WASHINGTON – D.C. United and city officials signed an agreement Thursday that would keep the Major League Soccer franchise in the District of Columbia with a new, $300 million soccer-only stadium.
The city and the team would split the cost of the stadium, which is tentatively scheduled to open in 2016 in an industrial section of southwest Washington known as Buzzard Point.
D.C. United, which has played in aging RFK Stadium since MLS' launch in 1996, had considered relocating to suburban Maryland, Virginia or even Baltimore. But co-owner Jason Levien said Thursday that he's been negotiating to keep the team in the district since he bought the club last year.
The design for the new stadium has not been finalized, but officials said Thursday it would seat 20,000 to 25,000 people. The city will pay $150 million to acquire the land for the stadium and improve infrastructure, raising money for the deal through a complicated series of land swaps, while the team will spend $150 million to build the structure.
"This is a landmark day for D.C. United," Levien said.
Mayor Vincent Gray said RFK "was never suited well for soccer" and has "become a real anachronism."
D.C. United won three of the first four MLS Cups but has fallen on hard times in recent years. The team sits at the bottom of MLS' Eastern Conference at 2-14-4 record, having scored just nine goals in its 20 games.
Levien and United coach Ben Olsen said they believed the new stadium would improve the product on the field. Of the 19 MLS clubs, 15 play in soccer-specific stadiums, and San Jose is scheduled to open a new stadium next year. Levien said those with new facilities have seen increases in attendance and improved play.
"D.C. United from the get-go was at the forefront of MLS," Levien said. "That's where we need to return it."
Said Olsen: "It's going to drive our culture and our fans and our team to new heights. There's going to be a pep in everyone's step in the locker room."
The deal requires the approval of the D.C. Council, which engaged in a protracted fight over using public funds to build Nationals Park, which is less than a mile away. The baseball stadium ended up costing the city nearly $700 million.
Five of the 13 councilmembers attended Thursday's announcement and said they supported the deal.
Councilmember Jack Evans said the city would get good value out of the swap, under which developer John Akridge would receive the rights to redevelop the city-owned Reeves Center office building in the fast-growing 14th Street, Northwest, corridor, in exchange for his land at the stadium site. The city plans to build a new Reeves Center in southeast Washington.
"This is not controversial like the baseball stadium," Evans said. "This is a pretty straightforward deal. It's good for the city."
The other parcels on the site are owned by the utility Pepco, which has a large power plant nearby, and investor Mark Ein, who attended Thursday's announcement along with Pepco representatives. Terms of those swaps have not been finalized.
According to the agreement, the city has until Jan. 1 to obtain the land and get approval from the council and, if necessary, from Congress; if the city doesn't meet the deadline, D.C. United can back out of the deal. And while officials said they want the stadium to open in time for the 2016 season, the agreement only calls for the stadium to be ready by Jan. 1, 2017.
In addition to the power plant, the site is bordered by the Army's Fort McNair and the Anacostia River, making it largely cut off from the rest of the city. The nearest Metro stop is about a 15-minute walk away. City officials said infrastructure improvements, including a possible streetcar stop, would make it more accessible.
The move would leave RFK Stadium, the 52-year-old former home of the Washington Redskins and the Nationals, without a full-time tenant. There are no firm plans to redevelop that site once D.C. United leaves.
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