The audience of 500 in Ballou Senior High School's auditorium wanted to know one thing from the president of D.C. United: How would a soccer stadium benefit them?
Kevin Payne had prepared for that question, so he had quick answers as he talked about displacement, jobs and contracts, offering assurances that the $1.5 billion project in Southeast Washington would have something for everyone. There would be a hotel, job training center, community soccer fields and housing -- including a percentage for first-time home buyers and preference for local residents. Payne said the project would rival the entertainment district that has sprung up around MCI Center.
"The ball, the sport will bring a stadium," he told the crowd, as he held up a soccer ball, "a stadium that is an integral part of a new neighborhood."
Deals for new stadiums in recent years for the Baltimore Ravens and the Washington Redskins, and now the Washington Nationals, have been struck between team negotiators and politicians, who, with varying degrees of success, tried to sell residents on the plans.
But United, while quietly working the political angle, took its quest for a new facility to the streets, inviting residents to lunch and hosting dozens of meet-and-greets, including the Ballou event that incorporated gospel singers, teen models and the school marching band. United players handed out soccer balls and signed autographs into the evening.
United officials hope the campaign will ease the approval process and help extend the team's fan base in a part of town where few people have played or followed the game and don't count themselves fans. United is starting a youth soccer league there in the spring to change that.
"The purpose of these meetings was just as much to hear what the folks in the neighborhoods wanted," Payne said. "They don't just want housing. They want opportunity."
That is certainly the case. "Our kids don't know soccer," said Addie Cook, president of the Fort Stanton Civic Association, who often petitions the city to fix the lights, leaks and broken water fountains at her recreation center. If the project results in more places for children to play, though, Cook said she is willing to listen.
The proposed site is at Poplar Point in Anacostia, just across the river from where the Nationals' stadium is planned. The surrounding area is devoid of soccer fields and soccer programs. There also are few jobs for residents of nearby neighborhoods, including Anacostia and Congress Heights. Double-digit unemployment is the norm, and Vera Jamison wants the 8,000 construction and 2,500 permanent jobs projected for construction and operation of the project reserved for residents.
"We definitely have to get these guys off the street corner and put them to work," said Jamison, 64, who has lived in Congress Heights for 25 years. "They need the work -- not all these other people coming into the community."
The Anacostia Community Land Trust, a competitor for the land where the stadium would be built, is hinting to city officials that it might be willing to partner with United, a sign that the team's effort is making headway. In fact, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) switched from stadium opponent to proponent and is working to combine the stadium with the proposal from the competing group, which is pushing for low- and moderate-income housing for Southeast residents.
United draws fans from throughout the region, including Richmond and West Virginia. But not many of the team's fans come from the neighborhoods closest to the 100-acre site.
Federal officials had promised to transfer the federally owned site to the District, but a proposal in Congress could put the land on the open market.
City officials remain confident they will get the land but have not determined whether they would partner with the soccer team or with another developer to build on the land. One selling point to residents and public officials is that the team's owners -- with decades of experience in real estate development -- plan to use their own money, instead of asking taxpayers to build the stadium, part of a push by Major League Soccer to build soccer-specific stadiums in the cities that are home to its 12 teams.
Three stadiums have been built since 1999, another is scheduled to open in Chicago next year, and two are slated for the following year. The goal, as with the United plan, is to have the sites active year-round. The development around Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Tex., used by FC Dallas, has 17 championship-quality fields and is used more than 300 days a year for concerts, soccer matches and even high school football.
"The stadium will bring spending that otherwise wouldn't be there," Payne said, noting that a typical housing development would not do that.
The group pushing the land trust idea also wants the land to develop hundreds of new homes at the site for people with low and moderate incomes. Buyers would own their homes, but the land would be held by a common trust organization, allowing qualified buyers to get a $300,000 house, for instance, for as little as half that amount.
It would stabilize the neighborhood and preserve it from gentrification by stipulating that new owners could sell only to buyers with qualifying incomes and that they could only recoup their investment with an adjustment for inflation, keeping the properties affordable in perpetuity.
Promoters said it's a way of evening the field. "The free-market system does not provide for most of the people who live in Anacostia, and it won't," said Richard Carr, a developer who is part of the land trust group. "It's important for people who understand how the system works to make it work for everybody."
Dianne Dale, president of Frederick Douglass Gardens Inc., is backing the land trust proposal. Over the past 50 years, she said, urban renewal and now gentrification have typically meant that black residents get pushed out, as was the case in Southwest, in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill. The prime riverfront property, she said, should be preserved for those who stuck out the hard years instead of the thousands of outsiders.
Even though her pet project, a national garden, is included in the soccer proposal too, United's promises make her uneasy.
"The soccer people are coming in there with gifts and promises," she said. "You can promise anything, but will you deliver?"
Others are enjoying the attention for the area east of the Anacostia River, where residents have long complained of neglect in services and amenities compared with the rest of the city.
"This is the best outreach from an outside group that I've seen," said Phil Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, hired to help organize the Ballou meeting. "They're treating us like we have value."
Soccer officials said that's also the way the sport treats its fans. "Our athletes are incredibly accessible and spend a lot of time after the game signing autographs," said Mark Abbott, chief operating officer for Major League Soccer. "They have an understanding that we're trying to build something here."
Because United has spent 10 years in the city and plans to stay many more, Payne said the team is mindful of not antagonizing potential new neighbors, as many have charged Major League Baseball with doing in its proposal for a new, publicly financed stadium for the Nationals. That has resulted in noisy protests by residents who consider public financing an example of misplaced priorities.
"I certainly would not have done things the way Major League Baseball has done," Payne said.
But to people who live near the site, soccer needs a lot of help to persuade them it is the way to go.
At Ballou, images of famous soccer players flashed across a screen in the auditorium, the marching band belted out tunes while decked out in D.C. United T-shirts and, later, hundreds stood in line for free, regulation-size soccer balls autographed by members of the team. Frieda Murray, 87, got two. "One for me and one for my grandson," said Murray, a retired schoolteacher and longtime member of the Anacostia Garden Club.
She said the attempts to build a baseball stadium left a bad taste in her mouth, but the soccer stadium appeals to her because the team owners are spending their own money and offering to build things that the community has always wanted.
"I'm for upscaling the community," she said. "I don't know if I will be around to see it."