With the council still deeply divided about having spent well over $600 million to build the Washington Nationals baseball park, which the city financed almost entirely, approval of a stadium for Major League Soccer team D.C. United was bound to come under intense scrutiny. Now, as the timeline for approval slips into next year, a project that Gray hopes will be one of his most recognizable achievements is also likely to become entangled in election-year politics.
“Sure, we’re ready to vote on it now, right?” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) quipped when asked if the council could still meet the mayor’s year-end target. “We were asked to approve it before the end of the year . . . but I haven’t seen anything.”
City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, a top aide to Gray, said he intends to make substantial progress in coming weeks.
Lew said he is pressing to complete a complex land swap before Christmas with developers, utilities and business owners to obtain the land for the proposed 20,000-seat stadium and adjacent bars and restaurants on Buzzard Point. Located between Half and Second streets SW, south of Potomac Avenue and a few blocks southwest of Nationals Park, the stadium would add another link in a chain of developments along the city’s waterfront.
Under an agreement the city signed with one of the main landowners, Lew was given a Nov. 15 deadline to share with the council the terms for how the city would obtain the stadium property, enough time, Gray had said, for the council to approve the plan before the end of the year.
Lew said through a spokesman last week that he is nearing a stadium pact with D.C. United. He is also making progress toward a plan to trade a city-owned office complex in the U Street corridor to a developer in exchange for two acres on the stadium footprint. Pepco, which operates a substation on the land, is also involved in the deal. The city already owns smaller portions on the site’s northern end.
Lew now hopes to submit a package of proposed deals to the council before Dec. 25, spokesman Tony Robinson said.
Still, Mendelson said he is loath to pressure the council to rush approval. “Intentionally or not, I fear the council is going to be jammed, and this is too expensive a project for us not be careful about it.”
Four council members are running to replace Gray as mayor, and even those who have been most supportive of the soccer stadium expressed reservations last week about the closed-door manner in which the administration is seeking to strike the deal with landowners after announcing publicly that it wanted the land for a stadium.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a strong supporter of a new stadium who is running for mayor, said it was “very bizarre” the way Gray’s administration seemed to want to negotiate the deals in secret.
“I have no idea where it stands. Absolutely nothing, zero, I don’t know,” said Evans, who chairs the Finance Committee, which would have to approve the plan, and who has been deeply involved in every stadium project in the city for two decades.
“I hope to get it done. I support the whole idea, but to do it all so privately and secretively, that’s when you announce it and suddenly have all kinds of critics because you haven’t done the legwork to build support.”
Lew said through his spokesman that he hoped to acquire the needed property for $100 million or less. Gray initially committed to providing up to $150 million of the stadium’s estimated $300 million cost through land and infrastructure.
Before Lew said the timeline had changed, Gray said late last month that the larger proposed timeline of getting a stadium built by 2016 remained on track. Gray has also regularly expressed confidence in Lew, who has built a reputation of completing major city construction projects at lightning speed.
The city is negotiating land swaps with three private property owners on Buzzard Point. They are developer Akridge, Pepco, and businessman and venture capitalist Mark D. Ein, who owns land at the site’s northern end and has also been leading negotiations for owners of the Super Salvage scrap yard next door.
In setting ground rules in September for a swap in which the District would trade the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, at 14th and U streets NW, Lew said he expected to submit agreements with all the landowners to the D.C. Council by Nov. 15. The land deals would close 30 days after council approval.
Along with the District-owned properties, the Akridge and Pepco parcels constitute about 85 percent of the land that must be acquired for the soccer stadium. The remaining parcels are also being negotiated, and the “District expects to reach a fair and equitable arrangement with all property owners,” Lew said in a statement.
Akridge President Matthew J. Klein did not respond to a request for comment. Donna M. Cooper, Pepco Region president, issued a statement saying the utility was “evaluating the impacts that building the stadium in the area might have on the existing underground electric infrastructure that serves this portion of the city.”
“Pepco remains supportive of efforts to bring new economic development opportunities to the District of Columbia while providing safe and reliable electric service to our customers,” she said.
Ein declined to comment on the status of his talks with the mayor’s office.
Lew has raised the prospect of using eminent domain to acquire land from property owners who do not come to terms with the District.
D.C. United spokesman Craig Stouffer expressed continued optimism for the deal.
“All of the parties have been working really hard on this project, you know, from the outset and continue to do so.”