City Paper is not for tourists
Six councilmembers today introduced legislation that would limit the District’s contributions to the planned Wizards’ practice facility in Ward 8 to $50 million. The bill’s introduction follows a December hearing where officials in Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration admitted they had agreed to pay any cost overruns related to the project.
In her opening remarks, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said the bill would protect the District and its residents from having to pick up the tab for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the entity that owns the Washington Wizards and Mystics. Both teams would get to utilize the 5,000-seat arena, which is also intended for concerts. The project has had an initial projected cost of $55 million since it was announced in September. Residents would pay more than 90 percent of that amount through District funds and Events DC, the local sports authority. Bowser has said the venue would generate $90 million in revenue over 20 years.
“The District’s tax dollars are finite, and we have an obligation to our residents and businesses to use their funds as responsibly and efficiently as possible,” Silverman said in a statement from the dais. “If we have to put more money toward a practice arena because of cost overruns, there is less money for new school construction, new ambulances and fire trucks, new and remodeled recreation centers, and other needed civic infrastructure, especially in Ward 8.”
Over the past year, the “Entertainment and Sports Arena” has become one of Bowser’s most-significant development projects, branded under the slogan “bigger than basketball.” In February, she even climbed into an excavator to kick off demolition at the site, promising an economic renaissance for the nearby Congress Heights neighborhood. But at that event, a pair of protestors shouted “no displacement!” at the mayor and her team, expressing concern that Ward 8 residents would be pushed out by rising living costs. Others have called for a “displacement-free zone” near the site.
The legislation introduced on Tuesday would have to be signed by the mayor after the Council reviews and votes on it.
City Desk has reached out to Bowser spokesperson Mike Czin for comment and will update this post if we hear back.
Silverman added that there’s “been far less public discussion around this project than any recent capital project,” such as the D.C. United stadium planned for Buzzard Point, because the deal “has avoided the normal legislative process” of markup, a committee report, a fiscal impact statement, and final votes. “In fact, the Council is set to passively approve the funding agreement without any vote at all,” the councilmember stated. “That is not a good government approach.”
So-called “passive” approval of city contracts has happened before in D.C., and the one involving the Wizards deal is set to trigger this Thursday if no councilmember takes action to extend the review period. In an interview with City Desk, Silverman said her legislation is not “a deal-killer” but rather meant “to impose budget discipline on ourselves and on Monumental” regarding the Wizards’ site: “If we say it’s going to cost $50 million, let’s make sure it costs $50 million.”
Asked if she supports the project, Silverman said: “I’m not convinced it’s the best way to spur economic development in Ward 8. There’s a lot that we could do with a $50 million investment in Ward 8 neighborhoods. And I’m not convinced that this is going to be the most effective way to spur job growth and prosperity in Ward 8 neighborhoods.”
The proposed bill specifies that the District’s and Event DC’s combined investment “of any bond proceeds from public financing [in] the arena project together with any other source, including revenue derived from the sale of development rights,” to the site can’t exceed $50 million. Monumental or a “private entity” would pay for the overruns.
Councilmembers Anita Bonds, Mary Cheh, David Grosso, Kenyan McDuffie, and Brianne Nadeau cosponsored the bill.
Update 5:55 p.m.: Bowser’s Chief of Staff John Falcicchio has provided the following statement to City Desk: “It’s troubling that certain Councilmembers would move to strip $5 million from a job creating project in Ward 8. This is similar to the Council’s effort last year to defund the RISE Center at St. Elizabeths. Don’t tread on Ward 8.”
Additionally, Silverman, Grosso, Cheh, and Nadeau have today filed an approval resolution for the contract, extending the Council’s review of it until April 7. At that point, the contract would be passively approved unless councilmembers were to act beforehand. The co-introducers of the approval resolution could either withdraw it (resulting in approval of the contract) or add it to the agenda of the Council’s next legislative meeting, when the full body would have the chance to vote on it. That session is currently scheduled for April 5, according to the D.C. Council’s publicly available calendar.
Photo by Will Sommer