The buzz downstairs was about whether the U.S. Men’s National soccer team would beat Germany.
Five floors up, discussion was about whether the local team would get a new place to play.
At a hearing Thursday, members of the D.C. Council heard from supporters and skeptics of a series of land swaps proposed by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) that would allow for construction of a new 20,000-seat D.C. United stadium.
United fans sported T-shirts and joined the team’s coach and owner in speaking in favor of the project, even as they ferreted back-and-forth between the fifth floor hearing room and a makeshift World Cup viewing room set up on the building’s ground level.
Head Coach Ben Olsen told council members the the District had a chance to define the District as “the soccer capital of this country.”
“There is no city in this country that is more global or influential or has thrived more on the growth of soccer,” he said. “It is the world’s game, and it is part of the fabric of this city. It is no wonder the highest TV ratings for the World Cup are here. There should be no place better to see or play the game in the United States.”
Over the past 18 months, Gray’s city administrator, Allen Lew, negotiated deals in which the District would provide the needed land and infrastructure for construction of a Major League Soccer stadium on Buzzard Point, the sale of the Reeves Center municipal building on 14th Street NW and the possible construction of a new District office building in Anacostia.
Lew laid the details out for the first time in public, acknowledging the complexity of the proposal but saying it would not only keep United in the city but also create jobs, bring economic development to three neighborhoods and bring new tax revenue.
He pointed out that previous mayors have used land swaps to accomplish major economic development projects, such as the Marriott Marquis convention center hotel.
Lew acknowledged that “the idea of a land swap has raised concerns,” but said it would provide the city the cash and certainty to complete the deal without having to find the money in its budget or take on more debt, which could violate a cap on city borrowing.
The District’s costs for the stadium site would be capped at $150 million and the team would be responsible for building the stadium itself.
“Given that the land proceeds are roughly two-thirds of the District’s transaction costs, we felt we needed this financial and planning certainty,” Lew said.
Members of the Council in attendance all expressed enthusiasm about getting the team a new stadium. “When you have a winning team it brings together a community like no other event,” said Jack Evans, (D-Ward 2).
Others, however, questioned the mechanics Lew had proposed. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he would prefer to see the city auction off the Reeves Center in order to ensure that it get the best price, rather than trade it to developer Akridge for property on Buzzard Point and cash.
“There would be international interest in the Reeves Center that would bid the price up far above what is on the table,” he said.
Council member David Grosso (I-At large) said he would support the project but raised a similar concern. “I personally would pay $150 million out of the District of Columbia budget to pay for this but that’s not how deals get done,” he said.
John Ross, an official in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, said the CFO’s office was still analyzing the proposal but cautioned that the District would be committing to more than just providing land.
Ross submitted a graphic that showed a broad array of commitments and costs that the city, including foregone tax revenue and the price of replacing the Reeves Center:
Critics of the proposal and some residents of Southwest questioned why the District would provide team’s majority investor, Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir, with public subsidies. Others questioned what the deal would provide the Southwest community.
Rhonda N. Hamilton, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Southwest, said public housing residents were worried the construction of the stadium would result in their being pushed out of the neighborhood.
“My constituents are very concerned about their housing and the impact the building of the soccer stadium will have on their ability to remain,” she said.
She said the stadium was likely to contribute to already escalating housing costs for low-income residents and lead to redevelopment of their homes. “They should not have to constantly be fighting to keep their housing from being torn down,” she said.
Lew projects that the stadium, redevelopment of Reeves site and construction of a new municipal building in Ward 8 would create $2.3 billion of economic activity in the city over 30 years as well as 715 permanent full-time or full-time equivalent jobs and another 1,756 construction jobs.
Eric Fox, who testified wearing a team scarf around his neck, said he does not usually support public subsidies for sports stadiums, particularly for NFL teams that may be worth $1 billion or more. But he said United would be getting a far more modest deal.
“The cost of the proposal is very low compared to the cost of projects in other sports,” he said.
By the noon kickoff of the U.S.-Germany match, half or more of the once packed seating in the council chamber had emptied. Although more than 100 people had signed up to speak, Evans had trouble finding people who had stuck around.
Many of them were downstairs enjoying the game at hand.
Before halftime, the mayor joined them.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz