Months from beginning construction on its new stadium, D.C. United has run into stiff opposition to the project’s design from real estate developers who own nearby parcels, threatening a planned 2018 opening.

After a decade-long effort to find and build a home that will allow it to leave dilapidated RFK Stadium, United plans to seek approval before the D.C. Zoning Commission Nov. 2, a critical final hurdle before construction can begin, ideally for the team in January or February.

But developers with land south of the stadium site on Buzzard Point in Southwest, led by D.C.-based Akridge, are pressing the team to improve a design that they say will “stifle economic development” and fail to maximize a $150 million investment the D.C. government made to buy and prepare land for the project.

The developers, including Herb Miller of Western Development, Steuart Investment Co. and Capital City Real Estate, have escalated pressure on United’s investors by lobbying city officials, hiring architects to offer alternatives and enlisting the high-powered strategic communications firm Podesta Group to launch a public relations and social media campaign aimed at hampering the team’s chances before the the zoning commission. The stadium is a top economic priority of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s.

In an Oct. 7 letter to D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the four firms outline what they call a lack of retail, access and planning and vowed that barring further improvements they would fight the zoning United needs.

“Unless further changes to the plans are made in advance of the November 2nd Zoning Commission hearing, we will have no choice except to actively contest the zoning application and seek to have the Zoning Commission compel the team to make changes,” they wrote. (Read the full letter here.)

But the team’s managing general partner says United and its architect, Populous, already made a series of expensive changes, including adding new storefronts, connecting First Street SW through the site and relocating access to a loading dock. Further changes are complicated by Pepco utilities that run through the site.

United’s Jason Levien accused Akridge and its partners of threatening to delay the project while simultaneously trying to buy a stake in it and sitting on their own land for years.

“We’ve done all these things and they’ve cost us millions and millions of dollars. They want us to move the trucks, they want us to move more buildings around and now they want to control the retail,” Levien said. “I think what they’re trying to say is they can appeal and delay this development for a year, and yet they haven’t done anything down there in a decade.”

United received the land from the city last week, then Levien and co-investor Erick Thohir bought out minority partner Will Chang days later. The club has already lined up sponsorships and promotional deals contingent upon playing in the new stadium in 2018. Levien declined to say exactly how much the team stood to lose if it cannot open in 2018 but said it was “tens of millions” of dollars.

The team says building the stadium will cost around $200 million, which when combined with $150 million worth of land will make it easily the most expensive stadium in Major League Soccer history. A 2014 study envisioned the project bringing $109.4 million in direct economic benefits to the District.

[Check out D.C. United’s stadium plan here]

Akridge is leading the charge against the plans despite originally proposing to city officials that they locate the stadium there. The firm is also haggling in court over the value of the land the city seized to build the project.

Since buying nine acres on Buzzard Point at the peak pre-recession price of $75 million with plans to build a government office center, Akridge is still working through its plans. Akridge partnered with longtime D.C. magnate Miller of Western Development to purchase the former Coast Guard headquarters south of the stadium in August.

Akridge’s central concern is that United has failed to plan an engaging and accessible entrance to the area, along First Street SW. The team’s original plans did not include extending First Street north-south along the stadium’s eastern edge, which could choke off access to the south, and although the team has since added a narrow street, it hasn’t planned a retail scene akin to what exists on 7th Street NW beside the Verizon Center.

United also relocated its loading dock along First Street rather than on the back side of the stadium where it would face the wall bordering Fort McNair — an area not likely to attract many visitors. Akridge hired architects Gensler and Cooper Carry to demonstrate alternatives.

Also signing the letter outlining concerns was Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, an association of landowners in the neighborhood around Nationals Park. Stevens said the stadium should provide an attractive gateway to the neighborhood.

“Believe me we want the stadium to go there,” Stevens said. “But if we’re going to make a $300 million investment that’s going to be there for 50 years, let’s make it one that relates well from a connectivity perspective, from urban street animation and functionally with their programs to the rest of the neighborhood.”

Stevens said he met with the team, Akridge and other stakeholders for four hours at RFK a year ago and had hoped more progress would have been made by now.

Allen concurred with the retail shortage but said United should be credited for making “substantial changes” that amounted to a “huge improvement over where we were a couple of months ago.”

“I want D.C. United to open the 2018 season in a new home and I also want the best designed stadium possible for the neighborhood and the city. I think both of these things can happen and I think D.C. United has taken some excellent steps in that direction,” he said.

Levien questioned the motivations of his opponents, saying Akridge and Miller were threatening to hold the stadium hostage in order to pressure the team into selling its retail space to them. “I would encourage you to ask Akridge why they are so interested now in this project when they’ve had that land for years and haven’t built anything,” Levien said.

Klein said the firm had done no such thing — “We have not done that” — but in an email to the team and two Akridge executives obtained by The Washington Post, Klein’s partner Miller says United “must agree” to sign the retail over before the zoning commission hearing so “we can all be on the same wavelength.” The email was sent two days after the letter to Allen.

In an interview, Miller said he was simply trying to find a way to resolve the disagreement between Levien and Akridge in a way that improved the stadium design.

“I’m just saying whatever the cost is to do those changes, the retail could [pay for] it. [Levien] is not a retail developer so we could just do it,” Miller said. “I offered him $5 million, he said it’s $7 million. So it’s $7 million. They got to get a price [to build the retail] from contractor and we’ll pay it.”

The project remains a top priority for Bowser. Her chief of staff, John Falcicchio, said it was important that the project be “catalytic” for the neighborhood but also that it not be needlessly delayed. The zoning commission is a five-member board (one seat is currently vacant) to which the mayor appoints three members.

“It’s important to the administration that the project be on time and we’ve done everything we needed to do to deliver the land and infrastructure,” Falcicchio said. 

“The team has come a long way from what they originally presented,” he added. “We’ve been working with both parties to make sure that they are working to accommodate one another.”

Steven Goff contributed.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz