WASHINGTON – In the end it was a landslide, a 12-0 vote by the District of Columbia city council that emphatically ended nearly two decades of rejection and frustration for soccer supporters in the nation’s capital.
Where there was once genuine concern over D.C. United’s future, there was celebration on Wednesday afternoon. As club executives, players and fans entered the E Street bar located a few blocks east of the Wilson Building, which houses the city government, they passed renderings of the new stadium that soon will be reality. Wednesday’s vote sealed the deal. At long last, United will have a worthy home. It hopes to move there early in 2017.
“I think we had a real groundswell of support. Certainly making the deal less complicated without the land swaps made it a cleaner process,” United managing general partner Jason Levien told SI.com following the vote. “What we saw here was a city council that got behind having soccer. There’s recognition among our elected officials here that soccer is growing in this country, growing in the District, and it’s impacting their voters. That’s something that’s really impressive.”
Levien and his partner, Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir, took over United in the summer of 2012 and promised to deliver a stadium within the borders of a city that had been ambivalent, at best, about the sport. The fan support was there, but the political will was lacking. Meanwhile, United faced significant financial difficulties playing in antiquated RFK Stadium.
Levien and Thohir committed to staying in the city and to funding the construction of the 20,000-25,000-seat facility. They just needed the land. After more than two years of negotiating, the desired parcels at Buzzard Point were secured on Wednesday. There were numerous twists and turns during a complex process that involved multiple landowners, the club, the outgoing and incoming mayor and the city council. But there was unanimity on Wednesday. The District will spend up to $150 million to acquire and prepare the property for construction. Any cost overruns will be United’s responsibility.
“They have the right to either secure [the parcels] or eminent domain them, which would allow us to move forward,” Levien explained. “We’re going to work with [incoming] Mayor [Muriel] Bowser and her team on all of that and we want to get into this stadium soon. It’s been a long wait for our fans and we don’t want them to wait any longer than they have to.”
Environmental remediation already has begun and Levien said he hopes the city will be able to take control of the property by the end of the year. The club also needs to hire an architect. Populous created the drawings now displayed on United’s website but hasn’t yet signed a deal to design the stadium.
“We’d like to [break ground] in late 2015,” Levien said. “It’s not all in our hands. A lot of it’s in the District’s hands so we’re going to have be stay very engaged in the process. We won’t be slowing it up, but we want to make sure we’re very good partners with the District moving forward.”
If all goes well, that means United will remain at RFK for two more years. It still won’t have access to concession or suite revenue and will continue to lose money – between $7 million and $10 million per year according to a study commissioned by the city. In the interim, the team hopes to improve the game-day experience to some extent. From next season, there will be a club level for fans in specific mezzanine seats, for example.
“This club is a lot about history and tradition and RFK is a lot about history and tradition, and not just for soccer,” Levien said. “I hope our fans are going to really enjoy RFK knowing we’re going to a new venue, knowing that these are the last games at the stadium – relishing that. I think there’s going to be nostalgia.”
There will be nostalgia for sure, but few tears will be shed when the doors finally close and there was nothing but excitement and optimism on Wednesday. Speaking to fans and colleagues during the celebration, Levien said he felt like Shawshank Redemption hero Andy Dufresne following his iconic escape through a prison sewer pipe. RFK served its purpose but had become a hindrance. To reclaim its place among the league’s elite – and to stay in business – United needed its own home.
Now the next phase begins.
“We’re going to be plotting and planning what the design of the stadium is going to look like,” Levien said. “We’ve already done a lot of that work, but now we can engage in it full throttle and the more we do with that in mind, I think the better outcome we’re going to have.”