Soccer stadium debate moves into the neighborhoods


The “isolated” nature of Buzzard Point is the latest point of contention in soccer-stadium debate. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council’s Economic Development Committee is gaveling to order tonight outside its usual John A. Wilson Building confines, convening instead inside the Frank D. Reeves Center — a city office building at 14th and U Streets NW that won’t exist much longer should Mayor Vincent C. Gray, real-estate developers and D.C. United executives have their way.

With the Reeves Center a major piece of the convoluted financing plan for the $300 million soccer stadium deal, its neighbors obviously have a stake in what replaces it, and in previous hearings, they have made clear what they value: a continued source of daytime foot traffic in a neighborhood that is otherwise heavy on nightlife, as well as calls to maintain a public space such as the plaza that now accommodates a weekly farmers’ market.

More than 40 public witnesses have signed up to testify tonight in front of panel chairwoman Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4), the Demcoratic candidate for mayor, in addition to representatives from the D.C. government and the development team pushing the deal.

And on Thursday, the committee will convene again, this time in Southwest Washington — less than a mile from the Buzzard Point site eyed for the stadium. Public sentiment there has been somewhat less focused, if for no other reason than the stadium footprint is surrounded by an Army base, a sprawling Pepco facility, a junkyard and various warehouses and vacant lots, rather than the thousands of residents located within a few blocks’ radius of the Reeves Center.

Bowser and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) took a drive Tuesday across the Southwest soccer landscape, starting along Maine Avenue SW, where the massive Wharf development project is getting underway, then moving down past Fort McNair and neighboring public housing developments, and then south into the aforementioned bleakness of Buzzard Point. The tour ended across South Capitol Street, in the shadow of Nationals Park, where at the Navy Yard Metro station Bowser and Wells tried placing the stadium debate in a new, neighborhood-focused context.

Instead of debating the equities of the financing scheme, including the proposed swap of the Reeves Center for stadium land, both lawmakers spoke about the need for serious transportation planning before a 20,000-seat stadium is built nearly a mile away from the nearest Metro stations.

“Strikingly isolated is probably the best way to put it,” Bowser said of the Buzzard Point site. “You have the Army facility on one side, that is effectively closed off. You have the Pepco facility on the other side. There are some physical barriers to it. I think we need to envision it being different, whether it’s a stadium there or eventual development.”

Wells was initially a major proponent of the stadium deal but has more recently tempered his position, saying he cannot support the plan without an accompanying commitment to building a streetcar line to Buzzard Point.

“How do we go forward with a major new investment like this without public transit there?” he asked. “I cannot imagine building the Verizon Center with it not being on top of a Metro. We would have not built the baseball stadium without adding this Metro right here. … I don’t think you necessarily have to start off with streetcars, I think that we can be creative, but we have to make a substantial investment in the future of public transportation in an isolated area.”

Bowser — who, unlike Wells, voted for a new city budget that removed significant funding commitments to the streetcar line serving Buzzard Point — did not mention streetcar service as a prerequisite for a stadium but did say she needed to be convinced transportation won’t be a complete disaster.

“I think that the government can meet the challenge of coming up with a transportation plan to serve this area,” she said. “People need to be convinced that we actually thought about it, we’ve seen the traffic analysis, there is a plan and there’s going to be a funding commitment to support it.”

Not coincidentally, the District government on Wednesday released a 69-page transportation analysis of the proposed stadium environs — the first of three documents aimed at figuring out how to make a no-longer-desolate Buzzard Point easily accessible to drivers, bikers and pedestrians.

Given that Wells will be out of office come Jan. 2, it’s Bowser’s opinion that matters most right now — both as chair of a key council committee and as the Democratic nominee for mayor.

And while Bowser might hew to a softer line than Wells on the transportation concerns, she confirmed Tuesday that she remains fairly hard-line on whether the Reeves swap is the best way to finance the city’s portion of the stadium plan: “I’m going to continue to challenge the government to separate these issues — building the stadium and selling Reeves. And right now they haven’t put a compelling reason on the table why they can’t do that.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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Mike DeBonis · July 23, 2014

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