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Sports

The New York Times Ran a Terrible Piece on Stadium Financing and We Are ON IT

The Grey Lady of journalism tried to cover the new DC sports stadium, and the Grey Lady failed. Hard.
December 17, 2014, 3:08pm

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a trainwreck of an article about the DC United stadium deal. By "deal" I mean taxpayers are going to pay for at least half of a $300 million stadium, from which three billionaires will profit. In an attempt at neutral, reported journalism, the Times hurled itself at the mark and missed. Badly.

This demands a time-honored tradition: an FJM-style breakdown, so named after the technically-no-longer-publishing-but-never-defunct blog Fire Joe Morgan. If you're new to the format, everything in bold is quoted from the article. It's that easy. Let's go.

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WASHINGTON — There are no buzzards on Buzzard Point…

I Googled "Why is it named buzzard point" and immediately found out the name was originally "Turkey Buzzard Point" dating back to 1673 but was shortened to Buzzard Point by lazy people who understandably didn't want to use all three words. There were turkeys and buzzards on it back then, but things have changed, I suppose, what with the Boston Tea Party and all.

Speaking of things changing:

…a blighted, tucked-away corner of the nation's capital that waits silently for prosperity to come its way.

Waits silently for prosperity to come its way? How else does a piece of land wait? What does this even mean?

City leaders say the 20,000-seat stadium will serve as a catalyst for economic development for this area of southwest Washington, the way that Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals baseball team, did for its formerly stagnant neighborhood just a few blocks north and east.

Amazingly, the second half of this sentence directly contradicts the first. It takes 12 minutes to walk from Nationals Park to the very tip of Buzzard Point. If Nationals Park—which cost $700 million of taxpayer money—was such a catalyst for economic development, why do they need to build another nine-figure stadium a few blocks away?

Maybe because it didn't revitalize anything.

This has been the case in other Washington neighborhoods after the city voted to approve major new public venues…

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Oh, cool! I mean, if it's worked before…

…including the Verizon Center, home to the N.B.A.'s Wizards and the N.H.L.'s Capitals since 1997;…

That was privately funded by then-owner Abe Polin, so not really a public investment! OK, what else?

…and the 2.3 million-square-foot Walter E. Washington Convention Center, completed in 2003, in revitalized Mount Vernon Square.

Wait, seriously?

I lived in the DC area for eight years, including a year and a half in Shaw, which lies just north of Mount Vernon. The above sentiment about Mount Vernon being "revitalized" is the kind of buried horseshit you can only spot if you're close enough to smell it.

In every DC resident's mind, the neighborhood of Mount Vernon is a hazy gap somewhere around downtown, Shaw, and the 14th Street corridor. If you're attending a convention, you stay at a hotel in downtown that would have been filled anyways because it's downtown DC. Mount Vernon itself is a lot of affordable housing, apartment complexes, and traffic lights. The fact that Mount Vernon is still relatively underdeveloped is remarkable considering every adjacent neighborhood has been. It's almost as if developers specifically avoid Mount Vernon. Meanwhile, DC has become the most prosperous American city since the Great Recession.

The other way to interpret the phrase "revitalized Mount Vernon Square" is as a reference to the literal square, which has some grass and stuff. It's alright, I guess.

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Also, in a possibly relevant detail, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center lost $20.7 million in 2011.

In addition to the stadium, D.C. United has plans for development on three adjoining acres, according to Jason M. Levien, the team's managing general partner.

And here begins a series of obviously biased quotes, stated as if they're objective fact without the slightest bit of inquisition or qualification:

"We don't want to have just a stadium in isolation," he said. "We've had discussions with several folks…

Several folks. Sounds reliable.

…in the hotel and retail space and gotten some real interest.

"Oh, you're getting the government to give you money to build something where you keep all the profits? Can we get in on that?"

We think it can spur some economic development. We want to be part of that."

"We want to make more money. We like money. As long as it's yours and then is given to us and becomes ours."

In these few blocks wedged between Fort McNair and South Capitol Street, a main artery, are a closed electric power plant, sand and gravel plants, a salvage yard, and acres of parking lots and unused space. Though the location seems remote, it is about a mile from the National Mall and the Capitol.

You know what's even closer? A $700 million publicly funded stadium that didn't revitalize its goddamn neighborhood!

