Helping D.C. United build its own stadium seems like such a good idea that I can’t believe it’s been languishing on the drawing board, in the cupboard, in the trunk of someone’s car, whatever, for a decade.
United has won four MLS titles and has consistently drawn crowds of both rabid groups like Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles as well as the occasional appearances by Mom, Dad and the kids. And they’ve done it in a rapidly decaying rental, RFK Stadium, where you get a free hot dog if you’re beaned by a piece of falling cement.
Now the franchise has a huge infusion of cash from Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir and a smaller infusion but some muscle to push around that cash in Jason Levien, who will have the daunting task of taking on the D.C. Council and all the red tape involved in getting something done in the District. He knows what he’s getting into.
“We see a pathway and we also know we’re going to have to use our machete to get there,” he said.
The trio’s machete is money, money, money. United’s owners want to build a stadium and team facility at Buzzard Point, along with public and commercial development that should link their territory with that surrounding Nationals Park. There is zero chance United won’t draw well at a cozy home of, say, 22,000 seats. The idea is to make that area even more attractive to fans before and after the games, and before and after the seasons. If the Nats and United could find a way to share some parking, as many teams in many cities do, so much the better.
Of course, like Nats fans, many of United’s faithful take Metro to the games despite the fact that there is nothing to do around RFK but avoid the rebar protruding from the sidewalks. United fans will miss the Orange and Blue lines, but like Nats fans, they’ll adjust. (And Metro will have to adjust as well.) “If you build it, they will come” is such a cliche, but “If you win, fans will change trains at Gallery Place” is absolutely true.
Listen carefully to Will Chang, who previously was flying solo as United’s principal investor: “My dream is to find a permanent home for D.C. United.” All of the participants in Tuesday’s announcement echoed that sentiment. They want a first-class facility, and are willing to pay for it if the city helps out with land acquisition, infrastructure and tax incentives. Only two MLS teams don’t have one, and United is in that sad pairing despite being a founding member of the league and a successful one, too. It seems a reasonable goal.
But none of those declarations about finding a permanent home included the words “in Washington.” The owners – old and new – want to be here, they’ll work to stay here, but they also know they are falling behind the rest of MLS, and they have options. One is right up I-95 in Baltimore.
Why should the District, which needs so much help in so many areas, even consider this?
Here’s why: Years ago, before Verizon Center was a glimmer in Abe Pollin’s eye, I used to frequent the Chinatown area when I had season tickets to the Shakespeare Theatre. I’ll say this: It was easy to find parking. For entertainment and dining, there was Jaleo, the theater, a bookstore and . . . that was just about it. Now when I go to Verizon Center, I’m amazed. Art galleries, restaurants, museums, pubs, a second theater for all that Shakespeare. Someone even put in a portrait gallery. (Kidding.) It’s not easy to park anymore, but Metro is right there. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen.
That same kind of buzz could be found in a development at the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Development around Nationals Park has been slow to come because of a bad economy, but it’s picking up. Imagine adding a bookend destination, which could host not only MLS soccer but World Cup qualifiers, American football, lacrosse and concerts. It’ll generate more revenue than what’s there now.
When I see those businesses around Verizon Center, I don’t just see great options of places to go for a drink. I see jobs. Surely D.C. officials see the same? Pollin got that ball rolling with his vision – for which he was roundly mocked, by the way.
Now Erick Thohir, Will Chang and Jason Levien have a similar vision. The District should grab this opportunity. Synergy is such a revolting word, and yet in this case it’s applicable. There is a limited time for D.C. and United to reach a deal – the team has a two-year lease at RFK. United brings a solid, consistent and diverse fan base. The Nationals’ crowds are growing along with their winning percentage. There will be no better time and there will be no other time. Get out your machetes and work it out. Or all there will be at Buzzard Point will be buzzards.