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Like Baskin-Robbins, the District’s mayoral race has every flavor. There’s a candidate for voters who like temper—er, passion (David Catania). There’s a candidate for people who only vote for Democrats (Muriel Bowser). There’s even an option for the voter who wants to bring back the early aughts (Carol Schwartz).
The voter looking for a mayor opposed to public subsidies for a soccer stadium for D.C. United, though, is SOL. At last week’s WAMU mayoral debate, one woman told the three leading candidates in a recorded question that she’d vote for whoever opposed Mayor Vince Gray’s proposed stadium deal. Offered the chance to whip up some populist fervor against wealthy sports owners dipping into the public treasury, though, no candidate took the bait.
What happened to this town? There was a time—former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s time, specifically—when grousing about publicly financed stadium deals was a ticket to the mayor’s suite in the Wilson Building. But these days, while candidates will express concern over transportation options surrounding the proposed stadium or fret over swapping U Street NW’s Reeves Center off for some of the land, they don’t question the idea that the District should be coughing up around $120 million to buy and improve the land in Ward 6’s Buzzard Point.
Even Catania, an ardent opponent of public financing for Nationals Park who only broke his self-imposed exile from baseball when the team began postseason play last week, says he’s on board with a United stadium as long as the Reeves Center swap is out.
“This one, I can support,” Catania says.
Compared to the Nationals deal, of course, the D.C. United stadium is easy to like. Barring D.C. Council changes, the District will cover slightly more than $100 million in land and improvement costs, while United handles construction costs. The Nats, then owned by Major League Baseball, got a much sweeter deal in 2006: The District paid more than $670 million for construction costs, spending about as much in an initial cash payment of $135 million as the city is expected to spend on the entire soccer stadium package.
Perhaps because of that, the rest of the Council has been similarly quiet. Outgoing Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has made noise about the impending elimination of his ward’s Reeves Center in favor of luxury apartments. Fellow lame duck Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells took Bowser on a tour of the stadium site to show her how far soccer fans would have to walk without a streetcar to the stadium. But the councilmembers have so far been reluctant to criticize the entire deal.
All that could change, though, after the release of a report scheduled for later this month. Facing a complicated deal that juggles D.C. United’s interests with arrangements with multiple landowners on the stadium site, the Council paid a Texas firm $200,000 to study the deal. The firm, Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, is set to release its findings on the real estate portions of the stadium deal later this month. The report could draw Council battle lines on the stadium or erase them entirely.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh tells LL she’s sitting on the sidelines of the stadium fight until the release of the report.
“I really need to have some confidence from a neutral party that what we’re doing is best for the District,” Cheh says.
Ditto Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, whose government operations committee has a say in the stadium’s future. McDuffie, who says the deal looks better for now than the Nationals Park agreement did in 2006, still has a host of concerns—from affordable housing around the stadium site to whether the District is getting a good deal in the Reeves swap, which values its prime location below previous appraisals.
“There are still some questions out there,” McDuffie says.
All that uncertainty—about the report, the deal, and when the Council will actually take up the legislation—has left potential opponents to the stadium deal flailing.
Ed Lazere, whose D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute is a member of the stadium-wary Winning Goal Coalition, concedes that it’s been hard to whip up sustained opposition with so much unknown. While Lazere’s group has met with Gray administration staffers and the team about a potential community benefits agreement for the area surrounding Buzzard Point, he says it’s hard to have “huge energy and motivation” with the soccer deal unsettled.
“It’s still a wait-and-see situation, right?” says Lazere, who was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Nationals deal. “It’s not really clear when the Council’s report is going to come out.”
That opposition, or lack thereof, for the stadium deal isn’t lost on the Gray staffers who are pushing it. As Gray staffers watched the Winning Goal Coalition take shape last year, emails obtained by LL through a Freedom of Information Act request show that they weren’t particularly concerned. “Opposition seems a little timid,” Tony Robinson, a spokesman for city administrator and stadium deal architect Allen Lew, wrote to Gray cabinet officials in late August 2013. He followed up with another email update in October, advising Gray staffers that Lazere’s complaints about the stadium amounted to “the virtual definition of grasping at straws.”
Even without the Council report, whatever opposition there is to the deal will likely center around swapping the Reeves Center with developer Akridge for part of the stadium footprint. The Reeves Center is valued at only $56 million for purposes of the deal, even though an earlier appraisal put it at around $70 million. Akridge would pay the District around $35 million, which represents that $56 million minus the value of the Buzzard Point land. (In a statement to LL, Lew points out that the $56 million figure was agreed on by three appraisers.) But then there’s also something no report can address: the optics of swapping out government and nonprofit office space for what’s likely to be yet another boxy luxury apartment building.
“We don’t need another luxury apartment at 14th and U that caters to upper-income, mostly white people,” Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry says.
Catania says he won’t go with any deal involving Reeves, while likely Graham replacement Brianne Nadeau has expressed her own concerns. Other councilmembers are holding out to hear from the Council-commissioned report whether the District is getting hosed on the trade.
But Lew says the District had to woo Akridge to get in on the swap, in order to show the team that the city had already secured part of the stadium land. Auctioning off the Reeves Center, Lew claims, could delay stadium construction by years. D.C. United wants to start construction by the final quarter of 2015 so it can have the stadium finished by early 2017, according to team spokesman Craig Stouffer.
“There is no stadium if the Council unravels the deal as currently structured,” Lew says in his statement.
That could put councilmembers, none of whom has publicly favored scuttling the stadium proposal, in the position of sinking it over Reeves Center concerns. But will they actually do it? Well, you’ll have to wait for the report.
Photo courtesy D.C. United