Six reasons DC taxpayer money shouldn’t buy some rich guy a stadium

I’m sure there are more.

DC’s lameduck Council, with the full support of the lameduck Mayor Gray and Mayor-elect Bowser, have agreed to borrow up to $140 million ($200 million counting tax giveaways) so the foreign billionaire who owns the DC United soccer team can build a private stadium for his private franchise land we all buy for him. Happy New Year, Washingtonians!

If you suspect we are being had, fear not, the DC government has an incomprehensible 400-page report to hand you to prove how smart they are. Hopefully they are smarter than the consultants who wrote it, who managed to botch the only important question in it – how much economic activity will the stadium generate? They were off by only about 200%.

So yes, like nearly all publicly-funded stadiums, this is a bad deal. And you don’t even have to be indifferent to Major League Soccer to see this. It’s in the data. Stanford Economist Rodger Noll has basically debunked all of these deals for some pretty straightforward reasons, which he supports with solid research:

  1. The economic benefits of stadiums are usually inflated, or just made up. Economic outcomes are notoriously hard to predict, and in this case, the initial estimate that the economic consultants gave was $70 million too high. The revised number is about $30 million, with an estimate that the stadium may pay itself off after 30 years. Bet you $30 million DC United wants another stadium before that happens. Either way, that’s a loss to the city in economic terms.
  2. Most stadiums are empty most of the time. When they’re empty, they are giant empty swathes of land that are generating no economic benefit to anyone. Football stadiums are the worst – they usually host 10 games plus about as many concerts and other events in any given year. A new DC United would host 20 matches or so, plus other events. But the fact that the taxpayer-funded, privately-owned Washington Nationals stadium is just down the street would limit the potential for these kinds of events, wouldn’t you say? And the DC Council is already talking about building the oblong football team a new stadium too. How many outdoor venues with lousy acoustics can Bon Jovi fill in one city every year?
  3. Costs are almost always more than estimates. The baseball stadium was over budget by about $140 million. Even the cost estimated for buying this land for DC United is under question – think the owners (developers Akridge) are going to let go of the one piece of land under consideration?
  4. Those who benefit also donate to the campaign funds of those who make decisions. No shit.
  5. Most stadiums are designed to make money for their operators, and certainly not for the cities that surround them. We have a great example of this in FedEx Field, home of the oblong football team, which is conveniently located somewhere off a highway in some cheap marshy woodlands in Prince George’s County, in a biblical sea of parking lots. Not a lot of additional spending going on here – you pay Dan Snyder to park, you pay him to get it, you pay him to eat and drink, then you wait in your car to go home. DC United’s stadium should be better served by surrounding restaurants, but not because the stadium developer actually wants them there. Every beer sold outside is one that could be sold inside. Ever wonder why no stadium allows you to leave and come back in anymore? It’s not because of security.
  6. Just because people spend money on sports, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have spent it. Part of the whole farce is this assumption that people come in to the city for a match, spend money at bars or restaurants as well as the stadium, then return to their homes in other jurisdictions. Well, what’s to say they wouldn’t have gone downtown that day anyway? DC is a huge draw for tourists, diners, theatergoers, and the like. Do they need a somewhat better soccer stadium to help them decide how to spend their money?

Why do teams want new stadiums? Two reasons. Elite seating, and designs that facilitate more spending from everyone else. Elite seating is the high-margin earner of the stadium itself, and are attractive only to an elite crowd of buyer. And design is more about the placement of concessions and the ability of fans to spend money on food, souvenirs, and other novelties for every spare second of their stay. Stadium designers get better at this stuff every year, and they’ve gotten a lot better since RFK Stadium, the current DC United home, was built.

There are stadiums that work for cities. This isn’t one.

Noll has some criteria for a stadium that may pay off, even potentially enough to be worth taxpayer subsidy. By and large, these are:

  1. Located downtown, ideally with little or no parking available, so people have to ride public transport and spend money en route to and from
  2. Are unique gathering assets in the city – perhaps the city has no other convention center or large theatre that could hold events of similar size
  3. Host as many games as possible, ideally both a hockey and a basketball team. These two sports will cover at least 100 events per year, five times more than soccer and ten times more than football.

By these metrics, DC United’s stadium will fall far short, and will be another giveaway to corporate developers and a sop to the jingoism of the government. Which is surprising, because I can’t imagine enough people were even aware that we had a soccer team to be inspired to support or oppose the deal.

One writer even demonstrated that buying DC United would be cheaper for the taxpayer than building them a stadium. My fellow advocates have been pushing the DC government to spend a few million cleaning up our somewhat dilapidated commercial streetscape on Kennedy Street NW, which will soon host dozens of locally-owned, locally-serving businesses. For the money we’re going to spend on this stadium, we could have bought market rate three-bedroom apartments for 650 homeless families in the District.

How to build a better block

This blog post at profiles a neighborhood group similar to the one I co-founded in uptown DC. I was pointed to it by a DC ANC commissioner and activist who said our movement reminded him of theirs.

A couple key differences – their movement was started by professional planners and designers, while ours was started by folks with nothing but gusto. Also, many of the Texas environments that they are reforming are actually failed suburban refits trying to go back to their urban days. Kennedy Street is and was always an urban environment, just one that lost its customer base to crime and cars. Different problems to solve, but we are using some of the same tactics.

Airbnb doesn’t ruin cities, people do

At, a former Time reporter makes many points about how AirBnB may be ruining city life. Some are better than others, but all of them would make the existing hotel industry (as well as local government tax collectors).

Nothing wrong with this, as the argument is worth raising, must most of the problems are created by people – not the company. It’s not AirBnB’s job to make sure people pay their taxes, are courteous to neighbors, or that property owners are good to their customers. And the problems on the margins can be regulated by noise and use ordinances demanded by community groups in negotiations with Airbnb renters.

People can ruin cities – in this case, people who try to regulate away the nuisances of living in them, while intending to reap the many other benefits.

The “Things used to be worse” excuse

Sometimes people make obvious statements just to defend a position without vision or ambition. This is one I hear all the time:

Kennedy Street used to be so much worse.

There are two type of people who I hear this from all the time. One type is the NIMBY, which fears change for its own sake, and has – in some cases real and justified – reasons for this. The other type is the politician who has done nothing for the neighborhood, and gets impatient with the spirit and energy of those who are doing more.

This episode of the FBI files profiled the First and Kennedy Crew and their struggle with the G-men from the 1990s. During the summer, there were shootings in many booming neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and H Street NE. There’s been no major reports of violence from these blocks this year. Sure, it has further to go, but let’s help it get there faster.

Just because we’ve come this far doesn’t mean we should always be looking back.

Citizen Journalism in Kyrgyzstan’s Capital

The following was posted for the Sustainable Cities Collective, a global site covering urbanism and sustainable development of urban spaces.

Bishkek, capital of the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan with a population of approximately 1 million (though no one knows for sure – that is a different story), is notoriously dark at night, considering its population density and streetlighting infrastructure. Many bulbs have been out for years, leaving huge swaths of the city off its several main streets in the dark after sunset. Few seem to associate the lack of street lighting with an increase in street crime, which everyone acknowledges has risen precipitously over the past two decades of independence.

Continue reading Citizen Journalism in Kyrgyzstan’s Capital

Geographic Engineering Par for the Central Asian Course

Tajikistan has joined the list of Central Asian countries rumored to be planning to relocate its capital.

The construction of a new international airport in tiny Dangara, 100 kilometers southeast of Dushanbe, has invited speculation that President Emomali Rakhmon plans to relocate the seat of government there, RFE/RL reports.

Continue reading Geographic Engineering Par for the Central Asian Course