Sunday, April 5, 2009

Wishful Thinking

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A note: This piece represents the accumulated frustration of watching two years of impotent city governments in Washington, D.C. and Prince George's County fail to reach a deal with D.C. United for a new stadium.

There hasn't been much good news for us soccer fans in the nation's capital the last few months. From the demise of the Poplar Point stadium project to a mediocre 2008 season, D.C. United supporters have suffered waves of injuries and watched high priced foreign talent capsize in MLS. We've been told we can't stay at RFK Stadium, but can't seem to find anyone willing to let us build a new stadium. At least Ben Olsen is playing again these days.

When Victor McFarlane and Will Change bought the team in 2007, they rode into town with deep pockets, ready to throw bags of cash down on a new stadium, the aforementioned Poplar Point Stadium on an undeveloped piece of land in Anacostia, D.C.'s poorest ward. The plan had the support of then mayor Anthony Williams and of then mayoral candidate Adrien Fenty. The team would foot the bill for the stadium and McFarlane would develop the rest of the area surrounding the stadium, promising mixed-use development in an area desperate for investment after years of neglect from a city that has kept its eyes firmly fixed on the other side of the river. In return, McFarlane asked for $200 million in tax incentives and infrastructure improvement from a city still swallowing the $611 million baseball stadium that had been shoved down their throats.

Winning election in 2007, Fenty saw Poplar Point as the crown jewel of his mayoral legacy. Just as Williams has staked his legacy on the success of the Nationals in D.C., so Fenty saw an opportunity for Poplar Point and wanted more. He took McFarlane's plan off the table, opened the project up for competitive bidding, and, subsequently, awarded development rights to Clark Realty.

With no hopes of controlling surrounding development rights, McFarlane said goodbye to the city that had welcomed him with open arms a year before knowing that without developing the rest of Poplar Point, spending his money on a stadium would not be profitable. Just as Abe Pollin built not only the Verizon Center, but also much of the surrounding commercial and residential real estate in the Gallery Place/Chinatown area, McFarlane envisioned a similar renaissance for Poplar Point, but with his plan taken off the table, he ran to Prince George's County, hoping to get the taxpayers to foot the bill for a United stadium. But talks over that project have stalled and are all but dead as politicians are reticent to commit to public spending during a financial crisis.

I've never supported publicly financed stadiums. I think the United plan was a raw deal for P.G. County taxpayers who would never have seen the kind of economic benefit county and United officials had been touting. A suburban soccer stadium will never be a "landmark destination" in P.G. County. No United fan wants to spend his or her evening out at the Morgan Boulevard Metro stop.

Look at the recent success of the Washington Capitols (and soccer teams in Seattle and Toronto). The Caps, in addition to bringing in Alex Ovechkin and winning a lot of games, have targeted a young demographic eager to spend their disposable income on hockey tickets and beers in Penn Quarter. It's cool to be a fan of the Caps in D.C., just as it's cool to support Seattle Sounders FC or Toronto FC. Now if someone proposed a United stadium at the corner of 14th and U with public money I might change my mind, but I don't think the $611 D.C. paid for baseball will pay-off for the taxpayers nor do I think a Prince George's County stadium would have driven a suburban renaissance.

As for Poplar Point, the project could be nearing completion under the guide of United and McFarlane. From my perspective, the city's $200 million investment would have been incidental given the fact that any development on the Poplar Point property would have needed new roads and expanded Metro access if they had built a stadium facility or not. For McFarlane, who has committed over a billion dollars in development in this city, it seems like a small price to pay for development in an area that craves it and during a period when we need to be creating jobs in the District.

But this dream is far from reality. Clark Realty dropped the Poplar Point project as the economy turned sour and the area remains as overgrown and underdeveloped as it was almost three years ago when this whole process started. And today D.C. United's project in P.G. County was finally given its coup de grace.

Worst of all, none of this blame has landed on Adrien Fenty, the man unwilling to be the champion of Ward 8, Poplar Point, and D.C. United. The residents of Ward 8, hungry for change, continue to not see the development their ward needs. As the unemployment rate charges to 10% and shows no signs of slowing, a few thousand construction jobs could go a long way to keeping families solvent and in their homes.

I'm sick of the waiting for something to get done and so is the team. As a soccer fan, I love seeing cities like Seattle and Columbus get behind their clubs, only to find myself feeling abject anger towards my home town. D.C's brought this city four championships in 13 years, spent countless hours working in the community, and brought together disparate sections of this city's diverse population, united in their love of their club. It's time we thank them and recommit ourselves to Poplar Point, Ward 8, and D.C. United's initial stadium plan.


Cavan said...

It's a nice thought/wish but it's not happening with Mayor Fenty in office.

Based on current poll numbers, that would appear to be for another term and a half.

ADH said...

With the way this stadium saga has gone, for me, I find it to be as plausible a solution as any other.

I don't think Fenty is opposed so much to the stadium as to excessive public money for it, especially as you mentioned before his reelection is coming up in a few years. He was silently ready to give $150 million for Poplar Point, but only if the others on the council were ready to go along with it. Berry and a few others supported it, but public money during a financial crisis is a tough sell.

Also, I think some of the blame for this needs to fall on McFarlane, too. He wanted all of PP or nothing at all and then ditched DC for PG County when they offered to pay for the whole thing. If you can sell your San Francisco loft for $30 million, you can throw down a little extra cash for a stadium.