Photo by Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Now, I'm about to post a few paragraphs that sound like real estate jargon but are actually quite important. Bear with me:

The [previous] deal fell apart after the council's consultant said the Reeves building had been undervalued. District officials have indicated that they may acquire the property by eminent domain, in which case a court could establish its fair market value.

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"We just want to be treated fairly," said Matthew J. Klein, president of Akridge. "We are open to constructive dialogue with the city to make sure this all happens."

Akridge is also eager to develop an additional seven acres it owns at Buzzard Point. "We bought this property in 2006 with the idea this would be in the path of development," he said.

Akridge bought the property it wants to develop eight years ago. Now they're being forced to sell it. Seems weird, no? Like, why would a successful real estate company buy a piece of blighted land just to keep it for eight years and then have it seized by the government for "fair market value," which is never actually fair market value because the government decides what it wants to pay? Interesting question, right? Maybe you'd like to know the answer?

Too bad. This article doesn't give it. (But, here it is anyways. It's pretty complicated, but basically emphasizes that the government doesn't care about yielding dividends on the $150 million investment. Thanks again, Neil DeMause of Field of Schemes.)

While new baseball stadiums have helped reinvigorate inner cities across the country…

This, more than anything else in the entire article, suggests Mr. Eugene L. Meyer has never read a lick of research on the subject. Here's a quote from a meta-study (a study of studies) done by two economists, Brad Humphreys and and Dennis Coates:

"We find near unanimity in the conclusion that stadiums, arenas and sports franchises have no consistent, positive impact on jobs, income, and tax revenues."

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Economists don't agree on anything—I have literally heard two economists argue about the best way to wait in line while waiting in line—but they agree on this. Meyer's assertion, that baseball stadiums have helped spur development in inner cities, is a myth. A total and complete myth, one that the academic community has known for over two decades. Given the amount of information now available at our disposal with a simple Google search, asserting otherwise is a lie and, for a journalist, ethically questionable.

Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

…many soccer stadiums are not in a city's center but on its periphery, or even in suburbs.

This would have been a decent time to mention the fiscal fiascos of Toyota Park in suburban Chicago, where the stadium's annual shortfalls are as large as its police budget. Or, perhaps, PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities in America that nevertheless found $117 million for an MLS stadium. But no, that would hardly be relevant to this article about public funding for a soccer stadium, would it?

Instead, the next two sentences are about how much the DC United owner loves the new stadium:

Mr. Levien said D.C. United, which has been playing in the 53-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Stadium since 1996, "scoured the District" for a new location. "There is really no other area with this development opportunity so close to downtown, close to the Capitol," Mr. Levien said. "We're very bullish on it."

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In case you forgot: this will be really good for the team's owners. They're really happy with this.

General rule: when billionaires are happy, something bad is going to happen.

Mr. Levien said the team was not yet profitable, in part because of the lack of lucrative corporate suites at R.F.K. Stadium.

Gee, I wonder why they might want a new stadium? I bet it's totally about economic development and not about GETTING THE TAXPAYERS TO BUILD VERY EXPENSIVE SUITES THAT THEY CAN RE-SELL FOR MAJOR PROFIT.

Uh-oh, I said the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet.

The new stadium will be the most expensive to be built in the 19-team league, but city officials believe it will pay dividends. Other cities are making similar bets.

My mom, like many moms, would sometimes dissuade me from the lure of peer pressure by asking, "If your friend was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?" One time, I thought I had finally outsmarted her by replying "Yes, I would." She then told me to get in the car because we were going to Brooklyn. I started crying. I was eight years old.

Orlando, whose expansion team will join the league next year, is building a new soccer stadium and anticipates $1.2 billion in long-term economic benefits. In Las Vegas, which is competing for a franchise, a new stadium is being promoted as a way to gain 1,000 jobs and $3 billion in economic benefits.

These estimates come from Convention, Sports & Leisure, a company that is paid to come up with flowery economic impact reports that makes a stadium in the armpit of Hell sound like a net economic benefit.

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If these numbers sound off to you, that's because they are. Funny enough, Meyers doesn't deem it necessary to mention that CSL did an economic impact report for DC's very own soccer stadium, but had to correct it because, well, two-thirds of the purported economic benefits were the product of an egregious accounting error that was spotted as soon as the report was released. Anyone with even the slightest background in how money works could spot it, which apparently rules out all the analysts at CSL.

Still: benefits!

