Poll shows D.C. residents opposed to soccer stadium 59-35%, mayor gripes that it’s just badly worded

The Washington Post may be getting beaten up for letting Ezra Klein go to the Seattle Mariners Vox Media, but at least they should know how to conduct a poll, right? So when the Post reported Sunday that six out of ten D.C. residents oppose Mayor Vincent Gray’s D.C. United stadium deal, including opposition across “virtually every demographic and political group,” that should be big news.

And it is, but both Gray and United supporters immediately called foul, noting that the poll asked if people “favor or oppose using city funds to help finance a new soccer stadium,” and complaining that this isn’t a fair cop:

“The poll question is, do you support public financing for a stadium in general?” says spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. “Not even the mayor supports that, because what the mayor has proposed is not public financing for a stadium.”

Um, yes, that is what he’s proposed, to the tune of about $200 million in city-funded land costs and tax breaks. It’s not financing of the whole project, no, but the question does say “help fund,” which is a reasonable shorthand for what Gray is proposing, even if obviously it would have been nice if the Post had spelled out the details of the funding plan in their poll. (Hopefully without putting any of the respondents to sleep.)

In any event, the Post poll shows D.C residents opposing the project by 59-35%, which is probably a way bigger margin than you’re going to erase by a mere tweak in wording. And it’s certainly not going to change the minds of respondents like this woman:

Rosalind Jackson-Lewis, a 57-year-old Riggs Park resident, said she is “absolutely, positively against it.”

“There are more pressing problems in the city, and soccer is not going to add value to the city,” said Jackson-Lewis, a retired accountant. “Any extra money the city gets should go into education. . . . We need a better education system.”

D.C. councilmembers balk at tax kickbacks for United stadium

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s office has finally started telling city councilmembers what the details would be for his proposed D.C. United stadium project, and while the specifics aren’t officially public yet, apparently some councilmembers were so disturbed by them that they ran to the Washington Post to gripe:

Three members of the council and a Gray administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the briefings were intended to be private and negotiations are ongoing, outlined the preliminary deal.

Two members were told that D.C. United would owe no sales tax on any commercial activity on the stadium footprint — including tickets, concessions and even such businesses as restaurants that might locate adjacent to the stadium — throughout the team’s 30-year lease.

Property taxes would also be abated on a rolling schedule, according to two council members. For the first five years of the 30-year lease, the team would pay no property tax. For each subsequent five-year period, the team would pay an additional 25 percent of the tax normally due, with 100 percent owed for the last 10 years of the lease.

A Gray administration official confirmed that the mayor’s stadium proposal includes a sales tax break and phased-in property tax break but said that in exchange, the city would be given 50 percent of the team’s revenue beyond a certain threshold, which is still being negotiated.

This isn’t entirely new: Gray had revealed a sales tax break worth $2.6 million in its first year back in July, and kicking back property and sales taxes in order to meet the team’s profit guarantee has previously been on the table as well. In fact, it sounds like this may just be the profit guarantee restated in new terms: Instead of “We’ll kick back sales and property taxes if you need it to turn a profit,” it’s “We’ll kick back sales and property taxes until you’ve turned sufficient profit, after which you’ll start giving us a cut.”

It’s really tough to say exactly how this iteration of the deal compares with those proposed earlier — normally I’d check with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, but since Gray chose to start dribbling out information only during Christmas week, DCFPI is naturally enough on vacation. (It’s almost like he planned it that way!) And in any event, one councilmember told the post that the tax kickback provision “remains in flux, with some pressing [City Administrator Allen] Lew to negotiate more guaranteed tax dollars for the city rather than engage in a revenue-sharing agreement whose benefits are more speculative and could be evaded through team accounting maneuvers.” At least somebody’s been reading their Paul Beeston!

D.C. mayor could provide more United stadium deals tomorrow, maybe

Okay, this is clearly officially kickstart long-stalled projects week:

A series of land swaps and cash deals required to make D.C. United’s world-class, 20,000-seat stadium a reality should be on its way to the D.C. Council in the next few days, Mayor Vincent Gray indicated on Wednesday.

“We expect by the end of the week to be able to have a legislative package [and] to have it go forward through the council to move on this,” Gray said, in reference to the $300 million project targeted for the Buzzard Point area of Southwest.

Presumably this means that Gray will actually provide details of how much the city would pay to acquire land for the stadium site and how much it would get for selling other city-owned parcels to pay for it, plus how that D.C. United profit guarantee would work out. Though as we’ve seen before, local elected officials aren’t always above proposing votes on things before they know exactly what they’re voting for. Gray says he hopes to have a council vote before the April 1 Democratic mayoral primaries.

