D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on Monday delayed the delicate task of weighing council support for a new soccer stadium until after Election Day, leaving District voters with little clarity on where candidates stand on the massive public investment before casting their votes.
Every candidate for mayor and council has said that their decision on whether to support the $300 million stadium would rest in part on the findings of a study commissioned by Mendelson (D) that was set to be released Tuesday at a council hearing.
Instead, his office announced that the hearing would take place the day after the election and that Mendelson wasn’t sure whether the study, which details financial risks to the city, would be made public before voters go to the polls.
Mendelson has been openly critical of parts of the stadium plan proposed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). In an interview, the council chairman offered little explanation for changing the date, even as he suggested that doing so would make the task of approving a deal before the council adjourns in December more difficult. “There isn’t a lot of time, and moving it back— even one week — takes away some time, I know,” he said.
Three council staffers close to the project were told that a scheduling conflict with one of the consultants who helped draft the report contributed to the delay. But the report has been largely finished for weeks, and Mendelson and other top council staffers were briefed Oct. 10 on its findings.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has forcefully opposed a key element of the plan — swapping the city’s Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW for land for the stadium near Nationals Park— said he reads the delay as probably meaning one thing: The stadium project is “dead.”
“There is no question that the political environment will be different. No question, the pressure will be off when everyone is reelected for four more years,” Graham said.
But others said the controversial decision to dispose of the Reeves Center might be easier for lawmakers to make after the election. Several council staffers also speculated that it could simply be a first step toward mothballing serious consideration until January so that the next mayor could take credit for completing the deal.
The stadium plan put forth by Gray in the spring calls for a complex series of land swaps that would allow the city to gain control of an expanse of land a few blocks from Nationals Park for a stadium for D.C. United.
The city’s major league soccer team would pay about $140 million for the construction of the stadium. Taxpayers would fund about $120 million to buy the land on Buzzard Point and to pay for improvements to the site. The deal also includes about $40 million in tax breaks to lower D.C. United’s cost of operating the stadium for the first decade.
But it is the prospect of letting private developers convert the Reeves Center, home to hundreds of city jobs, into luxury housing that is most controversial.
That cuts to the core of concerns about the city’s growing economic disparity. Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel E. Bowser (Ward 4) and independent candidates David A. Catania (At Large) and Carol Schwartz have all raised serious concerns about the Reeves part of the deal. They have also questioned whether the Gray administration’s valuation of the Reeves Center, far below past city assessments, allows for a fair deal for D.C. taxpayers.
Asked to characterize the findings of the study, Mendelson said it affirmed his concerns about the Reeves Center.
Three others who were present for the Oct. 10 briefing and who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the presentation gave different accounts.
One said the city’s valuation of the Reeves Center was in question. Two others said the values of other parcels, including a salvage yard the city would have to acquire, were bigger concerns.
One council aide said the report can be interpreted however people want. “If you were inclined to support it before, or oppose it before, the report won’t change that.”
Delaying the release is not the first time that Mendelson’s handling of the soccer study has been questioned. In July, he chose Carol J. Mitten, a former high-ranking city official — and his significant other — to help judge the firms to complete the study.
Former city administrator Robert C. Bobb was ultimately chosen to do part of the study. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) who enthusiastically supports building a soccer stadium, said he encouraged Mendelson to push the hearing back because Bobb would be in Japan on Thursday.
“There’s enough time, so I am still hopeful it will get done,” Evans said.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.