Can a soccer stadium transform a neighborhood?

Actual footage of Meyer writing this sentence:

In Washington, where a seemingly inexorable march of redevelopment and gentrification is sweeping across the city, the D.C. United stadium is seen as the next logical step.

So giving away $150 million to billionaires is now "logical"?

"Soccer is so much the sport of millennials and attractive to those diverse audiences not necessarily attracted to baseball and hockey," said Ellen McCarthy, the District of Columbia's acting planning director.

Good thing we gave all that money to the baseball stadium!

The soccer stadium, she said, "is the spice, the ingredient that can make further investments occur in that area and enliven it."

You know what millennials love? Spices. And cooking. And liveliness. Yeah, they'll love this stadium for all its lively, spicy deliciousness. What happens at a stadium, again?

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With only 20 home games on the team's schedule, Mr. Levien said the owners were looking forward to holding other events at the stadium, including concerts, college football, lacrosse games and rugby matches.

First of all, 20 home games is just next year because DCU made the CONCACAF Champions League, which definitely won't happen every year. The MLS schedule only has 17 home games, with a possibility of up to three home playoff games. United previously provided the District with an estimate of 46 events per year. DeMause, again, debunks this ridiculous estimate. Also in that report: an estimated attendance of 19,200 per game, despite the stadium having an 18,000 person capacity.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray predicted last week that the D.C. United stadium would create "by our best estimates" $1.6 billion in "economic opportunity," support more than 1,000 full-time jobs and generate a total of about $65 million in "other benefits" related to the project….The 406-page, $200,000 consultants report presented to the council last month buttressed such optimism, but also cautioned that "Buzzard Point is highly unlikely to repeat the rapid large-scale development boom" that followed construction of the other sites.

The discredited CSL report with the mental typos was less optimistic than the government's report. Is that bad?

Related: the D.C. Council paid $200,000 for a report with a basic accounting error.

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That would be just fine with Rhonda Hamilton, 37, a resident of nearby Syphax Gardens, a public-housing project of garden apartments built in 1960. Ms. Hamilton, who grew up there, fears that gentrification could result in the loss of affordable housing.

We're now three-quarters of the way through this article. We've heard from the team's owner, a city planner, and a private real estate developer. We have just now reached the first quote from someone who doesn't stand to personally benefit, either economically or professionally, from the stadium's construction.

The neighborhood has a draft agreement with D.C. United for the team to provide community benefits, including summer youth soccer scholarships, summer youth jobs, free meeting room space and community use days at the new stadium for nonprofit groups.

DC United will take your $150 million and give back a few soccer scholarships (to the prestigious Soccer University, I presume), "summer youth jobs", which sound extremely lucrative and not at all seasonal, and will let you use the meeting room when they're out of town. The key's under the doormat.

You know what could buy an awful lot of scholarships to real schools, jobs, and community space? $150 million.

Or housing! If the longtime residents are worried about housing, buy some housing!

But the District rejected community requests to guarantee legislatively that the housing would be preserved.

Well shit.

Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, who heads the council's economic development committee, said preserving affordable housing was also "a very big concern of mine."

But, like, not as big as a soccer stadium, right? Cause you're only giving money to one of them.

"We can't afford to lose one unit of public housing," Ms. Bowser said.

Or build one, either, since you're using the money for a soccer stadium.

"D.C.'s a sports town. We love our teams. The people are very excited about soccer," Ms. Bowser said. "I went to a game recently over the summer. I'm learning the game. I'm sure I will attend my fair share of games."

This is how the article ends. A longtime resident uses her precious little column space to express deep, relevant concerns about the loss of affordable housing in a city that is already desperately short of it and then the mayor gives disingenuous and unverified quotes about how much she cares about housing before implicitly acknowledging she doesn't care about housing. All the while pandering to the higher tax brackets who will buy season tickets to the shiny, new stadium and hopefully remember that the mayor likes soccer, too, just like those cool, hip, taxpaying millennials, and unlike those poor long-time locals who have somehow lived in this supposedly uninhabited wasteland for decades.

Is this how it's supposed to work? Rich land-owners work in concert with locally appointed officials to build the things they want without regard for anyone else's needs or desires? I think about that sometimes, and I realize that those ideas date back to the time when there were still buzzards on Turkey Buzzard Point, and only white male land-owners had a say in how anything worked.