There was a community meeting Tuesday night, meanwhile, to discuss the main parcel that D.C. would be selling to pay for soccer land, and while residents are fine with selling the property, they apparently don’t want it sold to the condo developers who’d pay the highest price:

The dozens who spoke at the meeting were nearly united in their desire to see the Reeves Center replaced not with luxury apartments, as is almost certainly the most profitable use of the site, but with office space or other uses that would generate daytime commerce in a neighborhood that is increasingly dominated by nightlife businesses…

“I think that we are sort of looking at what’s happening in this corridor,” said restaurateur Ann Cashion, who owns a taqueria a block away from Reeves. “What we’re not seeing is any daytime business activity.”

This comment from U Street Neighborhood Association President Brian Card won a round of applause: “We need daytime traffic. We don’t need another condo building.”

D.C. councilmember Jim Graham said he’d work to block any “mushy agreement” with developers “where they get to to do whatever they want to do,” and would instead push for commercial development. This could end up being a problem if it cuts into the amount of money D.C. can raise by selling the land — or not so much of a problem if Graham just ends up looking for a mixed-use project that still rakes in a lot of dough. Either way, it’s money that D.C. could be collecting to spend on something other than a soccer stadium if it wanted; we’ll see exactly how much money is at stake tomorrow, hopefully, maybe, if the mayor feels like telling us.

D.C. United stadium land swap spins wheels as January 1 deadline approaches

We haven’t heard much about the proposed new $290 million D.C. United stadium — public cost: $150 million — since back in September, when the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute was complaining that the District only had until January 1 to finalize the city-subsidized land swap to clear space for the stadium. Turns out that’s because almost certainly nothing is going to get finalized by January 1 after all:

Under an agreement the city signed with one of the main landowners, Lew was given a Nov. 15 deadline to share with the council the terms for how the city would obtain the stadium property, enough time, Gray had said, for the council to approve the plan before the end of the year…

Lew now hopes to submit a package of proposed deals to the council before Dec. 25, spokesman Tony Robinson said.

Still, Mendelson said he is loath to pressure the council to rush approval. “Intentionally or not, I fear the council is going to be jammed, and this is too expensive a project for us not be careful about it.”

As the Washington Post notes, it doesn’t help that four city councilmembers — Tommy Wells, Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, and Vincent Orange (yes, that Vincent Orange) — are all vying to replace Gray as mayor, and so are not likely eager to rubber-stamp Gray’s plan over the holidays. Even Evans, who has never heard a stadium proposal that he didn’t like, griped to the Post: “I have no idea where it stands. Absolutely nothing, zero, I don’t know. I hope to get it done. I support the whole idea, but to do it all so privately and secretively, that’s when you announce it and suddenly have all kinds of critics because you haven’t done the legwork to build support.”

If the land swap isn’t approved by January 1, D.C. United can back out of the deal, or just start soliciting offers from other cities — not that any other cities are really bidding to throw $150 million at the MLS team, but a threat’s a threat. It is puzzling that Gray would set up a short deadline and then fail to actually submit a stadium bill, but maybe either his staff underestimated the difficulty of negotiating for the land, or he saw how well giving elected officials no time to considered a deal worked in Georgia, and is hoping lightning can strike twice.

Renovate RFK for D.C. United? Inconceivable!

SBNation is a strange hybrid: It’s hired lots of actual journalists in its attempts to become a more professional sports news site, but at it’s heart it’s still the collection of sports blogs that it was at its founding in 2009. (It’s what the “SB” stands for.) And so you still get the occasional rant like this one by D.C. United fan Ben Bromley, who is plumb outraged that some people testified at a recent public hearing that D.C. should look at renovating RFK Stadium before spending $140 million or maybe $200 million or who knows on a new soccer-only stadium at Buzzard Point.

Let’s take Bromley’s claims one at a time in the order that he presents them, though in order of the crazy scale would also be fun:

  • “RFK Stadium is infested with rats, racoons, wasps, and probably a myriad of other creatures.”

First off, it’s “raccoons.” (Blogs don’t copyedit, I guess, though these days neither do newspapers.) More seriously: Seriously? Of all the things wrong with a building, a rat infestation is about the easiest to solve. It’s like complaining that you need to tear your house down because it needs a paint job.

  • “Its concession don’t make enough money, it doesn’t have luxury boxes, it was built for football and baseball, and it is literally crumbling.”

The first two are true (though that should be “concessions”), but are also presumably what a renovation would be all about upgrading. “Built for football and baseball” is a less easily fixable problem, but given that the fantastically successful Seattle Sounders play in a football stadium, not an insurmountable one. As for “literally crumbling,” that claim has a long history in stadium battles, dating back at least to Bo Schembechler’s “We will not be shackled to a rusty girder!” speech regarding Tiger Stadium, but no, RFK Stadium isn’t actually having small pieces fall off of it, though maybe this can also be chalked up to the lack of copy editors.

