Six in 10 oppose Gray’s plan for funding D.C. United stadium

AP Photo/District of Columbia - An artist’s rendering provided by the District of Columbia shows the proposed soccer stadium in the Buzzard Point section of Southwest Washington.

Public opinion is running strongly against one of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s highest-profile initiatives, financing a new stadium for the D.C. United pro soccer team, a Washington Post poll has found.

Six in 10 District residents oppose the plan, unveiled by Gray and team officials in July, with the number of those strongly opposed to the deal more than double those who strongly support it. Opposition to the plan crosses virtually every demographic and political group identified by the poll, which reached 1,003 District residents between Jan. 9 and Jan 12.

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Under the terms discussed to date, the city would invest $150 million in the project by selling a city office building to a developer and using the proceeds to assemble land in Southwest Washington. The team would spend at least as much to build the stadium there.

The proposed investment is less than one-fourth of what the city invested in Nationals Park, the baseball stadium that opened in 2008 and is now widely seen by city residents as a good investment. But many are unconvinced that spending on a soccer stadium would be as wise.

Rosalind Jackson-Lewis, a 57-year-old Riggs Park resident, said she is “absolutely, positively against it.”

“There are more pressing problems in the city, and soccer is not going to add value to the city,” said Jackson-Lewis, a retired accountant. “Any extra money the city gets should go into education. . . . We need a better education system.”

Public opinion on a city-financed soccer stadium has not changed appreciably since 2008, when the last serious talks took place about a deal with D.C. United. At that time, 60 percent of residents opposed using public funds to finance a soccer facility, with 39 percent supporting. The new poll showed 59 percent opposing the current plan, with 35 percent in favor. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The survey was conducted as the Gray administration continues negotiations with the team and the owners of the proposed site. It also comes amid a hotly contested mayoral race, with several of Gray’s Democratic primary opponents raising concerns about aspects of the deal.

Gray has shown some sensitivity to the political ramifications of the soccer deal, saying earlier this month that it could be modified to address concerns of the D.C. Council members, who must approve any financing package.

In an interview Monday, Gray said he is convinced the soccer stadium would be a “catalyst” for development on Buzzard Point, a largely industrial area southwest of Nationals Park bordered by public housing to the north and the walled-off Fort McNair to the west.

“If you look at the baseball stadium, what goes east from the baseball stadium has really started to take off and develop, whereas west of the baseball stadium, really nothing has happened over there,” he said. “I think there will be a tremendous return to the city that we have not seen at all in that area.”

Administration officials had said they would deliver legislation to the council by year’s end, but that deadline slipped with little fanfare.

City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, who is handling the negotiations for the Gray administration, said that certain parts of the city’s deal with the team remain unresolved. An early sketch of financial terms between the city and D.C. United contemplated a revenue-sharing arrangement in return for an abatement of sales and property taxes.

Lew said he was “steering away” from the revenue-sharing idea in his latest negotiations with the team, citing concerns about access to the team’s financial records.

Lew also said there could be stronger requirements to include affordable housing in the deal, most likely on the site of the Frank D. Reeves Center, the city building at 14th and U streets NW that would be swapped to the Akridge development firm in return for a key parcel of Buzzard Point land.

Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who are running against Gray, have regularly mentioned the soccer proposal in their campaign appearances, with Wells pressing Gray to include more affordable housing.

Negotiations with the landowners remain in flux, Lew said — in particular with investor Mark D. Ein and the owner of a neighboring scrap yard. Lew said he had “business agreements” in place with Akridge and Pepco, who account for the remainder of the privately owned land on the stadium site. Representatives for Pepco and Akridge confirmed their respective companies had come to general terms with the city; Ein declined to comment Friday.

Opposition to the soccer deal persists even though a strong majority believes that the baseball stadium, proposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Major League Baseball in 2004 and approved by city lawmakers in 2006, was a good thing for the city. Among those most approving of the ballpark are African Americans (77 percent) and residents living east of the Anacostia River (76 percent).

But only the one-third of residents who strongly approve of the baseball park also tend to approve of the soccer plan. Among those who find the ballpark “somewhat” good, only 23 percent back the soccer deal.

There is evidence residents may be generally more skeptical of soccer than baseball: In 2002, before a tangible baseball stadium proposal was unveiled, city residents’ opinion was split almost evenly on building a ballpark.

Jackson-Lewis said she thinks Nationals Park “added some value” to the city. “It’s nice,” she said. “It’s a big improvement over what was there. But what bothers me was the displacement of the people that lived in the area. Not that their homes were glamorous or whatever, but where did they end up going?”

If affordable housing were part of the soccer deal, she said, “I would at least look at it then.”

Scott Wells, a 44-year-old Dupont Circle resident, said he was among those who opposed the Nationals Park deal and feels much the same about a soccer stadium.

“It seems that city money shouldn’t be used in such a bald way to profit a particular industry,” said Wells, a business manager.

He said time has not softened his attitude toward the ballpark much, adding he felt that the team’s ownership has been “tone deaf” on matters such as funding late-night Metro service for stadium-goers.

“Public land is a public good that should be used for the public interest,” he said. “It doesn’t seem as good for the city as it does for the owners. And I’m not convinced the city needed a baseball team in the first place.”

But Susie McFadden-Resper, a resident of the Fairlawn neighborhood, across the Anacostia River from Buzzard Point, said she thinks a soccer stadium would benefit the city, particularly if residents are guaranteed jobs there.

The 59-year-old city employee said she also supported Nationals Park. “This city really needed some development,” she said. “The city was dilapidated, pretty much. It didn’t have any aesthetic appeal to it. . . . I know it’s going to hurt a lot of people, a lot of people are going to be displaced, but that’s the way of the world. I want to live in a beautiful city, too.”

Jonathan O’Connell and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

 
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