’s been a very thoughtful consideration of [existing infrastructure],” she says.
On a bright day in April, when United and District officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for the project, a handful of residents organized by advocacy group Empower DC demonstrated on Second Street SW. Some wore breathing masks, manifesting anxieties about exposure to contaminants from the site. (A nearby Pepco substation is expanding and a concrete facility operates on the peninsula, too.) A District-ordered health impact study released over a month ago and past environmental reports about the project haven’t necessarily calmed such fears.
Last week, a group called the Near Buzzard Point Residential Advisory Committee filed a statement in opposition to the arena, citing “gentrification pressures” such as likely “increase[d] property taxes and rents.” “We are facing direct displacement due to this project,” they noted.
Kari Fulton, a member of the group and an organizer with Empower DC, says residents are especially concerned about dirt unleashed during soil remediation and construction. They’re asking for safeguards like air purifiers, dust mats, and an independent community health liaison.
“They don’t think that [they have a place in the future of the city] at all,” she says. “The response I get from a lot of people about going to the zoning commission hearing is: ‘We testified with the [Pepco] substation and other projects, they’re not hearing us.’ So we have to fight for inclusion.”
United and the District insist that the stadium will benefit the existing community and that streets will be improved to bolster mobility. “We want to be a positive catalyst in the Buzzard Point area and a positive force for the neighbors,” a team spokeswoman says. She adds that United plans to provide free health screenings to residents in partnership with MedStar.
For ANC 6D Chair Andy Litsky, officials must also be held accountable to “the thousands of residents who live north of the stadium site.” Earlier this month, the ANC unanimously passed a resolution containing a litany of ongoing concerns with the project, which it has generally supported “contingent upon a clearly defined and unambiguous transportation plan.” Litsky says the intent was to document neighbors’ thinking about the facility in the context of other changes floated for Southwest that could one day result in thousands more residents in Buzzard Point.
The ANC explicitly objects to the “forced removal of housing” to construct the arena and create sufficient access to it. Commissioners voted to oppose approval of the planned development by zoning officials until United and the District “adequately address” the issues they’ve outlined. A spokesman for the Bowser administration says the project is “about putting District residents first.”
But, Litsky explains, “It’s not just the anchor, it’s the predicate” for development in Buzzard Point. “So we want to make sure that at no point in our potential advocacy and embrace of this plan for a soccer stadium are we then also accepting the notion that to get there, we are tacitly approving destruction and removal of people—not just in public housing but in owned residential housing.
The project is a big deal in the community, he adds, but not so much because of its appearance. “You have to have a safe stadium and safe access to and from the stadium. What it looks like is of little concern to me. … We’re not NIMBYs, but for Christ’s sake, if you’re going to do it, do it right.”