D.C. soccer stadium deal will be heavy lift for Vincent Gray’s last months as mayor


Mayor Vincent Gray announcing his intent to build a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point last July. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray carries his political bucket list wherever he goes.

It’s a 29-page spreadsheet titled “2014 District Government End-of-Year Agency Priorities,” and it details dozens of projects across the city government, from finalizing a vast transportation plan to implementing a system to monitor public-records requests.

“I personally track it myself,” Gray said Friday, summoning an aide to retrieve the list from his car after cutting a ribbon in the NoMa district.

With exactly seven months remaining before he leaves office Jan. 2, Gray (D) says one priority looms above all the others: consummating a $300 million deal to build a new stadium for the D.C. United soccer team in Buzzard Point, an industrial patch of Southwest Washington.

While the plan has supporters on the D.C. Council, there are new questions about whether Gray has the political clout as a lame duck to get the deal approved in his final months in office. Since his loss in the April 1 primary, lawmakers have treated Gray’s priorities as, at best, mere suggestions.

In voting to approve the city’s 2015 budget last week, council members dismantled or scaled back two pet Gray administration projects: a new full-
service hospital
proposed to replace the only existing hospital east of the Anacostia River, and a $3.1 billion, 37-mile streetcar system.

To get the soccer stadium deal done — and secure a concrete-and-steel legacy for his single term as mayor — Gray will have to navigate political obstacles that include concerns about the deal’s structure, pressure from advocacy groups and the fact that his two possible successors will be weighing in during a general election campaign.

With the council’s summer recess looming, lawmakers appear to be in no rush to act.

“As much as I like the mayor, this should not be about passing this before the mayor goes out of office,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “There’s an urgency in that there’s a live deal that needs to be approved or disapproved. That ought to happen without unnecessary delay. But if the goal is, we want to get this passed quickly because we want to get this passed quickly, that would not be responsible.”

Even Gray expressed only halting optimism that the deal will be done before he leaves office Jan. 2. “It’s hard to be confident about anything at this stage,” he said.

The most politically nettlesome issue involves Gray’s plan to pay for the District’s share of the deal by trading the Frank D. Reeves Center, a hulking city office building at 14th and U streets NW, to developer Akridge in return for land it owns on the stadium site and about $37 million in cash.

After word spread that the Gray administration planned to swap the building, council members, including Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4), David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), raised concerns about whether the city would get a fair deal or what effect the move would have on U Street retailers who benefit from Reeves workers’ daytime spending.

Gray and City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, who negotiated the deal, consider the bill a three-pronged economic development proposal in which Southwest would get a stadium, U Street would receive a new, privately owned building adding to the city’s tax base, and Anacostia would score a municipal building where the Reeves Center workers would relocate.

Some council members have already begun voicing support for the deal, including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who chairs the finance committee; Marion Barry (D-Ward 8); David Grosso (I-At Large); and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who represents Southwest.

Evans said he thinks hearings can be held and committee votes scheduled before the council’s summer break starts July 15, setting the deal up for final votes in the fall.

“I think the prospects are good,” he said. “The deal that the mayor has sent down is a doable deal.”

Whether the city is getting a fair deal for the Reeves Center hinges on the different opinions about the property’s value. Three appraisers enlisted by Lew and Akridge agreed on a roughly $60 million value for the Reeves Center, with the District crediting Akridge about $4 million for demolition costs.

A separate appraisal done shortly afterward for the city’s independent chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, valued Reeves at either $69.4 million or $75.6 million depending on its use, but Akridge’s land was also valued at a higher amount. The previous CFO suggested in 2011 that Reeves could fetch as much as $184 million.

Catania, a candidate for mayor who opposed the deal to publicly finance Nationals Park, said he is much more open-minded on the soccer proposal, given the team’s own substantial investment, but questioned trading the Reeves Center to a chosen developer.

“I wouldn’t simply pick the winner and negotiate the price,” he said. “It’s not what a self-respecting jurisdiction does.”

But Matthew J. Klein, president of Akridge, said the Reeves Center swap was part of a carefully negotiated “package deal” that was fair to all sides.

“All of the pieces fit together into a nice package, and it generates a significant amount of cash [to the District] that’s important to the transaction,” Klein said. “We’ve got lots of time invested in this to make sure it fits together.”

Mendelson’s concerns extend to the package of tax abatements contained in the deal, as well as the prospect of ancillary costs, such as the expense of relocating agencies housed in the Reeves Center, that have not been fully aired.

A pair of independent studies could makes things clearer. Bowser, the Democratic mayoral nominee who will also play a key role in evaluating the deal as chair of the Economic Development Committee, secured approval to spend up to $200,000 on consultants to study the deal. DeWitt’s office will also review the proposal once all aspects are finalized, according to a spokesman.

Voices outside the council are beginning to weigh in more heavily. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank that advocates for programs benefiting low-income residents, raised concerns Friday, including the lack of a hard cap on the District’s costs to prepare the stadium land.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader said he is prepared to sue if the city doesn’t act in the public interest.

Groups affiliated with Nader have filed suit and significantly delayed two development projects on District land, in the West End and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.

“To knock off a building with civil servants working in it, that doesn’t pass the smell test,” Nader said.

On the flip side, more than 5,000 D.C. residents have written to the council endorsing the stadium plan after the team launched a Web site seeking backers, according to the team.

Gray said he expects to take a personal role in pushing the deal through, but he added that more advocacy will be needed.

“We think the people in the District of Columbia who care about a soccer stadium — and there are many, many people — need to stand up and express their sentiments about this,” he said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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