Four keys to the D.C. United stadium deal

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

The third time appears to have been a charm for D.C. United in its bid to find a permanent home to replace crumbling RFK Stadium.

After failed attempts at projects in the District of Columbia's Poplar Point neighborhood and in the Maryland suburbs in Prince Georges County, the D.C. city council -- unanimously -- approved plans for a 20,000-seat soccer stadium in Buzzard Point on the banks of the Anacostia River. A second and final vote is scheduled for Dec. 16.

After years of efforts, D.C. United -- one of the storied clubs in MLS -- could finally have a place to call home.

What's gone right this time? Here are four keys to what appears to be a successful bid (pending resolution of legal issues over the city's funding for the project):

1. Improved economic environment.

One cannot underestimate how much more can be done now than five, six, seven years ago. D.C. United Holdings, heavy with real-estate investors, bought D.C. United in 2007 with the goal of getting a stadium deal done, but by the next year the real-estate market collapsed. One by one, the investors bailed, leaving William Chang to run the team. The Poplar Point proposal collapsed in 2008 and the initiative in Prince Georges County failed in early 2009. About the worst time in recent history to try to get anything done.

A booming Washington economy means developers want to get in on the action -- the stadium still contains several land swaps despite the withdrawal of the much-discussed plan to have the city and developer Akridge swap the Reeves Center, a city office building, for the main site at Buzzard Point on which the stadium will be built -- and the city is in a better financial position to borrow the money needed to buy the land with the Reeves Center out of the deal.

2. MLS's expansion boom.

Indirectly, MLS's expansion boom with more serious bidders than expansion spots -- three cities are currently vying for one, at best two spots -- has given D.C. owners a lot more leverage than they had before. D.C. United's owners were not going to wait around forever on the D.C. politicians coming around, but what were they going to do? Move? Sell? Both had become viable options as MLS continued to expand and the value of its clubs grew.

3. Patience from D.C. United owners.

Managing general partner Jason Levien, a former sports agent, began his legal career at Williams & Connolly in Washington and has lots of connections in the D.C. community. Until recently, he was the CEO of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, but he's worked behind the scenes to get D.C. United's ducks all in a row on the Buzzard Point project, gaining support from outgoing mayor Vincent Gray and city executive Allen Y. Lew, the architect of deal.

Many in the city felt it was burned by the Nationals Stadium baseball deal, so D.C. United's owners had to lower the bar on what it wanted from the city if it was to have any chance of getting a deal done. They came across as committed to staying in the city -- despite the new opportunities to sell or move -- and came around on some community requests -- a majority of the stadium jobs must go to city residents.

4. Support from the city.

While there are still some questions about how a deal can get done without the Reeves Center land swap, the United stadium project has so far survived D.C. politics and an election that saw the mayor who championed the project -- Gray -- lose to Muriel E. Bowser, who was skeptical about the deal.

But upon winning election four weeks ago, Bowser turned around and came out in support of the deal, even though she called for the Reeves Center land swap to be nixed. It says a lot about everyone's persistence -- and the perceived importance of soccer, MLS and D.C. United in the city -- that the D.C. United stadium project was too important for Bowser to let it fail.
1 comment about "Four keys to the D.C. United stadium deal".
  1. Andrzej Kowalski, December 7, 2014 at 12:31 a.m.

    Twenty years from now they may need 50,000 capacity stadium.

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