Wednesday, January 23, 2008

10/17/07: The Washington Post - Kicked to the Curb: Soccer Stadium Blues

Raw Fisher
Victor MacFarlane makes no secret of his dismay. The wealthy developer who bought the D.C. United soccer team and devoted a couple of years of his life to building a soccer stadium and residential-retail development in Southeast Washington feels double-crossed.

After all, it was the D.C. government that came to him a few years ago and asked him to plan and build a soccer stadium at Poplar Point, the picturesque spot where the Anacostia River and Washington Channel come together. But that was a different administration, a mayor--Tony Williams--who loved the big deal, the dramatic gesture, who fancied himself a master builder. Now, there's a new guy in charge, and Adrian Fenty came to office as the dynamo who focuses on the little stuff, the neighborhood concerns. Fenty was the guy who opposed the city's new baseball stadium every step of the way.

So while it came as a big surprise to MacFarlane when Fenty pulled the plug on the cozy sole-source deal that the developer had been talking about with the Williams staff, it was actually entirely in keeping with Fenty's approach to governing. Under tremendous pressure from neighborhood groups to pull back on the practice of making sweetheart deals with developers, Fenty has opened the Poplar Point development process to any and all, and the District is now fielding proposals from various parties.

MacFarlane says D.C. United won't be one of those parties. The city's new concept of the size and scope of the development precludes the deal that MacFarlane spent years working out, and the developer says he's out. Except that maybe he's in: Moments after telling a meeting of Washington Post editors and reporters that he won't participate in the mayor's competition to get the development rights for Poplar Point, MacFarlane says that he may well team up with another developer to put in a proposal.

That's not the only contradiction in MacFarlane's current position. He is appalled and frustrated by the Fenty administration's actions, yet he still says he wants to and can work with the mayor's people to get a stadium done. MacFarlane has hired a consultant to identify suburban sites for a soccer field--and Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot wants the state to make a good offer--yet MacFarlane says he is resolutely an urban developer and he above all wants to keep the team in the District.

"Our name is D.C. United," says team president Kevin Payne.

On one hand, the MacFarlane team says that they've looked at every possible stadium site in the District and have concluded, as Major League Baseball did, that they are all severely flawed. On the other hand, MacFarlane says he's open to building a soccer stadium on the grounds of the RFK Stadium complex--even if Redskins owner Dan Snyder decides to build a new football stadium at the same place. "There's enough land there that both stadiums could be built," MacFarlane says, and he's obviously looked into that possibility.

(Amazingly, the D.C. Armory site adjacent to RFK is considered off-limits for new construction because the Armory, a vile pit of a building that begs to be blown to smithereens, is landmarked as a historic structure--yet another example of the city's willy-nilly preservation mania.)

The developer's frustration is understandable. He came into the city, bought a team that doesn't make money, and volunteered to pay for a stadium--putting him in the category of sports owner as good citizen, like Abe Pollin, rather than sports owner as hard-charging dealmaker, like Major League Baseball. For his troubles, MacFarlane gets a boatload of uncertainty and a hobbled relationship with the mayor.

But from Fenty's perspective, there are two issues at work that trump the desire for a permanent home for the soccer team: 1) The mayor wants to show his supporters among the various neighborhood groups around town that he is operating above board and is opening development opportunities to all, not just to a hand-picked, sole-sourced rich builder. 2) Fenty is under significant pressure from environmentalists--another important piece of the coalition that elected him--to reserve far more of the Poplar Point site as parkland than MacFarlane or Williams had originally planned for.

"They want less density, less dollars, less profit and more parkland," MacFarlane says of the city's new course on Poplar Point. After he spent years planning for an 80-acre development on a 150-acre site, the builder is now being told to come up with plans for a 40-acre development on a 110-acre site.

So MacFarlane is playing the age-old sports owners' game of threatening to move. Except that he's too honest and straightforward to play the game right. So he's talking to suburban governments that would be thrilled to have United call them home, even as MacFarlane still sings a love song to the big city. And he has forsworn the notion of moving his team to another metro area entirely.

MacFarlane has become a darling of many Ward 8 activists, including council member Marion Barry. But while the developer has done admirable work persuading the community of the value his project could bring to Anacostia, he has neglected to work the council and Fenty administration with the same verve and conciliatory manner. Some D.C. council members still don't see much value in a soccer stadium--even one built largely with private money. One big stadium project is more than enough for them (though we all know how fast they'd come running if Snyder were to announce he's ready to come home to Washington.)

"We're going to get a stadium," Payne says, and of that there can be little doubt. The District would be smart to embrace MacFarlane and assure him that a site for a stadium will be part of the Poplar Point plan--though there's no particular reason the stadium has to be on what is now federal parkland. There's plenty of privately-owned--and city-owned--empty land immediately adjacent to the park.

Despite MacFarlane's bluster, he's a dealer, and when the time comes for him to work together with whatever other developers win the right to take on the Poplar Point project, MacFarlane will be ready to do business. What you're hearing from him now is an effort to hold onto as much of the overall project as he can keep for himself. But just as he is working nicely with other developers on his projects near the baseball stadium, he'll do the same for his soccer field. The rest is just tactics.
By Marc Fisher | October 17, 2007; 7:40 AM ET

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