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D.C. United stadium opponents get a new talking point: 60% of poll respondents oppose Mayor Gray's plan

The results of a new Washington Post poll were published this weekend, and - while not the worst possible news - it's hardly positive for supporters of D.C. United and the team's long-running effort to build a new stadium on Buzzard Point in Southwest.

Mayor Gray and an incredibly tall tennis player at the FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park
Mayor Gray and an incredibly tall tennis player at the FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park
Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sport

Those shouts of pain you're hearing aren't from supporters of the plan for D.C. United to build a stadium on Buzzard Point. No, they're the shouts of pain that result from stadium opponents doing backflips and injuring themselves. Why would they do this? Opponents are celebrating a new poll published last night by the Washington Post that says 60% of District residents oppose Mayor Vincent Gray's plan that would leverage city assets to assemble a parcel of land on which the team would build a new soccer stadium and other ancillary buildings. See bottom of this story for an update concerning the phrasing of the poll question used by the Post.

For those of you who don't know the details of the plan, or have forgotten, here's a quick primer: The District would sell the Reeves Center, an aging civic building that produces no appreciable tax dollars while occupying one of the most sought after locations in the city, to development firm Akridge in exchange for cash and Akridge's property in the stadium site plan on Buzzard Point in Southwest. The funds from that sale (or a portion thereof, up to $150 million) would then also be used to purchase parcels on the stadium site from other landowners, namely Pepco (the electrical utility), Mark Ein (security firm magnate and owner of the World Team Tennis Washington Kastles) and an auto salvage yard (which may or may not be tied to Mark Ein's parcel). Once the site is assembled, the city would lease for virtually nothing to D.C. United for approximately 30 years, and the team would finance the construction of the stadium at a cost of at least $150 million. At the end of "useful life" of the stadium, the land would revert to the city. During the lease term, the team stands to enjoy significant tax relief if it does not make a pre-defined "reasonable profit" on its stadium operations, while the city would reap half of any revenue above that negotiated line.

There has been some initial opposition to the plan. Some want the Reeves Center to be sold at auction or via a Request for Proposals rather than in a one-on-one negotiation with a single developer, and some also want the money from such a sale to go to other uses that explicitly do not include anything to do with a stadium. Lately, a push, led by Ward 6 Council Member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells, has sought to ensure that any deal involves the construction of affordable housing, either on the stadium site (which will include more than just the stadium) or the Reeves Center site or both. This conflicts with another push, led by Ward 1 Council Member Jim Graham, to see offices and not housing constructed on the Reeves Center site. Those names are important because Wells represents the area that encompasses the stadium site, while Graham represents the U Street corridor where the Reeves Center sits.

There has also been push-back against the idea of the tax-abatement/revenue-sharing scheme negotiated by the team and City Administrator Allen Y. Lew. Concern has centered on the potential for the team to refuse to open its books or to move money around in such a way that it will never turn a profit on the stadium operations. As a result of this, Lew has stated that negotiations are moving away from that particular aspect.

As for those two parcels, the one on Buzzard Point and the one at 14th & U streets NW - they couldn't be more different. The Reeves Center sits at the center of one of the busiest neighborhoods in town, and the one with the greatest appreciation in real estate prices over the last several years. Both U Street and 14th Street, long, long-time commercial corridors, have finally recovered from the blight that struck after the riots of the 1960s and are residential, shopping and night-life destinations in their own right, and the Reeves Center sits at their intersection in possibly the most primo city-owned lot anywhere in the District. Buzzard Point is industrial land that hasn't been used for residential purposes in living memory. It neighbors the walled-off Fort McNair and houses electrical grid facilities, gravel storage for the city's snow response, a salvage yard, and a single night club (outside of the stadium site) that was displaced when Nationals Park was built a few blocks away.

What the quotes in the Post's story make clear, though, is that very few people actually understand any of this.

