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United, D.C. hope this new stadium plan will be the last

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2013

It was with a grandiose tenor that D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Thursday declared "D.C. United will be staying, right here, in our nation's capital."

Standing behind a lectern at the Buzzard Point property in Southwest that the MLS club hopes to call home, Gray praised the work of "dynamic" United co-owner Jason Levien. Called the agreement a "very creative plan." Signed the term sheet and posed for the cameras.

Coach Ben Olsen, a Shaw resident who joined the club as a player in 1998, then put the day in perspective. This isn't the first celebratory news conference he's attended during United's lengthy search for a soccer-specific stadium. Yet he's optimistic it's the last.

"It's a huge first step," Olsen said. "We've had these before, but this one's different because of the resources the ownership group has, and it's in D.C. We haven't gone down this road with the District."

The term sheet Gray signed outlines a $300 million proposal to build a 20,000- to 25,000-seat stadium for United at Buzzard Point, west of Nationals Park at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.

But the project still requires D.C. Council approval. The cost of the arrangement would be split almost evenly between the District and United, with the city covering the land acquisition and infrastructure and the club paying for construction.

It's a deal Gray noted is different than the entirely city-financed Nationals Park project, which went well over budget.

"If the stadium costs more at the end of the day," Gray said, "that will be on D.C. United's nickel — not the taxpayers of the city."

The location is set to be acquired from Akridge Development Co. as part of a land swap involving the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center. Investor Mark Ein, owner of the Washington Kastles tennis team, and Pepco also possess Buzzard Point plots and are in discussions with the city to accommodate the stadium. If the land acquisition and council approval aren't finalized by Jan. 1, United can back out.

The Reeves Center, which opened in the mid-1980s while current D.C. Council member Marion Barry was mayor, would be relocated from the U Street corridor to Barry's Ward 8 — a move the Democrat "absolutely" expects the council to back.

"It's not about soccer," Barry said. "It's about development, it's about re-energizing Ward 8."

Barry was joined at Thursday's news conference by fellow council members Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat; Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat; Anita Bonds, at-large Democrat; and David Grosso, at-large independent. Evans and Wells also are mayoral candidates.

Wells in a statement supported the venture into his ward, saying, "The new stadium further solidifies our Anacostia Waterfront as a center for sports and culture — bridging our communities and bringing our city closer together."

United are aiming to begin play in the stadium in 2016, with Levien calling 2017 an "outer end" possibility. Pending council approval and site preparation, construction is projected to take 18 months.

"We're all in right now," Levien said. "We're fully committed to this project."

United, the most decorated club in MLS, have played since their 1996 inception at antiquated RFK Stadium, a cavernous 45,000-plus-seat venue lacking in modern amenities and too large for a team that has never averaged more than 22,000 fans per game.

United over the past decade have explored a number of potential stadium sites, including the Poplar Point property in Southeast and a Prince George's County location that prompted a premature news conference hailing the move in 2009.

The stagnant search changed last July, however, when investor Will Chang was joined in the ownership group by Indonesian media magnate Erick Thohir and Levien, a former attorney and Clinton administration staffer who has since become CEO of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.

Within 24 hours of assuming control, Levien had a meeting scheduled with Gray and Allen Y. Lew, the city administrator.

"Over the course of the discussion," Levien recalled, "you could tell the passion and energy and the support we were going to get from the mayor in this endeavor."

Added Lew: "What took place was a game-changer for all of us. The discussions and the dialogue had totally changed, and the approach was different."

In addition to United matches, the stadium could host events such as concerts and college football games, Gray said. Located a 15-minute walk from the Navy Yard-Ballpark Metro station, the stadium also would be accessible from the renovated South Capitol Street Bridge and the planned streetcar system while cultivating opportunities for retail development.

"We're creating a better future for this ward — it's a great economic opportunity," Levien said. "We're creating a home for our fans and our organization that I'm proud of as the growth of soccer just explodes around this country."

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