Struggling with crumbling RFK Stadium, D.C. United is desperate for a new home

On Saturday night, when D.C. United is scheduled to play its 313th soccer match in 16 seasons at RFK Stadium, Major League Soccer teams based in and around Toronto, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Southern California will be taking the field at recently built facilities boasting postcard views, perfect sightlines and bountiful luxury suites.

In all, 10 teams in MLS, the nation’s top professional soccer league, perform in stadiums erected since 1999, and more new arenas are on the way.

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And then there is United. Despite unparalleled success on the field — a record four MLS Cup titles and the distinction as the only Washington team from the five most popular pro leagues to win a championship in the past 20 years — United has repeatedly failed in efforts to build a new stadium.

Consequently, the team remains lodged at RFK Stadium, a soulful but obsolete 50-year-old facility rich with memories and, at times, wildlife. United has endured power outages, a crumbling infrastructure, scheduling conflicts with baseball and football games, antiquated bathrooms and concessions, and the absence of luxury suites.

“We have a lot more good memories than bad memories in this building,” United President Kevin Payne said, “but its time has come and gone, and it’s time to move on.”

Three years after United first believed it had a deal for a new stadium in the District, its long-term future remains unclear. The team has made several attempts at finding a new place to settle in the Washington area, but each has ended in frustration, prompting United to consider other options.

Backed by the Maryland Stadium Authority, Baltimore has reached out to United with an early-stage proposal to build a facility near the city’s baseball and football venues.

Said Payne: “Our name is D.C. United and we don’t take that lightly, but the Baltimore opportunity is a real one and we have to take it seriously. . . . I’m certainly hoping by the end of 2011 we will have a plan in place” for a new stadium somewhere in the Washington-Baltimore area.

Plenty of proposals

In 2008, the team thought it had reached a deal with the District to construct a 27,000-seat lair as part of a mixed-use development at Poplar Point, a swath of parkland across the Anacostia from Nationals Park. The plan collapsed.

A year later, amid much fanfare, United entered a partnership with Prince George’s County to raise a venue near FedEx Field. There was a separate proposal to build adjacent to the Greenbelt Metro station. Politics and the economic recession killed those projects.

Payne has discussed at least four sites with D.C. officials, and executives from the development company Akridge have discussed with D.C. Council members the possibility of locating a stadium on a nine-acre plot the company owns at Buzzard Point in Southwest. Another developer, from the J Street Cos., contacted Payne regarding the possibility of developing a stadium in concert with redevelopment of the Capital City Market in Northeast.

D.C.-based Akridge purchased the Buzzard Point parcel, the former home to a Pepco plant, for $75 million in 2005. It has failed to attract a major office user there, however, and the land is likely worth much less today. Tom Wilbur, an Akridge senior vice president, declined to say whether he had discussed the site with Payne.

Any deal is likely to require some assistance from the city. But the council and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who entered office in January, are scrambling to fill a $322 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year and are considering millions of dollars in cuts to social services, police and the school system.

At the same time, the city is nearly flush up against a self-imposed cap on borrowing that prevents it from issuing bonds of the sort it used to finance the Nationals’ ballpark. Gray said during an online chat last month that he hoped to find a solution that would allow United to remain in the city, but cautioned, “We have to be mindful of the economy, the many demands on the city and the high cost of a new stadium.”

The city could try to lean on the private sector to provide some financing, as it did in creating a gross receipts tax to help finance the Nationals' ballpark, but Barbara Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said businesses were still irked at having some of the ballpark funds repurposed for other city spending and that, although the team was a member of the chamber, there wasn't "any appetite at all for an additional tax” to finance a stadium.

Payne said United isn’t looking for the city to fully finance a project but does want to partner with the District on a plan that would include a new stadium elsewhere in the city and also a separate complex on the RFK grounds with multiple fields for team and public use.

“This project will be both a jobs project and an economic development project,” he said. “The amount of money generated in the District each year if we stay will be far greater than what the city would spend to keep us here. As the District and the area start to come out of the [economic] doldrums, we hope the District will recognize this as a way to look forward.”

A crumbling home

Until there’s a breakthrough, United is stuck at RFK, which, despite its old-school charms, doesn’t meet the needs of both the club and the league, which has made new soccer-only stadiums a high priority to maximize the fan experience and game-day revenue, and allow its teams to have greater control over scheduling.

Without luxury boxes — which Payne said would be too expensive to add at RFK — United can’t sell upscale ticket packages or appeal to corporate clients. The angle of the lower seating sections is counter to soccer’s traditional vertical experience. The size of the stadium — it seats 46,000 people — is too large for United’s purposes, making it impossible to create ticket demand. Payne said the team is targeting a stadium that would seat between 21,000 and 24,000.

Most of all, “the infrastructure of the stadium often fails; it’s just substandard,” Payne said, listing heating and air-conditioning breakdowns and elevator failures.

Last month, a cluster of stadium lights didn’t function during a match against New York, casting an eerie shadow in a corner of the field. Many years ago, in the middle of a game, a chunk of concrete fell from the underside of the mezzanine level and shattered in an unoccupied row of seats. Once in the rowdy east-side section, where fans stand and hop throughout the game, a gaping hole formed below a seat.

United is on a game-by-game lease, a seemingly tenuous arrangement eased by the fact that both sides need each other. A full-season lease, similar to past years, is in the works, Payne said.

In addition to rent payments, United covers the cost of ushers and security on game days. It collects about half the parking revenue, Payne said, but very little from concessions, in large part because the operators have a difficult time making money with limited space and facilities. United controls all advertising rights inside the stadium.

Payne dismisses the idea of renovating and retrofitting RFK because it would “require very substantial infrastructure changes.” As for suggestions of constructing a new stadium on the RFK campus, United hasn’t ruled it out. However, the stadium sits on federal land and congressional intervention would be necessary to alter the stadium charter, which calls for a single arena.

Demolishing RFK would not be a small undertaking financially or politically because “many people look at this not so much as a stadium but as a memorial” to Robert F. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s brother who was slain in 1968, Payne said.

Animal kingdom

RFK Stadium, which through 1996 was the beloved home of the NFL’s Washington Redskins and hosted the Washington Nationals baseball team from 2005 to 2007, also has a rich soccer history. It has hosted the 1994 World Cup, 1996 Olympic early rounds, 2003 Women’s World Cup, three MLS Cups, U.S. national team matches, World Cup qualifiers, international friendlies, Mia Hamm’s Washington Freedom and 15-plus years of MLS.

“It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a classic place,” said United Coach Ben Olsen, who played at the stadium from 1998 through 2009 and has served in a coaching capacity the past 11 / 2 years. “It’s our RFK.”

RFK has also been a refuge for animals: feral cats, raccoons and oversize rats and cockroaches.

After the Christmas-New Year’s break this past winter, Olsen arrived at the stadium, headed down into the musty tunnel and walked toward his office adjacent to the locker room.

“Who greets me in the hallway?" he said. “A cockroach, the biggest one I've ever seen. He looked me dead in the eyes and was like, ‘Look, I am not moving.’ So I said, ‘Good morning, Happy New Year,’ and walked by. He tipped his hat to me. He was hung over from New Year's. He had the little horn in his mouth and the party hat.”

Raccoons have wreaked havoc in recent years, hiding in ceilings and walls. One non-game day, Payne was walking across a catwalk toward the director’s box, which overlooks the field from the mezzanine level, when he spotted a raccoon staring at him and a co-worker.

Each sighting prompts a call to a trapper, but the raccoons inevitably return.

“I’m looking forward to the day” United moves into a new stadium, Payne said, “and I can give them my office.”

 
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