Next 2 D.C. Stadium Deals Might Smell a Bit Sweeter

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Adrian Fenty wants to turn the page on the Tony Williams era and focus firmly on the city's woeful school system and dangerous streets. But as hard as the new mayor pushes to move beyond divisive development projects, Washington will remain Stadium City over the next few years.

If you thought the soap opera surrounding the construction of a baseball stadium was an ugly spectacle, wait till you see the next two battles.

Yes, two: This week, the new owners of D.C. United said they will move promptly to build a 27,000-seat soccer stadium on the banks of the Anacostia River at Poplar Point, just across the water from the Nationals' new ballpark.

And although no public announcement has been made, Redskins owner Dan Snyder has quietly been meeting with top city officials about building a football stadium in the District, most likely at the RFK Stadium site. Three top D.C. officials say that Snyder had meetings about his stadium project with outgoing D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission Chairman Mark Tuohey and Williams, in the final days of his administration.

Snyder's spokesman, Karl Swanson, checked yesterday with the boss and got back to me with this: "We have no comment regarding stadium discussions."

Snyder and D.C. United's owners realize the District is in neither the mood nor the condition to pay for more temples of professional sports; the level of grumbling about how Major League Baseball fleeced the city is running very high, and no one needs to be reminded that the new mayor opposed the baseball deal from start to finish.

So the soccer and football concepts are structured in a new way: The team owners would pay all or nearly all stadium costs in exchange for the right to develop adjacent land with hotels, retail and housing. The city can say that it's getting free stadiums, and the team owners can win control of -- and massive profits from -- choice real estate.

In public, Fenty is cheerily supportive of the soccer deal. "We want the team to have the best facility possible," he said. "We're interested and willing to get something done. We are open to all proposals." He said that there is no detailed plan quite yet, and there is the tricky matter of the U.S. Interior Department secretary trying to reserve Poplar Point as parkland, even as the White House encourages development to expand the city's tax base.

City and federal officials expect that tiff will be worked out, at which point Fenty will have to explain why it's not okay for the city to pay cash for a stadium, but it is okay for the city to give United's principal owner, Victor MacFarlane, or Snyder control over valuable riverfront land.

These stadiums could come amazingly soon. United President Kevin Payne said, "The hope is that the stadium will open for the beginning of the 2009 Major League Soccer season." And if the city blows up RFK after the Nats finish with it this fall, the clock will start ticking on a new use for that site.

D.C. Council members seem happy to accommodate the titans of sport. "I would love to have the Redskins back," said Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large). "I am not interested in the scenario we had with baseball. The checkbook is not open for every sports franchise that wants to come to Washington. But I'm all for a stadium if we don't have to pay anything."

Council member Marion Barry, whose Ward 8 is home to the soccer stadium site, is even more welcoming: "There's a commitment from the mayor and myself to assist in building not only a stadium, but $800 million to $1 billion in housing, retail and office development at Poplar Point," he told me. "We're talking about up to 2,500 units of housing" with at least 30 percent reserved for affordable housing. Barry said the feds would allow the development because 70 acres of the 110-acre site will be reserved for public parks.

City officials have not figured out how to let MacFarlane and Snyder control new neighborhoods without allowing competition from rival developers. But they'll find a way, and surely this is a much more politically palatable path to new stadiums than the route that left the District shelling out more than $600 million for baseball.

The bottom line, however, is that this kind of giveaway is no more fair to the taxpayer than the baseball deal. As expensive and messy as that process was, at least it involved some competition for the rights to develop the area around the ballpark. In a perfect world, baseball's owners should have footed the cost of the stadium.

But MacFarlane and Snyder should not be allowed to present themselves as the next Abe Pollin; the Wizards and former Capitals owner built his downtown arena with his own money -- with no payoff of free land to recoup his investment.

And if the Redskins move back to Washington, relieving fans of the pain of The Mistake in Landover, what happens to the former Jack Kent Cooke Stadium? D.C. officials have been told that it was designed to be converted into a shopping mall, allowing Snyder, who does not exactly have a civic-minded reputation, to present himself to Prince George's County as an engine of economic development, a good guy at last.

Funny how neatly things work out for some folks, huh?

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