  • “A major renovation of the stadium would likely cost well over the cost of a new stadium. For example, proposed renovations to the Rogers Centre, a similarly styled stadium of a similar age, would cost over $250 million to retrofit and modernize the stadium.”

The Rogers Centre, formerly the Skydome, was built 30 years after RFK Stadium and features a retractable roof, restaurants, and a hotel, much of which will be the focus of the building’s upgrades. (Which won’t actually necessarily cost $250 million — this was just one estimate of the amount of work the Toronto Blue Jays would like to see done over the next decade, according to team president Paul Beeston, famed as the guy who said he could make sports accounting numbers show anything he wanted.) Nobody knows what a renovation of RFK for soccer would cost, which is exactly the point that critics of the Buzzard Point deal are making.

  • “And the land upon which the stadium sits is owned by the Federal government, who would have to give approval if the District wanted to just tear down the stadium and build a new one in its place. One of the only deliberative bodies more dysfunctional than the D.C. Council is our beloved Federal government.”

RFK is actually owned by the National Park Service, so fortunately a new stadium wouldn’t have to go through the House Agriculture Committee or anything. But everyone hates the federal government these days, so come right in, straw man!

Renovating RFK certainly wouldn’t be an easy solution, and might well turn out to be more expensive than it’s worth. And really, the focus at this point should be more on why the heck D.C. is preparing to give its soccer team more than twice as much in subsidies as the typical MLS team has received, especially when D.C. United’s relocation options are slim to nonexistent. But it’s absolutely an option worth exploring — it just might be feasible, if they can figure out a way to deal with the rabbid racoons.

Atlanta reportedly close to getting MLS team, as league says, “Enh, soccer-only stadiums not so important after all”

When MLS commissioner Don Garber announced plans to add four more teams this decade and create the most humongoid soccer league on earth, the assumption was that next to follow would be a massive bidding war among cities to build soccer-only stadiums, since that’s what Garber’s always demanded before and there are tons of mid-sized cities to choose from. Instead: Atlanta, Georgia, come on down!

Local and national reports say MLS is relatively close to an agreement with Falcons owner Arthur Blank to bring an MLS expansion team to Atlanta, one of the five new franchises coming in the next seven years. The two would share the billion-dollar retractable domed stadium—aka, “The Sphincter”—that’s scheduled to be completed in 2017…

The lack of a soccer-specific stadium doesn’t appear to be an issue for MLS. The Atlanta stadium will be designed to accommodate soccer, with a wide pitch and separate locker rooms, and the upper deck can easily be closed down to reduce capacity. A similar situation is in place in Vancouver, where the Whitecaps play in a CFL stadium.

Also Seattle, where the Sounders play in an NFL stadium. Still, coming on top of the announcement of New York City F.C. with only a baseball stadium to play in for now, this seems to indicate a shift in strategy for Garber: Instead of doling out teams one at a time to whoever coughs up a soccer-specific stadium, just grab whatever money it can for expansion franchises ASAP and sweat the home field stuff later. (Of the other two new teams rumored to be next in line, Orlando is apparently still dependent on a new soccer-only stadium, while nobody’s sure where Miami would play, just that David Beckham would own it and what he wants, he gets.)

Whether this is because Garber is looking for quick cash now that franchise values seem high or what, I’ll leave to somebody with a more thorough understanding of MLS finances. Still, if this Atlanta thing pans out, you have to wonder what cities that are currently considering building soccer-only stadiums because their teams say they need them — I’m looking at you, Washington, D.C. — will think of the fact that sharing a football stadium is now apparently A-OK with MLS. Stadium blackmail is tough.

D.C. United stadium — what’s the rush?

The latest from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute on the proposed D.C. United stadium:

The term sheet sets a number of unrealistically short deadlines. DC would have until January 1, 2014 to make all necessary land swaps, trading District-owned land for privately-owned land at Buzzard Point.  By March 1, 2015, the District would have to complete infrastructure improvements to the site, including moving the Pepco utilities station which currently resides there. If DC does not meet those timelines, certain development and facility fees would be waived for the team and DC United would have the right to exit the contract.

Accomplishing these goals would require the DC Council to take quick action this fall to approve the disposition of the Reeves Center (and maybe other properties), approve expenditures to demolish and clean up the site, and build new infrastructure.

But, what’s the rush? The plan to open the stadium for the 2017 season is a somewhat arbitrary goal.  Regardless of timelines, getting the stadium deal right for District residents should be the DC Council’s number one goal. The proposal is complicated, and the DC Council should take the time needed to carefully examine all of the terms.

They have a point: The only reason to agree to such tight deadlines is if you think they’re needed to get United on the hook lest they go snap up a stadium deal elsewhere, and since D.C. is effectively bidding against itself at this point, that’s not really a concern. It’d be nice if someone at least took the time to investigate that crazy profit guarantee that’s part of the deal and how it would work with MLS’s single-entity-ownership structure where team profits are really league profits. But I guess there’ll be plenty of closer financial investigations after the deal has been signed — because that’s worked out so well elsewhere.

