D.C. council ducks United stadium hearing until after election

D.C. council president Phil Mendelson yesterday abruptly delayed the release of a planned city report on the proposed D.C. United soccer stadium until a week from Wednesday. That’s the day after election day, which means that none of the people running for office will need to take a position on it before the vote.

The move puts the stadium plan on life support, according to one councilmember:

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has forcefully opposed a key element of the plan — swapping the city’s Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW for land for the stadium near Nationals Park— said he reads the delay as probably meaning one thing: The stadium project is “dead.”

“There is no question that the political environment will be different. No question, the pressure will be off when everyone is reelected for four more years,” Graham said.

Also, it increases the chances that it will be approved, according to some human beings (I’m assuming they’re human beings, the article doesn’t say) that the Washington Post talked to:

But others said the controversial decision to dispose of the Reeves Center might be easier for lawmakers to make after the election. Several council staffers also speculated that it could simply be a first step toward mothballing serious consideration until January so that the next mayor could take credit for completing the deal.

If I’m allowed to do my own tea-leaf reading, it seems likely that everyone realized that there was no upside to holding stadium hearings before finding out who will be mayor and who will be on the council next year; this way, everyone can settle into the lame-duck period between election day and inauguration day and decide whether to rush through approval of a plan before the new folks take over, or just punt and let it be someone else’s problem. The only reason December is a deadline at all is because current mayor Vincent Gray (who didn’t make it through the primary process) has been the plan’s main proponent, so the assumption has been it needs to get done on his watch or not at all, but in D.C. time and electoral success has a funny way of turning opponents into proponents, so we’ll see.

D.C. to Buzzard Point community on benefits agreement: We’re getting you a soccer stadium, that’s not enough?

Last month, a coalition of residents of D.C.’s Buzzard Point, where D.C. United wants to build a new stadium with about $178 million in city subsidies, presented their list of community benefits they’d like to see the city provide them as compensation for putting up with a whole lot of soccer fans landing on their doorstep, including traffic improvements, job development, a small business incubator, and housing preservation programs. Projected cost: $5 million or so.

Yesterday, it was revealed that the city and United had responded with a joint letter saying, in effect: The city already has programs for all that stuff, what makes you think you’re so special?

For instance, in response to the community’s request for a revolving $500,000 workforce training fund to benefit residents of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D, [City Administrator Allen] Lew and [D.C. United COO Tom] Hunt wrote that “it does not make sense to create a separate and standalone employment program for ANC 6D residents. The District is, however, committed to working with the CBCC to ensure that ANC 6D job-seekers are successful in accessing these existing programs.”

Similarly, in response to the request for a $750,000 small business incubator fund, Lew and Hunt wrote that “it does not make sense to develop a separate standalone program” from the city’s current small business programs.

On the one hand, sure, the city should be providing money to help all residents, not just those who happen to live in Buzzard Point. On the other hand, helping out residents of a specific neighborhood affected by a development project is pretty much the whole point of community benefits agreements — and if that sometimes leads to community groups just trying to get what’s in it for them instead of thinking of the big picture, the principle is still sound: If the community is going to put up with the headaches of a big construction project, it should get helped out in other ways in exchange.

Plus, maybe more to the point, this kind of response is a great way to build enemies. “For you to basically slap us in the face and tell us to go away…I don’t see where they’ve left us any type of room for negotiation by telling us no to every last thing that we asked for,” Felicia Couts, a coordinator of the horribly named Near SE/SW Community Benefits Coordinating Council, told the Washington Post. Seems somebody really doesn’t get how this works.

No, new DC United stadium probably wouldn’t host 46 events per year

The District of Columbia has released a transportation management plan for its proposed D.C. United soccer stadium, which is meant to plan for traffic and transit impacts if the stadium is built. Naturally enough, the Washington Business Journal has missed this entirely, and instead focused on “Lookit all the stuff that the stadium will be used for!!!”

In addition to 23 United games, with an average attendance of 19,200 fans, five international soccer matches are expected to sell out the stadium, as will three annual concerts. Five community events will draw a projected 4,000 visitors each, and 10 “other events,” such as NCAA lacrosse games, will average 6,000 fans each.

Where, exactly, did these numbers come from?

D.C. United provided the District with a preliminary estimate of how the stadium will be used.

Uh, yeah, right. So let’s start with those 23 United home games. The MLS season includes 17 home games; the report notes that United has 20 home games scheduled for 2014, but that’s only because the team made the CONCACAF Champions League, which won’t happen every year. There’s no explanation of how they got to 23, but presumably if they make the playoffs (yeah, yeah, the MLS Cup, but Americans still think of it as the playoffs) then that would amount to 23 games — as a maximum, but in a down year it could be as few as 17.

The rest of the events — international friendlies, concerts, lacrosse, etc. — those are apparently made up out of whole cloth, though they’re reasonable goals to shoot for. But again, the numbers could end being lower, depending on how badly touring acts want to play in an outdoor 20,000-seat stadium, how much competition the stadium would get from other D.C. venues, and so on.

