(by T.J. Kirkpatrick nytimes.com 12-16-14)
There are no buzzards at Buzzard Point, a blighted, tucked-away corner of the nation’s capital that waits silently for prosperity to come its way. Its time may not be far off.
On Wednesday, the District of Columbia Council is expected to take a major step toward realizing that hoped-for future by approving financing for a $300 million Major League Soccer stadium to be built near the Anacostia River, in an area now largely regarded as an industrial wasteland.
Under the plan, the D.C. United team and the District government will split the cost evenly. If all goes as planned, the stadium will be completed in 2017. The District’s half will go toward land acquisition and related infrastructure improvements, while D.C. United will pay to build the stadium itself.
City leaders say the 20,000-seat stadium will serve as a catalyst for economic development for this area of southwest Washington, the way that Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals baseball team, did for its formerly stagnant neighborhood just a few blocks north and east.
This has been the case in other Washington neighborhoods after the city voted to approve major new public venues, including the Verizon Center, home to the N.B.A.’s Wizards and the N.H.L.’s Capitals since 1997, and the 2.3-million-square-foot Walter E. Washington Convention Center, completed in 2003, in revitalized Mount Vernon Square. Council votes on these earlier projects were close. By contrast, council support for the soccer stadium is unanimous.
In addition to the stadium, D.C. United has plans for development on three adjoining acres, according to Jason M. Levien, the team’s managing general partner.
“We don’t want to have just a stadium in isolation,” he said. “We’ve had discussions with several folks in the hotel and retail space and gotten some real interest. We think it can spur some economic development. We want to be part of that.”
Right now, there is anything but. In these few blocks wedged between Fort McNair and South Capitol Street, a main artery, are a closed electric power plant, sand and gravel plants, a salvage yard and acres of parking lots and unused space. Though the location seems remote, it is about a mile from the National Mall and the Capitol.
The deal fell apart after the council’s consultant said the Reeves building had been undervalued. District officials have indicated that they may acquire the property by eminent domain, in which case a court could establish its fair market value.
“We just want to be treated fairly,” said Matthew J. Klein, president of Akridge. “We are open to constructive dialogue with the city to make sure this all happens.”
Akridge is also eager to develop an additional seven acres it owns at Buzzard Point. “We bought this property in 2006 with the idea this would be in the path of development,” he said.
While new baseball stadiums have helped reinvigorate inner cities across the country, many soccer stadiums are not in a city’s center but on its periphery, or even in suburbs. Mr. Levien said D.C. United, which has been playing in the 53-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Stadium since 1996, “scoured the District” for a new location.
“There is really no other area with this development opportunity so close to downtown, close to the Capitol,” Mr. Levien said. “We’re very bullish on it.”
He and a partner acquired a controlling interest in the team for $60 million in 2012. Mr. Levien said the team was not yet profitable, in part because of the lack of lucrative corporate suites at R.F.K. Stadium. D.C. United, however, has won four Major League Soccer cups, he noted, and attendance has been steadily growing to about 20,000 a game.
The new stadium will be the most expensive to be built in the 19-team league, but city officials say they believe it will pay dividends.
Other cities are making similar bets. Orlando, Fla., whose expansion team will join the league next year, is building a new soccer stadium and anticipates $1.2 billion in long-term economic benefits. In Las Vegas, which is competing for a franchise, a new stadium is being promoted as a way to gain 1,000 jobs and $3 billion in economic benefits.
Can a soccer stadium transform a neighborhood? In Washington, where a seemingly inexorable march of redevelopment and gentrification is sweeping across the city, the D.C. United stadium is seen as the next logical step.
“Soccer is so much the sport of millennials and attractive to those diverse audiences not necessarily attracted to baseball and hockey,” said Ellen McCarthy, the District of Columbia’s acting planning director.
The soccer stadium, she said, “is the spice, the ingredient that can make further investments occur in that area and enliven it.”
With only 20 home games on the team’s schedule, Mr. Levien said the owners were looking forward to holding other events at the stadium, including concerts, college football, lacrosse games and rugby matches.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray predicted last week that the D.C. United stadium would create “by our best estimates” $1.6 billion in “economic opportunity,” support more than 1,000 full-time jobs and generate a total of about $65 million in “other benefits” related to the project. Mr. Gray said the District’s direct investment, capped at $150 million, was expected to be less than half the total cost — closer to $139 million.
The 406-page, $200,000 consultant’s report presented to the council last month buttressed such optimism, but also cautioned that “Buzzard Point is highly unlikely to repeat the rapid large-scale development boom” that followed construction of the other sites.
That would be just fine with Rhonda Hamilton, 37, a resident of nearby Syphax Gardens, a public housing project of garden apartments built in 1960. Ms. Hamilton, who grew up there, fears that gentrification could result in the loss of affordable housing.
Already, planning is underway to convert another low-income complex, Greenleaf Gardens, into mixed-income housing. Altogether, about 1,000 units of subsidized or public housing are within a few blocks of the stadium site.
“This project has the possibility to put the housing in jeopardy,” said Ms. Hamilton, who represents Syphax and James Creek, another housing project, on the District’s advisory neighborhood commission for the area.
“I’m fearful with all the changes,” she said. “There is the potential to change it from the community all of us love and enjoy.”
The neighborhood has a draft agreement with D.C. United for the team to provide community benefits, including summer youth soccer scholarships, summer youth jobs, free meeting room space and community use days at the new stadium for nonprofit groups. But the District rejected community requests to guarantee legislatively that the housing would be preserved.
Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, who heads the council’s economic development committee, said preserving affordable housing was also “a very big concern” of hers.
“We can’t afford to lose one unit of public housing,” Ms. Bowser said. But she said the stadium would have “absolutely no impact on the public housing there.”
She said she was looking forward to the new stadium’s completion during her administration, which begins next month.
“D.C.’s a sports town. We love our teams. The people are very excited about soccer,” Ms. Bowser said. “I went to a game recently over the summer. I’m learning the game. I’m sure I will attend my fair share of games.”