D.C. United still looking for new home -- Baltimore in the mix?

May 13, 2011|By Steven Goff and Jonathan O'Connell | The Washington Post

On Saturday night, when D.C. United is scheduled to play its 313th soccer match in 16 seasons at RFK Stadium, Major League Soccer teams based in and around Toronto, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Southern California will be taking the field at recently built facilities boasting postcard views, perfect sightlines and bountiful luxury suites.

In all, 10 teams in MLS, the nation's top professional soccer league, perform in stadiums erected since 1999, and more new arenas are on the way.

And then there is United. Despite unparalleled success on the field -- a record four MLS Cup titles and the distinction as the only Washington team from the five most popular pro leagues to win a championship in the past 20 years -- United has repeatedly failed in efforts to build a new stadium.

Consequently, the team remains lodged at RFK Stadium, a soulful but obsolete 50-year-old facility rich with memories and, at times, wildlife. United has endured power outages, a crumbling infrastructure, scheduling conflicts with baseball and football games, antiquated bathrooms and concessions, and the absence of luxury suites.

"We have a lot more good memories than bad memories in this building," United President Kevin Payne said, "but its time has come and gone, and it's time to move on."

Three years after United first believed it had a deal for a new stadium in the District, its long-term future remains unclear. The team has made several attempts at finding a new place to settle in the Washington area, but each has ended in frustration, prompting United to consider other options.

Backed by the Maryland Stadium Authority, Baltimore has reached out to United with an early-stage proposal to build a facility near the city's baseball and football venues.

Said Payne: "Our name is D.C. United and we don't take that lightly, but the Baltimore opportunity is a real one and we have to take it seriously. . . . I'm certainly hoping by the end of 2011 we will have a plan in place" for a new stadium somewhere in the Washington-Baltimore area.

Plenty of proposals

In 2008, the team thought it had reached a deal with the District to construct a 27,000-seat lair as part of a mixed-use development at Poplar Point, a swath of parkland across the Anacostia from Nationals Park. The plan collapsed.

A year later, amid much fanfare, United entered a partnership with Prince George's County to raise a venue near FedEx Field. There was a separate proposal to build adjacent to the Greenbelt Metro station. Politics and the economic recession killed those projects.

Payne has discussed at least four sites with D.C. officials, and executives from the development company Akridge have discussed with D.C. Council members the possibility of locating a stadium on a nine-acre plot the company owns at Buzzard Point in Southwest. Another developer, from the J Street Cos., contacted Payne regarding the possibility of developing a stadium in concert with redevelopment of the Capital City Market in Northeast.

D.C.-based Akridge purchased the Buzzard Point parcel, the former home to a Pepco plant, for $75 million in 2005. It has failed to attract a major office user there, however, and the land is likely worth much less today. Tom Wilbur, an Akridge senior vice president, declined to say whether he had discussed the site with Payne.

Any deal is likely to require some assistance from the city. But the council and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who entered office in January, are scrambling to fill a $322 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year and are considering millions of dollars in cuts to social services, police and the school system.

At the same time, the city is nearly flush up against a self-imposed cap on borrowing that prevents it from issuing bonds of the sort it used to finance the Nationals' ballpark. Gray said during an online chat last month that he hoped to find a solution that would allow United to remain in the city, but cautioned, "We have to be mindful of the economy, the many demands on the city and the high cost of a new stadium."

The city could try to lean on the private sector to provide some financing, as it did in creating a gross receipts tax to help finance the Nationals' ballpark, but Barbara Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said businesses were still irked at having some of the ballpark funds repurposed for other city spending and that, although the team was a member of the chamber, there wasn't "any appetite at all for an additional tax" to finance a stadium.

Payne said United isn't looking for the city to fully finance a project but does want to partner with the District on a plan that would include a new stadium elsewhere in the city and also a separate complex on the RFK grounds with multiple fields for team and public use.

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