Finally, the report notes that the United stadium hasn’t been designed yet, and might hold as few as 18,000 fans, which would make an average 19,200 attendance a bit unlikely. (United also hasn’t drawn anywhere near 19,000 fans per game in recent years, though presumably they’re hoping that will change in a new stadium.) The 19,200 figure, it’s explained, is meant as a “conservative” estimate — which, since this is a transportation document, means it’s the likely top end, since you want to account for maximum usage when you’re thinking about traffic.

All of this is fine — for a transportation report. What it is not is an actual projection of what will take place at a United stadium. So what’s the Washington Business Journal’s lede?

The proposed D.C. United stadium at Buzzard Point will be in use 46 times per year, and for much more than just soccer.

Sorry, but we have some lovely parting gifts…

Council hearing paints D.C. United stadium picture that’s as clear as mud

The D.C. council held its promised hearing on the D.C. United stadium plan yesterday, and I tuned in for a while before even watching the U.S. men’s soccer team seemed more exciting by comparison. Fortunately, DCist watched so we didn’t have to:

Just how far-reaching the city’s commitment in the deal is perhaps best demonstrated in a graph provided by John Ross, an official with the office of the Chief Financial Officer:

Yes, that’s, um, okay, I have no idea what any of that is supposed to indicate, but somebody put a lot of work into those icons, so give them props for that, okay?

So what else you got?

The Council heard testimony from dozens of witnesses. Some expressed fervent support for the agreement and took a seat at the witness table sporting the black and red colors of the team they’d come to support. Others expressed reservations about the deal, raising a handful of questions about its mechanics. And still others expressed their disdain for the deal as a whole.

If you’re starting to get the sense that this was just a bunch of people talking past each other while reciting things that everyone’s already heard before, that was pretty much my experience as well. D.C. administrator Allen Lew did indicate that the land swap that is at the heart of the United deal is a gimmick to get around the city’s borrowing cap; he sees that as a plus, while Ed Lazere of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute complained that the Reeves Center is “being treated in this legislation like a Monopoly property, to be traded for cash,” with no public process or community input over how it will eventually be developed. Plus, noted Lazere, “the plan calls for creating a new Reeves Center east of the Anacostia River, yet it offers no details and no financing. With the city very close to its debt cap, it is not clear how or when a new municipal center will be completed.”

There were a few more hints of things to come — one neighborhood organization pushing for a Community Benefits Agreement, for example, something that in the past has often served more as a smokescreen for developers than an actual benefit to communities. But the most interesting question is where the councilmembers stand on the project, and most of them are still hedging their bets. Reading tea leaves, you have to wonder if the council may not just try to drag this out until Mayor Vincent Gray is out of office at the end of the year, then start over with a new mayor — something that Gray and United both desperately want to avoid, but if the council digs in its heels, there’s not much they can do about it.

Nothing says chillaxing like watching a D.C. council soccer stadium hearing

As of 9:38 am Eastern time, the “Brooklyn Wars” Kickstarter is fully funded! Huge thanks to everyone who chipped in — and if you want to get in on preordering (this will be your only chance to get rewards like the bonus zine), you still have until tomorrow at 5 pm to do so.

Meanwhile, this means I get to spend a couple of hours this morning watching the D.C. Council hearing on the proposed D.C. United stadium, and its accompanying $178 million or so in public subsidies. Right now, the manager of a soccer program funded by D.C. United is testifying. Let’s watch and see which side he comes down on!

Anyone who wants to play along, watch here and join me in discussing the proceedings below in comments.

Council hearing tomorrow on D.C. United’s $178m-plus stadium subsidy plan

So, there’s this World Cup thing, which involves soccer, and which lots of people in the U.S. are watching. There are also soccer teams in the U.S., one of which is D.C. United, which has a hearing coming up Thursday on its request for a bunch of public money to help build a new stadium. How do you report on this, if you’re the Washington Post?

Will that enthusiasm carry over to D.C. United as the team pushes for approval of a new stadium?

Because of course rooting for your nation’s team to win an international soccer match is something that could “carry over” to rooting for your city’s team to get a bunch of your tax dollars. Nobody could possibly love soccer but hate the way soccer stadiums are funded!

Anyway, back in the world of real journalism, the Washington City Paper offers a breakdown of the D.C. United deal, based on a handout from D.C. administrator Allen Law, that provides our clearest picture yet of who would be paying for what, though it’s still pretty convoluted. In brief:

      • The city will spend $84.9 million on buying land for the stadium, plus another $34.6 million in infrastructure, for a total of $119.5 million.
      • Of this, $48 million will come out of the city’s capital budget, while the rest will be raised by selling two existing city properties — one of which, the Reeves Center, the city is selling to Akridge (one of the current owners of part of the stadium site) for $55 million, though the city’s official assessment of the land’s value earlier this year was $129 million, while an independent appraiser hired by the city valued it at $69 million.

D.C. United would received 20 years of property tax breaks and 10 years of sales tax kickbacks, which as previously discussed here would be worth about $63.6 million to the team. The team will pay a $2 per ticket fee to the city starting ten years from now, which at roughly 300,000 tickets sold per year, discounted to present value, amounts to about $4.6 million that the city will be getting back.

