- - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jason Levien wasted no time getting down to business.

Upon being introduced as a D.C. United co-owner in July 2012, Levien departed a news conference at the W Hotel downtown, walked two blocks to the John A. Wilson Building and met with Mayor Vincent C. Gray to discuss constructing a soccer-specific stadium in the District.

Twenty-nine months later, on the fifth floor of the Wilson Building, Levien saw the team and city finish what they started.

The D.C. Council on Wednesday unanimously passed legislation to build a 20,000- to 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium at the Buzzard Point property in Southwest — ending United’s decade-plus search for a permanent home.

“There have been a lot of hills and valleys in the last 29 months,” Levien said. “There were moments where certainly we weren’t as optimistic as we’d like to be. But we stick with it. I think we built a real consensus here, and it’s a testament to the work that we did that we got a unanimous vote on this.”

Although the ownership triumvirate of Levien, Erick Thohir and Will Chang has only controlled the team for two and a half years, United’s quest for a stadium has covered the majority of the club’s 19-year existence.

The organization has explored myriad sites over the past decade, including a potential move to Prince George’s County that fell apart in 2009. In the meantime, the franchise has lost $7 million to $10 million a year while paying rent at crumbling RFK Stadium.

“Going to Maryland, going to Virginia would have been, I think, crushing for this club,” coach Ben Olsen said. “You can sugarcoat it all you want — this city needs soccer. It’s as global as you get. It’s our nation’s capital.”

Added D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat: “It’s been a long process dating back over 10 years, starting with different sites with different owners and different times. It’s a testament once again to the persistence of the District of Columbia.”

Passage of the legislation was driven by the 11th-hour removal of a land swap that would have seen the District surrender the Reeves Center. After a consultant’s report last month determined the initial agreement undervalued the property, Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser moved to adjust the deal.
In Levien’s words, “It’s been a tumultuous seven-week period.”

The legislation now calls for the District to issue $106 million in new debt, with the city expected to pay roughly $139 million on land acquisition and preparation. Akridge, the company originally slated to receive the Reeves Center in exchange for a Buzzard Point parcel, could now relinquish the land via eminent domain.

United, meanwhile, will pay an estimated $150 million for the construction of the stadium and receive a 20-year property tax abatement worth $43 million.

“We felt as though the [original] deal could work, but it was certainly much more complicated. This is a simpler deal,” Levien said. “For us, we had to be laser-focused on getting this done. As the last few weeks unfolded, we strapped ourselves in, had our seat belts on and really tried to do as much as we could to move the dialogue forward.”

Although no one voted against the bill, D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, voiced concern about potentially losing funds for other projects because of the new borrowing — an issue Bowser downplayed.

“It would not be true to say that if we do not do the soccer stadium, then we will be able to meet all of those other needs,” Bowser said.

With the bill passed, Levien said the club is now aiming to break ground in late 2015 and have the stadium ready for the 2017 campaign, though a 2018 opening remains possible.

“We’re going to work hand-in-hand with the city,” Levien said. “There is environmental work that needs to be done, there certainly is the land acquisition that needs to be completed. But we’re raring to go.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Olsen, who joined the club as a player in 1998 and this past fall signed a new long-term contract. To the longtime D.C. resident, groundbreaking can’t come soon enough.

“I’ve got my work gloves and boots — I’m ready to go,” Olsen said. “Whatever can speed this up.”

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