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Three D.C. Councilmembers express skepticism on D.C. United stadium framework

This week, in a briefing with City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, three members of the D.C. Council expressed reservations about the city's plan to acquire land on Buzzard Point that could eventually house a new D.C. United stadium.

The latest and greatest plan to build a new home for D.C. United may have just hit its first - but almost certainly not its last - potential snag. The Washington Post has the scoop, as Anna C. Davis is reporting that three D.C. Councilmembers peppered City Administrator Allen Y. Lew with questions during a briefing about the framework agreed to by the city and team wherein the city will acquire the land for D.C. United to build a soccer stadium on Buzzard Point. Ultimately, the friction wasn't unexpected, especially given the sources, and it should not significantly change the outlook for the stadium effort.

The elected officials in question were CMs Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and David Catainia (I-At Large) and Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D). The former two were apparently more active in the briefing, accusing Lew and Mayor Vincent Gray of failing to do their due diligence on the deal. The smallest surprise among the three is Catania, who is expected to run as an Independent in next year's mayoral race and who was a major opponent of the construction of Nationals Park (apparently still boasting to this day about never having set foot in the place). He highlighted the potential cost of the project to the city, both in land acquisition and in tax abatements the team could enjoy after construction is done. (It must be noted that construction costs are not among the potential costs to the city, as the team has already committed to pay for 100% of those.) Based on his past and his mayoral aspirations, I don't think there's much of a chance Catania will support anything having to do with the stadium. The other two, though...

Graham asked - and this is going to make anybody who's been following the stadium quest for longer than an hour cringe - whether it wouldn't make more sense for the city and team to renovate RFK and insisted that the Gray administration thoroughly and formally study the possibility before proceeding with the Buzzard Point plan. This is the first I can find of Graham going on record on the Buzzard Point project, and it's not 100% clear that his questions came from a place of opposition, as opposed to honest ignorance of the circumstances surrounding RFK Stadium and D.C. United. If we're whipping votes, I'd put Graham in the undecided column - "lean no" at worst.

(For the sake of completeness: it is generally well understood that such a renovation, given the decrepit state of the stadium, would cost at least as much as a new building; meanwhile it would take action by a famously gridlocked and not particularly DC-friendly Congress to build a new stadium on the site. That said, I admit that I don't know of any formal studies establishing the cost of gutting RFK.)

Chairman Mendelson's questions seemed focused on the implementation of the deal, such as the aggressive timeline, which calls for Council approval of all landswaps by the year's end. Mendelson, despite his onetime opposition to Nats Park, appears to be keeping an open mind on this project, and his questions don't do anything to convince me that he's already made up his mind one way or the other. It looks to me like he's still very much undecided; he could be persuaded to support the project if Lew and Gray, and the land appraisers, make it clear that the city will receive value for what it's giving up.

So, assuming that everything goes according to plan up through mid-November, and the various land deals to consolidate the stadium site under District control are presented to the Council at that point, where does is the vote likely to stand? (All these are my predictions, based on past statements and actions; any of them could change. It also assumes that balanced deals are presented to the Council by Administrator Lew and Mayor Gray.)

Phil Mendelson (D) Chair Undecided
Anita Bonds (D) At-Large Yes
David Grosso (I) At-Large Yes
David Catania (I) At-Large No
Vincent Orange (D) At-Large Undecided
Jim Graham (D) Ward 1 Undecided
Jack Evans (D) Ward 2 Yes
Mary Cheh (D) Ward 3 Undecided
Muriel Bowser (D) Ward 4 Undecided
Kenyan McDuffie (D) Ward 5 Undecided
Tommy Wells (D) Ward 6 Yes
Yvette Alexander (D) Ward 7 Undecided
Marion Barry (D) Ward 8 Yes

In the 13-member body, seven votes makes a majority, and there are currently five likely "Yes" votes already in place, meaning only two other members need to be swayed from the "undecided" column into affirmative territory. If Mendelson comes on-board, there's every chance that he'll bring at least one or two otherwise undecided votes with him. It's not a done deal, but even with the reservations of CMs Graham and Catania and Chairman Mendelson, the stadium dream is still very much alive.

UPDATE (9/27, 11:50 am): Ward 5 CM Kenyan McDuffie (who also happens to represent the ward where I live) has written an open letter to Mayor Gray and Administrator Lew, expressing what appears to be his biggest concern: that the industrial uses that would be displaced from the Buzzard Point stadium site - namely a Pepco electrical substaion and an automobile salvage yard - not be relocated into his ward, which already hosts the bulk of the District's industrial areas. Ward 5, which includes the industrial New York Avenue corridor in Northeast out to the Maryland line, became the new home of several of the displaced uses when Nationals Park was constructed, and CM McDuffie wants to ensure that history does not repeat itself. From the letter, it sounds as if Lew has assured McDuffie that such a relocation to Ward 5 is not in the plans.

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