A view of the proposed stadium looking southwest, with South Capitol Street in the foreground
A view of the proposed stadium looking southwest, with South Capitol Street in the foreground

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The D.C. Council laid out the terms over which the D.C. United soccer stadium battle will be fought this morning in a packed hearing that kicks off the public debate over the complex proposal to build the stadium at Buzzard Point through a series of land swaps.

The hearing, the Council’s first on the stadium deal submitted by the office of Mayor Vince Gray last month after a long delay, is sure to extend well into the late afternoon, with more than 120 witnesses signed up to testify. But Finance Committee Chairman Jack Evans, presiding over the three-committee joint hearing, inverted the usual order and invited government witnesses to testify before the public. Along with the members of the Council, who opened the hearing with statements on their positions on the deal, and team officials who made the case for the stadium proposal, they drew the battle lines for what’s sure to be a contentious political fight.

There’s one clear area of consensus: No one on the Council is opposed to the idea of a new stadium for D.C. United, which currently plays at the oversized and outdated RFK Stadium. “If the question were that simple, the answer would be an easy yes,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “But this is a complicated deal.”

As a result, most councilmembers declined to take a firm position on the proposal, which would see the city trading the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW to the developer Akridge for a parcel on the Buzzard Point stadium site and cash, as well as purchasing other Buzzard Point parcels and building a new Reeves Center in Anacostia. At-Large Councilmember David Grosso was an exception: He said conclusively, “I think it’s important that we move forward with this proposal as quickly as possible.”

Evans also expressed support for the proposal, on both economic and entertainment grounds. “There are many economic reasons this is a good idea,” he said. “But the most important thing is, we get to go to a game. We want our home soccer team in our town.” (City Administrator Allen Lew, who negotiated the deal on the city’s behalf, warned at the hearing, “Without a new stadium, D.C. United will be forced to leave the District.”)

Otherwise, anyone hoping to draw up a whip count of councilmembers’ yea and nay votes came away disappointed. The common theme of most members’ opening statements was nuance, not commitment.

“There are certain major costs associated the benefits, monetary and otherwise,” said Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie.

“I support building a new soccer stadium in the District,” said Ward 3’s Mary Cheh, before clarifying that she’ll only back a proposal that truly benefits the city.

Tommy Wells of Ward 6 said he was “an initial supporter” of the stadium deal, before the D.C. Council voted last month to cut funding to the planned streetcar network that’s supposed to extend down to Buzzard Point, which is about three-quarters of a mile from the nearest Metro station. “Without a new public infrastructure for transit, I will not support this,” he said.

Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser, the Democratic nominee for mayor into whose hands the deal could fall if it’s dragged out through the end of the year, is particularly concerned about the Reeves Center swap. “We want the government to demonstrate why it makes sense to trade the Reeves Center for the land at Buzzard Point,” she said.

So’s Ward 1’s Jim Graham. “Why are we taking one of the five most valuable properties the District owns and mixing it into this?” he asked. “I think we should have an auction.” He noted that a property next to the Reeves Center is on the market for $185 per buildable square foot, while the city’s trading Reeves away at a value of $115 per square foot—-something Graham called “not a good deal.”

But Akridge President Matt Klein, who has an interest in the deal going through, defended the swap that would land his company a valuable piece of land, which he plans to convert to a residential building with retail. The end result, he said, is “similar to what might be achieved in a private market transaction.” Lew noted that other major developments have come through land swaps with the city, including the Marriott Marquis convention center hotel that opened last month.

According to Lew’s calculations, the deal is an economic winner for the city. The District will spend $120 million assembling the land and associated infrastructure for the stadium—-the stadium itself will be funded by the team—-and $41 million in relocation costs, he said, while the stadium will bring the city $385 million in direct revenue. “We will essentially double our money,” he said.

There’s plenty more debate over the stadium deal to come—-and more chanced for the public to weigh in, for those who aren’t among the 120-plus people testifying today. Mendelson promised more hearings on the deal in the months ahead

Rendering by D.C. United