WASHINGTON, D.C. (Monday, March 12, 2006) -- With a new ownership group finally in place, D.C. United president and chief executive officer Kevin Payne continues to insist that it's realistic to believe that his team will have a new 27,000-seat soccer-specific stadium ready in time for the start of the 2009 season. But the United plan is so involved and complex, a completion date in two years seems unattainable.
Payne has been planning for a new stadium for years. He has had an architectural and design firm on board for a considerable period. If everything was ready to go, I don't doubt he could begin construction tomorrow and possibly have the stadium ready even during the 2008 season, but therein lies the problem. Things are far, far from being ready to go.
After a search of the Washington, D.C., metro area, the decision was made the team should stay in the city, rather than move to some far-flung suburb. City fathers and United have agreed the best place to build the new soccer stadium is on the banks of the Anacostia River at Poplar Point, just across from the Washington Nationals' new baseball park.
The site is a 70-acre tract that is owned by the federal government and controlled by the National Park Service, part of the United States Department of the Interior. So, the first step in making the site available for the proposed new stadium is for the land to be transferred from the federal government to the District of Columbia.
That process has been ongoing for some time, pitting proponents of the District and the Bush Administration who believe more of the D.C. should be developed to increase its tax base, thus decreasing the city's annual federal payment, against Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and others who believe the site should remain parkland.
One of those who has championed more development in the District is White House
chief of staff Josh Bolten, when he headed the White House Office of Management and Budget. A White House chief of staff trumps an Interior Secretary any day, so this land transfer will get done. The House of Representatives has essentially approved it, the Senate will follow and then the President will sign the bill. All this could possibly be done in the next few months; but only then does the real fun begin.
Under ongoing rules on federal land transfers, all federal facilities on the land must be replaced. Right now, the Park Service maintains offices on the site, along with a rather busy heliport. So the District of Columbia is going to have to come up with a comparable site to give, or possibly lease, to the federal government for the Park Service facilities, including the heliport. District officials admit they haven't a clue where that might be.
Assuming this gets done in a reasonable amount of time and the Poplar Point tract is transferred to D.C. control, then what? This is where things get really complicated.
Although it has not been admitted publicly by any of the parties, SoccerTimes has learned that the new owners of the team have offered to build the new stadium without any public funds in exchange for the development rights to the entire tract. Since the new owners, led by Victor MacFarlane, are urban developers of national repute, District officials seem, at least privately, to think this would be a win-win deal.
However, can they simply give the development rights to the tract over to the United owners? Almost certainly not. The law seems clear that they would have to put the tract up for open bid and the ensuing design competition would undoubtedly become a free-for-all with dozens of national developers bidding for the development rights.
If the development rights are not put up for bid, then with absolute certainty, the District will face dozens of lawsuits all asking for a restraining order preventing construction from going forward until the matter is litigated fully. That would be a years-long process.
The District could insist that a soccer stadium meeting certain parameters be included by all bidders, but would that stadium be as good a one as one built by United's owners? Moreover, once a winning development plan is chosen, it has to be reviewed by at least two and probably three different federal and local commissions as to how it fits into the overall Anacostia Riverfront Master Plan. That process alone could easily take a year.
So, to say all this could happen quickly enough to complete at least an eight-to-10-month construction period, which seems to be the most optimistic projection for the actual stadium construction, by March 2009 seems unrealistic, if not downright fanciful.
Then follows a whole new problem for United. It currently has a contract to use RFK Stadium, which is owned by the District of Columbia, through the 2008 season. RFK is operated by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission whose outgoing chairman Mark Tuohey has said, if necessary, United's lease could be extended through the 2009 season, but beyond that, he simply doesn't know.
In recent days, reports have surfaced, met with "no comment" responses by all concerned, that Dan Snyder, owner of the National Football League's Washington Redskins, has offered to build a new 100,000-seat stadium on the site of RFK if he is given the development rights to the vast amount of land around the present stadium. This would probably be one of the largest urban development projects ever undertaken in the U.S.
It is impossible to over-estimate how badly District officials would like to see that happen. Consequently, they would like to see the present RFK torn down as quickly as possible, so they might not be willing to wait for United's new stadium to be built at Poplar Point.
Thus, if Snyders' plan begins to move along (and yes, it has as many legal problems as the Poplar Point deal), while the soccer stadium deal gets bogged down, United may have to look elsewhere to build a stadium.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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