After long wait, D.C. United gets final go-ahead to build new stadium

D.C. United on Thursday received final approval to build a soccer stadium in the District, ending more than a dozen years of frustration to replace RFK Stadium as its home and creating an economic pathway to help the team catch up to the rest of a fast-growing pro league.

Two months after giving conditional support, the five-member D.C. Zoning Commission was unanimous in approving the 14-acre project at Buzzard Point in Southwest, adjacent to Fort McNair and three blocks from Nationals Park at the confluence of the Anacostia River and Washington Channel.

The city had previously agreed to cover $150 million in land acquisition and infrastructure costs. United will spend up to $200 million on the 20,000-capacity venue, which club officials aim to open in the summer of 2018.

United has played at run-down RFK since MLS started in 1996. Since ’99, 14 teams have christened new stadiums and two others are slated to move into new digs next year. Others play in renovated venues or share space in modern NFL stadiums.

Jason Levien, United’s managing general partner since 2012, called it “a project that has been 21 years in the making. We’ve been on a mission to deliver to our fans and this community a new, permanent home. We appreciate all of the hard work that has gone into preparing for this moment and can’t wait to finally put shovels in the ground.”

A ceremonial groundbreaking is slated for Feb. 27, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and MLS Commissioner Don Garber scheduled to attend. United is on a tight construction timetable to play the inaugural match by June ’18, but Levien has said the project could be completed in 14-16 months. Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium, which opened in 2012, was finished in 15 months.

Despite the vote tally, the commission had reservations about United’s application.

“The responses on environmental issues and traffic issues have been adequate to make it passable, but I’m still extremely disappointed,” member Peter May said. “It just kind of barely makes it. It’s been a disappointment all the way through, so I hope it turns out better than I fear it will.”

The zoning decision came one day after United announced a long-term deal worth multimillions annually for naming rights to the stadium, Audi Field.

RFK — built in 1961 and lacking modern amenities to generate adequate revenue — was supposed to fill a short-term need until the team built its own venue.

There were tentative plans for a project at Poplar Point (across the Anacostia from Nationals Park) and then in Prince George’s County. There were flirtations with Baltimore and Northern Virginia. Financial losses mounted, and fears grew of relocating outside the capital region or shuttering the team altogether. Investors came and went.

As MLS blossomed, doubling team membership, sprouting new stadiums and growing attendance, United was left behind — a dial-up relic in a high-speed era. While several teams began spending large sums on famous players from abroad, such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Kaka, United’s technical staff was forced to shop for value.

D.C. has had one of the lowest payrolls in the league for years. MLS allows each team to sign up to three stars at salaries beyond normal restrictions, known as “designated players.” United will have none this year.

With revenue flowing from a new stadium — 31 private suites, higher demand for tickets in a smaller structure, the Audi contract for naming rights — United plans to begin charting a more ambitious course. The organization’s next board meeting is in July.

Levien has suggested in recent years that, once the club’s financial outlook brightened, United would increase spending on players.

Coach Ben Olsen, whose affiliation with United dates from 1998, said he did not want to speculate on what stadium approval will mean for the roster in 2018 and beyond.

“The city stuff is a huge piece to it and a necessary step, but I want to see some digging and some building,” he said, smiling. “That’s what is going to get me really excited.”

A new venue, however, does not guarantee success on and off the field.

The New York Red Bulls did not win an MLS Cup title between 1996 and 2009 while stuck at Giants Stadium and, since christening Red Bull Arena in 2010, haven’t advanced to the final. FC Dallas has struggled to draw fans since opening its complex in 2005, though the exurban location in Frisco, Tex., is at the root of the problem.

A venue with fresh revenue streams, however, would help United compete for more expensive players in the world market. As it stands, D.C. is a thrifty shopper. A sparkling new stadium filled to, or close to, capacity every match will also play a role in attracting players; cavernous RFK had become a tough selling point.

Designed with soccer in mind, Audi Field promises to enhance the fan experience and United’s home-field advantage. The seating sections are closer to the field and offer improved sightlines.

Audi Field will also secure United’s place on the local sports scene. Despite the team’s two-decade presence, failure to finalize a stadium deal had left the perception of temporary residence. MLS moved past questions about its future about eight years ago; a new stadium two miles south of the Capitol will allow United to do the same.

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