Total cost to D.C. taxpayers, then: $178.5 million, plus whatever discount D.C. is giving to Akridge on the Reeves Center property. In other words, still pretty darned close to $200 million.

Tomorrow’s hearing is set for 9:30 am, just two and a half hours before the start time of the U.S. team’s must-tie match against Germany; the mayor’s office says a TV will be set up in a briefing room for fans who want to attend the meeting while still watching the game. There will likely be another hearing in September following the delivery of an independent cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the council, so don’t expect any decisions anytime soon.


D.C. councilmember opposes United stadium plan without streetcar funding

One of the 13 members of the D.C. Council has come out against Mayor Vincent Gray’s D.C. United stadium plan unless the council restores money to build a streetcar line to the site. No, really:

In an ominous change of heart for Gray and the soccer team, [Councilmember Tommy] Wells tells LL that he’s leaning towards voting against the stadium now that Council Chairman Phil Mendelson‘s budget cuts streetcar funding. With Mendelson’s detractors saying that the streetcar line to Buzzard Point and the stadium is endangered by the switch, Wells says he can’t back the stadium if it lacks new public transit, even though it would be close to Metro’s Green Line.

“Now that the Council has gutted that, I can’t in good conscience support a 20,000-seat venue with no new transit infrastructure,” Wells says.

I haven’t been seen any head counts of likely votes on the United stadium plan, but given that Gray was already facing an uphill battle with the council, this can’t be a good sign for the mayor.

D.C. United deal now includes selling city land for less than half assessed value

The Washington Post has thrown at least a thimbleful of cold water on D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s D.C. United stadium plan, noting that “with about seven months remaining in a lame-duck term, persuading a majority of the council to support the plan could take every ounce of political capital that Gray (D) still has. It may not be enough.” Not only is the council wary about the $200 million in cash and tax breaks required, but there’s a mayoral election coming up, and both candidates have expressed opposition to the stadium deal.

The Post also notes a recent twist in the stadium funding scheme, which is that, contrary to the original plan to sell the city-owned Reeves Center government office building for $100 million and use the proceeds for the stadium, Gray has now agreed to trade the Reeves Center to the owner of part of the proposed soccer stadium site for $34.5 million plus $21.1 million in stadium land — less than half its assessed value, and less than a third of what a 2011 city report found the Reeves site to be worth. I can’t for the life of me figure out whether this means D.C. will now have to come up with additional cash or land beyond its original $150 million investment — the land swaps are so convoluted that apparently even the Post has thrown up its hands at trying to describe them — but I’ll report back here if the fog ever clears.

D.C. United, Mayor Gray propose $200 million in public stadium subsidies

It took a few months longer than expected, but D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has finally finalized his stadium plan for D.C. United, according to the Washington Post. The city would still put up about $150 million of the cost of the project (which is now estimated at $300 million instead of $290 million, maybe to make for a nicer “going halfsies” image?), and would now also provide the team with sales and property tax breaks as well:

According to sources, the team would pay no property taxes for the first five years, 25 percent property taxes for the next five years, then 50 percent for five years, 75 percent for five years and finally full property taxes.

United would also pay no sales taxes for the first five years, then 50 percent sales tax for five years and then full sales taxes. At that point the team would begin collecting a surcharge on tickets that would begin at $2 and increase with the Consumer Price Index. Proceeds from the surcharge would go to the District.

The Post doesn’t specify how much the tax breaks would be worth, though it earlier estimated a sales tax abatement alone as being worth $2.6 million a year, if we use the District’s 1.85% property-tax rate and a valuation of $300 million, that’d be an additional $5.5 million a year in property-tax breaks, for a total tax break present value of … I get $63.64 million (at a 5% discount rate), but let’s wait for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute to do a full assessment to determine the precise value.

Property and sales tax breaks were previously planned as part of the team’s profit guarantee (if D.C. United wasn’t turning a “reasonable profit” it would get the tax abatements), so it looks like this new system would wipe out that one, with United just getting a fixed tax subsidy, and the District getting back that ticket surcharge (which with MLS teams selling about 300,000 tickets a year would amount to maybe $600,000 a year in revenue, or only a few million in present value) starting ten years in. It’s hard to tell whether that’s better or worse than the original deal, but it’s still right around $200 million in public cost, which would be easily the most expensive public subsidy for an MLS stadium in history.

Anyway, now that Gray and United’s shifty web of owners have agreed on a deal, it only has to be okayed by the D.C. city council, where there’s significant opposition. Not to mention that most city residents hate the deal, and Gray is out of office at the end of the year. All of which I’m sure will mean an agreement that will be rushed through and then have to be amended later when it turns out to have giant holes in it, because that’s how things get done around there.

D.C. United fans click on team website a lot to support stadium, film at 11

More than 2,000 D.C. United fans, who, being fans of D.C. United, cheer for D.C. United, have clicked an average of more than 10 times apiece on a website set up by D.C. United to send emails to Mayor Vincent Gray and the city council in support of a new city-subsidized stadium for D.C. United, according to D.C. United, reports Tucker Echols of the Washington Business Journal’s People Clicking on Things Bureau. In unrelated news, most people in D.C. are actually against the stadium plan.