D.C. United urges its fans to voice stadium support

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D.C. United has quietly employed its fan base in urging the District to support the team’s plans for a soccer-only stadium at Poplar Point in Southeast in hopes the facility can be built in time for the 2010 Major League Soccer season.

United unveiled plans in 2004 for a privately financed 27,000-seat stadium with development in the surrounding neighborhood, but is waiting for city officials to complete a proposal of their own.

“Even more importantly, we need you to make your feelings known on this subject,” the team wrote in a letter to fans on its Web site last week. “Please call, write, fax, or e-mail Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office to let him know you want the D.C. United plan adopted for Poplar Point, and you want the Stadium opened by spring 2010. If you live in the District, please also contact your Council representative.”

Also, the team insisted it be treated by the city with “the same respect and urgency” as the Washington Nationals, the baseball team that shares RFK Stadium with United. The Nationals, who are midway through their third season in the District after relocating from Montreal, will begin playing in a new publicly financed baseball stadium next year.

United’s pointed criticism of the city was removed from the letter after a reporter’s inquiry this week. A subsequent letter to fans requested that all correspondence on the issue be sent to the team, not city officials.

United officials declined comment on its correspondence with fans.

The team has averaged more than 17,600 fans per game at RFK Stadium since joining Major League Soccer in 1996, placing fifth in the league in attendance. But United owners repeatedly have said the team needs a new, soccer-only facility to secure and maintain profitability. Since 1999, six MLS teams have built stadiums of their own, and at least two more have unveiled plans for new facilities.

Under D.C. United’s plan, the team’s owners, led by developer Victor MacFarlane and investor William H.C. Chang, would pay for the stadium and “fair market value” for up to 110 acres of surrounding land. The owners would direct redevelopment of the land, and the city would be responsible for infrastructure costs. The total cost of the stadium portion of the project is estimated at $40 million.

The city has not yet endorsed the team’s proposal, in part because it would prefer to complete a broad planning initiative for the Poplar Point site near the historic Anacostia neighborhood. Those plans have been held up by delays in acquiring the necessary land from the federal government and relocating existing tenants, including a helicopter landing pad. The city is also working to determine the preferences of community members, many of whom are far more insistent the area be home to new retail options rather than a new soccer stadium.

Initial plans for Poplar Point were drafted by the quasi-public Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, which was disbanded earlier this year. Its operations are now part of Mr. Fenty’s office.

“We’re going to do everything possible to make sure they get a world-class facility and do it as quickly as possible, but we have to make sure that we’re working with the community and take into account the competing needs of the neighborhoods near Anacostia and the Anacostia River,” Mr. Fenty said. “It’s probably too soon to say what specifically will be the end result. But just like everything else, our goal is to make it happen as quickly as possible.”

For D.C. United fans, the lack of an agreement is a test of patience. Early discussions of a new stadium called for the facility to open as soon as 2008, but fans are now skeptical of having it ready by 2010.

“If there’s frustration, it is from the sense that United and its fans have been paying their dues for years now,” said Donovan Chase, a consultant from Arlington who runs “The DCenters,” a D.C. United fan Internet blog. “Every year Mayor [Anthony] Williams, and this year Mayor Fenty, would come out on opening day and talk about helping us get a home of our own, and a season would pass and we’d still be no closer. That’s frustrating year after year, especially when you see structures going up near Potomac Avenue.”

City officials stopped short of promising a stadium would be included in the city’s plans for Poplar Point, but claimed to speak with D.C. United officials at least once every other week.

“We’re impatient, too,” said Neil Albert, the city’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, who is overseeing the city’s plans. “We’d like Poplar Point developed yesterday. All of these projects are guided by the planning process. And we still have a stadium that’s available for soccer fans — RFK Stadium. We understand the need for a new stadium and we’re going to help D.C. United figure that out.

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