Seth Vertelney: Finally, D.C. United closes in on a stadium of its own

D.C. United is close to finally moving out of RFK Stadium and into a soccer-specific home of its own in the District of Columbia.
WASHINGTON -- Amid the bluster, celebratory chatter, handshakes and backslaps of D.C. United's stadium unveiling press conference Thursday, there was one person who knew better than anybody that the finish line hadn't quite been crossed yet.

“It's a big moment. I'm trying to keep it in perspective a little bit because we've gone down this road several times," said United head coach Ben Olsen, who has been affiliated with the team since 1998.

Two years before Olsen joined United, the team began MLS play in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, a facility that was dated even by 1996 standards. Nearly 18 years later and after several false starts, United finally appears to be on its way out.

This wasn't the first press conference of its kind in D.C. United history, however. Back in 2009, the team held an event to unveil plans for a new stadium in Prince George's County, Maryland. Two years before that, there was a press conference about a stadium site in Poplar Point, just south of the current proposed site.

Both of those plans, like several other proposed locations, fell through.

United and the District of Columbia have cleared one major hurdle by agreeing to split the $300 million cost of the stadium down the middle. The city will fork over $150 million for land purchases and infrastructure, and the team will pay (an estimated) $150 million for the stadium itself.

That last aspect is a crucial part of the deal, as District residents still have a sour taste in their mouth from the massively over-budget construction of Nationals Park, for which taxpayers had to foot the bloated bill.

“Remember, we're not constructing the stadium, the stadium is being constructed by D.C. United,” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said at the press conference. “If the stadium costs more at the end of the day, that will be on D.C. United's nickel, not the taxpayers of the city.”

With that element presumably in the rear-view, there now stands the tricky prospect of swapping stadium land for government-controlled land, and the final hurdle presented by the always-fickle D.C. City Council.

The land where the proposed stadium will go is currently owned by three different parties: local development firm Akridge, electric company Pepco and private investor Mark Ein.

Whereas some cities could take out a loan to buy the land, things are a bit trickier in the District. Because of a 2009 law capping city borrowing, D.C. must barter for the stadium land, exchanging property it currently owns for the coveted Buzzard Point land.

Even an otherwise cheery Mayor Gray acknowledged the difficulty of the arrangement, calling it “one of the more complicated deals we’ve been involved in,” and adding that it will require “a very creative plan.” City administrator Allen Lew said the project is “a huge jigsaw puzzle.”

That plan involves offering Akridge the government-owned Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at the busy 14th and U streets NW corridor in exchange for its parcel of stadium land. Talks with Pepco and Ein haven't progressed nearly as far, but with both Ein and a Pepco representative in attendance at the press conference, the city is optimistic that deals will ultimately be completed.

“We're going to work through all these things,” Lew said, before later adding that he hoped the land swap deals would be wrapped up within six months.

If/when the land swap deals are struck, at least seven of the 13 City Council members must vote their approval before any shovels can enter the ground. Though hardly a formality, the presence of five Council members at the press conference is undoubtedly a positive sign for the stadium's chances.

One of those Council members is former Mayor Marion Barry, who proceeded over the failed attempt to bring a stadium to Poplar Point, which is located in the Ward he represents. When asked if he thought his fellow City Council members will support this iteration of a new stadium though, Barry responded: “Absolutely.”

The proverbial pieces are falling into place for United to finally have a soccer-specific stadium to call home. Though he's still remaining cautious, one of the team's longest serving members is starting to see the finish line.

“There's nowhere else this team needs to be than in the District,” Olsen said. “I can't wait to see it one day happen here.”

Follow SETH VERTELNEY on or shoot him an email