Gauging the opposition to D.C. United stadium deal

The Washington Post ran a long feature yesterday on the D.C. United stadium battle, most of it focused around Ed Lazere, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute director who led the charge to raise questions about the Washington Nationals stadium deal, and who is now doing the same on the soccer plan. Aside from some background on Lazere himself (best quote: “They couldn’t find someone who would be willing to come on as executive director for as little money as me”), there is some unusually cold-eyed (for the Post) analysis of the neighborhood impact of Nationals Park:

Council members including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chair of the finance committee and one who often plays Lazere’s foil, frequently attribute the resurgence in near Southeast to the ballpark. But development has been as stop-and-go as the team’s progress. Although some 650 apartments are under construction, surface parking lots are still abundant, a massive hole remains on Half Street from a failed development deal and an office building nearby has been empty since the day it was completed two-and-a-half years ago.

That’s certainly in line with what I saw when I visited two years ago, and also in line with what many other stadium “ballpark villages” have seen as far as stalled development. Not that nothing is being built near Nationals Park, but given the white-hot D.C. development market, 650 new apartments plus a hole in the ground isn’t all that much to write home about.

The Post story also wonders aloud whether anyone on the council will take up the cause of questioning the soccer numbers, and councilmember (and mayoral candidate) Muriel Bowser seems a possibility:

She said to win her support a soccer deal will have to justify spending on the stadium over other needs. “I’ve got to be able to explain to people that we are going to spend $150 million in one part of the city for 17 games and not rebuild schools elsewhere. I have to explain to people that we’re not going to rebuild Calvin Coolidge High School, but we are going to go ahead with the stadium,” she said.

D.C. United stadium’s public cost would be double the MLS average

More from D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute on the D.C. United soccer stadium plan: This week’s topic is Why would Washington be paying so much more toward a stadium than other cities have?

The public subsidies for 12 soccer stadiums across the nation have varied dramatically — from as little as $7 million in Kansas City to $247 million in Newark, NJ.  But in most cases the public financing has fallen well below what the District offered earlier this summer.

Four of the stadiums received under $50 million in public funds.

The typical subsidy among the 12 cities is $77 million — or just half of what Mayor Gray proposes.

The numbers are all from Judith Grant Long’s data, and checking my copy of her book, I see that they’re adjusted for hidden lease subsidies — meaning that the D.C. deal will look even worse if the District has to kick in more for that profit guarantee.

The proposed D.C. stadium is also way more expensive than most other MLS facilities — in fact, at $290 million, it would be the most expensive soccer-only stadium in U.S. history. But unless building pricier digs somehow increases the spending power of D.C. United’s fans, DCFPI is right in noting, “There is little explanation as to why the District would offer so much.” Mayor Gray, your answer as to why the city should put up all this money for a stadium instead of housing or schools?

“Let me make one thing clear… this is not to the exclusion of those investments.”

Got that? According to its mayor, the District of Columbia doesn’t need any more money for housing or schools. Or maybe D.C. has figured out a way to spend the same money twice, without, you know, getting arrested? Either way, everybody please form an orderly line for your share.

D.C. United profit guarantee could leave taxpayers underwriting big-name player acquisitions

As promised, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute has been digging into the nuances of the proposed D.C. United stadium deal on its blog, most recently with a pair of posts outlining how the land swap for the stadium site would work, and how the term sheet divides up the construction costs. Among the highlights:

  • “It is not clear why stadium land acquisition has to happen through swaps. The District could sell the Reeves Center and other valuable properties to the highest bidder and then use the proceeds to buy stadium land.” DCFPI notes that the Washington Post reported that D.C.’s chief financial officer had previously estimated the Reeves Center to be worth as much as $186 million, and would be swapped for a parcel worth an estimated $100 million; if formal appraisals of the land values differ, the soccer team would pay D.C. the difference, but there’s no guarantee that appraisals will actually match up with what land could fetch on the open market.
  • As discussed here previously, D.C. would guarantee United a “reasonable profit” (whatever that means), kicking back property and sales taxes if team profits fall short, something that DCFPI calls a “soccer safety-net for DC United.” DCFPI here notes something that hadn’t initially occurred to me: Because sports teams, especially in leagues clamoring for public attention like MLS, will often take on big expenses as loss leaders — they cite the Seattle Sounders‘ recent acquisition of Clint Dempsey here, though part of that cost was covered by the league — “by subsidizing DC United if it faces operating losses, the District would essentially pay for players and other investments aimed at improving the team’s future bottom line.”

With all the known unknowns in the United deal, there’s plenty more for DCFPI — or, you know, news reporters — to investigate in coming weeks. Washington Post, anyone? No? Okay, just asking.