I haven't mentioned D.C. United much in this primer, but it bears noting that Major League Soccer is financially stronger than it's ever been, recently signing two U.S. National Team players to multimillion-dollar contracts and is rumored to be taking in more than $70 million a year in TV rights starting in 2015. D.C. United has played in our fair city since the league's founding in 1996, winning 13 major domestic and international championships in that time and pouring countless hours and dollars into serving the local community through their charitable wing United for DC and by other means. Soccer is the most-played sport among American youth and trails only the NFL among spectator preferences for Americans under 45. Anecdotally, a friend of mine who's lived in the DMV for basically his entire life called attending a D.C. United game "the most fun you can have in D.C. without breaking the law" after his first experience in 2012.

What the quotes in the Post's story make clear, though, is that very few people actually understand any of this.

I won't break down every quote line-by-line, but I will say this: The city will not be building a stadium for the team; it will assemble the land and do some infrastructure work to prepare the site, and it will retain ownership of the site. But the club will fully finance the actual construction. No residents will be displaced by this stadium plan, as no residents live in the stadium site or the blocks surrounding it. Concerns about people being pushed out are unfounded. Buzzard Point is an unpolished gem in this city, and it needs investment both public and private to realize its vast potential. Outside of the owners of D.C. United, nobody seems willing to work with the city to make that investment.

But those concerns don't seem to rest at the heart of most of the 6-in-10 District residents who apparently oppose the plan. Mostly, they seem to think that soccer isn't worth their time or the city's. Only one-third of those who strongly approve of the Nationals Park deal, which saw the city foot the entire construction bill, spending more than five times what it stands to invest in the Buzzard Point stadium site, are favorable toward the plan for the soccer stadium, despite the fact that the Navy Yard neighborhood was already building some development momentum before the ballpark, while Buzzard Point is inert. Some of that is surely reasoned on valid concerns like the number of dates a baseball stadium is in use, versus a soccer stadium (which is still used an order of magnitude more frequently than, say, an NFL stadium). But most of it seems to be based on the entirely unfounded notion that soccer is less than. That the sport isn't going to "make it" in this country and that a soccer stadium will not bring anybody to the neighborhood.

Basically, a lot of people appear to not "get" soccer, and so they don't see the point of a soccer stadium. But if the Post article is an indication, even they might be swayed if there is an affordable housing component to the deal or if the tax-abatement/revenue-sharing idea is nixed for a more transparent arrangement that will see the team pay taxes on food, beverage, etc. sold at the stadium rather than sharing whatever excess above a "reasonable profit" they generate. Opponents of the stadium can be convinced.

What this story tells me is that a lot of people instinctively react negatively to stadium construction, especially for a sport they don't follow closely. But it also tells me that many of them are willing to keep an open mind once their concerns are answered and once they hear some of what the city stands to gain. It tells me that the Gray administration, including Mr. Lew, should be more forthcoming with details and should do better about meeting their self-imposed (and -publicized) deadlines, even as they show that they are proactive and responsive to skepticism about aspects of the developing plan.

Basically, this poll provides a talking point for stadium opponents, but the reporting that went along with it I find oddly encouraging. Stadium supporters have the opportunity educate the public on what the deal actually includes and what it will and won't do. Education is the stadium plan's friend, and that's an empowering situation.

Update: Multiple readers have pointed out to me via Twitter and email that the phrasing the Post used in its poll question was anything but neutral. It was question 22 in the poll, and it reads: "Generally speaking, do you favor or oppose using city funds to help finance a new soccer stadium for the District's Major League Soccer team, D.C. United?" This question completely fails to measure, well, anything relevant to the conversation, and it supports my point that the specifics of the deal matter. Somebody who "generally speaking" doesn't like the idea of "using city funds to help finance a new soccer stadium" might feel differently if, as here, it results in a massive up-tick in tax revenue and more workforce housing. Or, also as here, if the public funds are used not to "help finance a new soccer stadium," but rather for site acquisition when the city will retain title to the land even after the stadium is built.

The phrasing of the poll question completely ignores the specifics of Mayor Gray's plan, and so my headline (which I've left unchanged) is not accurate: 60% of D.C. residents do not oppose the plan, which involves using some public money to acquire title to the site where somebody else will finance construction of the stadium. My headline should probably read, "Generally speaking six in ten District residents oppose hypothetical stadium deal that doesn't exist." Helpful data point, that.