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A D.C. Council hearing on the planned D.C. United soccer stadium this afternoon turned confrontational as councilmembers and representatives of the Vince Gray administration clashed over interpretations of a new report suggesting that the city is overpaying for property in the deal.
The report, commissioned by the Council and released this morning, found that the complicated land swaps at the core of the deal have been mis-appraised, leaving the city spending more than $25 million more than it should. The deal calls for the city to assemble land at Buzzard Point by trading the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW and a parcel of land at 1st and K streets NW, while the team will cover the stadium construction costs. According to the report, the city is overpaying for the land at Buzzard Point by $19 million while receiving $11 million less than the market value for the Reeves Center—-a discrepancy only marginally offset by the $5 million that D.C. United and the developer Akridge will pay the city.
After City Administrator Allen Lew, who negotiated the deal with D.C. United and private property owners at Buzzard Point, testified this afternoon in favor of the deal, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson took him to task for dismissing the critiques of the report.
“I have to say, I’m a little offended by parts of your testimony,” Mendelson told Lew. “With the $11 million discrepancy, you just kind of tossed that off.” Mendelson accused the administration of forcing the Council to” take it or leave it” without giving it the chance to amend the deal, and added, “I think it’s thumbing the nose at the legislative branch.”
Lew was forced to reply, “I don’t think there’s any intent from the administration to thumb their noses at the Council.”
Despite the questionable negotiations, there’s still considerable support on the Council for a stadium deal, even if there are questions about this particular one. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans is the most avid backer of the deal. Today, he seized on the report’s finding of the overall economic benefit to the city coming from the stadium plan in saying, “In a nutshell, it’s better to do it. The city will be better off by $109 million.”
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso also expressed support, saying that the problems highlighted in the report are small in comparison to the magnitude of the plans. “It shows that we’re not too far off,” he said. “And that’s a big deal.”
But Ward 6’s Tommy Wells expressed frustration that the city had struck a deal with so little flexibility. He asked Lew if, given the challenges of acquiring land at Buzzard Point, the city couldn’t simply have decided to build the stadium on publicly owned land near RFK Stadium or at Buzzard Point. (Those sites, Lew and his colleagues responded, present a whole host of other challenges, from federal control of the former to transportation and infrastructure limitations at both.) Wells also asked, more practically, if the city couldn’t simply acquire the Buzzard Point parcels by eminent domain while simultaneously putting the Reeves Center out for a competitive bid, which would likely attract a higher price.
“If we put it out to bid, I think, from historical experience, it would take the city two to three years, or more,” Lew responded. That could push stadium completion back to 2020, and Lew worried that D.C. United, currently playing at the outdated RFK, might not wait that long before looking at moving elsewhere.
Both Lew and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie noted that they couldn’t fully respond to the report because it wasn’t released until this morning—-conveniently right after the mayoral and Council elections, when the risk of political fallout had passed. But this hearing, the Council’s fourth on the stadium deal, won’t be the last: Mendelson plans to convene another, and suggested that committee chairs might do so as well.
But if the deal is to gain Council approval while Gray is still in office and before the more skeptical Muriel Bowser takes charge in November, it’ll have to move fast. Days like this one, with a critical report and lots of questions from the legislature, won’t help.
Rendering via the Office of the City Administrator