If you’re holding out hope for a new $300 million D.C. United stadium at Buzzard Point, last week may have offered the best indictors to date of where the D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s proposal stands, and the signs are not encouraging.
On Tuesday, D.C. Councilmembers Muriel Bowser and Tommy Wells did a walkthrough of the proposed site at Buzzard Point. Both expressed concern about the site’s walkability and its distance from public transportation, which sits about a half-mile from both the Navy Yard and Waterfront Metro stations.
Bowser referred to the site as “strikingly isolated,” arguing that a stronger transit plan was needed for the area if the stadium was to be built. Ironically, Bowser was one of the eleven council members who weeks earlier voted for a city budget that slashed funding for a streetcar program that would have sent public transit right through the area.
Wells, who at one point was arguably the council’s strongest proponent of the stadium, also found the site’s remoteness troubling, and has been saying for months that cuts to streetcar funding may be enough to lose his vote.
“Now that the council has gutted that [streetcar funding], I can’t in good conscience support a 20,000-seat venue with no new transit infrastructure,” he told the Washington City Paper in June.
Perhaps more important, however, were the two public meetings held on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss Mayor Gray’s controversial proposal to sell the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center to a private developer in exchange for the land at Buzzard Point.
The proposal has brought out differing opinions from both the public and the council, with some arguing that the stadium will be an economic boon that will more than make up for the swap. Others claim that the city is getting a raw deal by selling the land at a prime location for less than it could get on the open market. Ultimately, whether the land swap goes through will likely be the deciding factor in whether the stadium is built – at least any time soon.
Here is a briefer to get you up to speed on what’s being proposed:
What Would Be Swapped?
The Reeves Center
The Reeves Center is an eight-story, 500,000-square-foot office building located on the corner of 14th Street and U Street. It was built in 1986 with the goal of spurring economic development on U Street, which at the time was still ravaged by the ghosts of the 1968 riots.
Today, with U Street and the surrounding area now booming with commercial development, the center appears as a relic of a bygone era. In 2011, the Washington City Paper reported that in a walkthrough the building, entire floors were found empty and buckets were being used to collect water when it rained. Stained carpets were found along with an old bottle of prescription cholesterol pills.
Under the land-swap proposal, the Reeves Center would be moved to a new, undetermined location in Anacostia. Councilmember Marion Berry, whose administration was in power when the center was built, supports the plan to move the office space as an opportunity to encourage development in yet another economically impoverished area.
Buzzard Point is one of the last holdouts in a city that’s gone through an urban renaissance over the last decade. It’s an industrial mess of rusted towers, abandoned railroad tracks and torn up sidewalks. The mostly abandoned space sits blocks away from Nationals Park, between an Army base and the Anacostia River.
According to the land-swap proposal, the city will make a clean trade with Akridge, the private developers that own the Buzzard Point property, for the Reeves Center property. The deal has already been agreed to in negotiations between Akridge and City Administrator Allen Lew, but it awaits approval by the city council.
Several council members and the public, however, have questioned the deal.
What Happened at the Meetings?
In Wednesday night’s six-hour public meeting, held, perhaps fittingly, at the Reeves Center, the deal received mixed reviews by members of the public, particularly among residents of Ward 1, where the Reeves Center is located.
According to Soccerwire.com, Sharon Dreyfuss, a member of the executive board of the U Street Neighborhood Association, accused Akridge of not holding enough community meetings with residents to discuss its plans for the site, and arguing that the meetings that were held were not advertised far enough in advance. Dreyfuss argued that the firm should not “do what they please” with the site if they are to acquire it in the deal.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham also expressed concern that the deal might undervalue a property that, given its prime location, could be sold at a higher price on the open market. Graham cited as an example a nearby property valued at $185 per square foot, though the land-swap values the Reeves Center property at $115 per square foot.
“There are two issues for me in this deal,” he said. “Number one: is this a good deal for the people of the District of Columbia? In other words, are we getting a good deal for this absolutely spending asset at 14th and U? The second thing is, if we sell the Reeves Center, and the Reeves Center becomes another high-rise luxury apartment, ground-floor retail with some set aside for affordable housing, and we get that model again here, what will be the impact on U Street? If this building is commercial in substantial part, there’s been talk of a hotel. If we have a hotel or major commerce coming from a trade association, a law firm, you cannot tell me that it’s not a desirable location.”
Graham said he was encouraged by his talks with Akridge but is not quite ready to jump on board. Bowser, who as the Democratic nominee for mayor may hold the stadium plans in her control, also argued that the deal doesn’t make economic sense for the city.
“It’s not enough for the soccer stadium to create the city spirit, it must create the city spirit and make financial sense for the city. The deal must make sense for the community,” she said.
Where Does the Rest of the Council Stand?
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans is by far the most outspoken supporter of the deal, citing the economic benefits it will bring to under-resourced neighborhood. Evans, in an op-ed piece in the Georgetowner earlier this month, argued the stadium will generate $50 million per year and $14 per year in payroll for the District.
Among the Council’s skeptics are Kenyan McDuffie, who says he has not looked far enough into the details to make a decision, and David Catania, who in an interview last Friday on WAMU 88.5’s The Politics Hour argued that the Reeves Center property should be sold on the open market. The proceeds could be used to buy the land needed for the stadium.
“I don’t believe that you sell one of the family jewels based on a negotiation without putting this prime piece of property out for bid for the highest bidder,” he said. “If what Mr. Akridge wants for the property he owns in Southwest is X amount of dollars for that land, we can give him X amount of dollars.”
It’s unlikely that a politically-weakened, lame-duck Mayor Gray can corral the support necessary to pass the land swap deal through the council, meaning that the stadium proposal is likely to go into the next administration’s term. Given the apparent unpopularity of the current deal, it’s probable that a whole new list of proposals will pop up once the new mayor takes office, and the whole process will begin over again.
If you’re hoping, in the near future, to watch a soccer match in D.C. in a stadium that isn’t dilapidated and falling apart, it might be best to not get your hopes up.