Audi Field, shown in a rendering, is built on an urban site that came with challenges. (Courtesy D.C. United)
When Audi Field opens in mid-July in Washington, a few blocks from Nationals Park, the $400 million project will establish another building block in the redevelopment of the District of Columbia’s inner core. For D.C. United, an original Major League Soccer franchise, it signals a rebirth for the team.
The 20,000-seat facility is situated at Buzzard Point, an urban neighborhood south of the U.S. Capitol on a peninsula hugging the north shore of the Anacostia River. The stadium is part of the district’s master plan for growth, which includes The Yards and The Wharf, two extensive mixed-use projects.
The new facility, designed by Populous, is a far cry from RFK Stadium, the rickety former home of the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
D.C. United played there from 1996 to 2017 before moving to Audi Field this summer. For team officials, it’s cause for a big celebration after struggling for many years to build a new stadium.
The first home match is July 14 against Vancouver.
Multiple owners of D.C. United tried to get a deal done before Jason Levien and Erick Thohir bought the team in 2012. Many came knocking on their door, attempting to lure the team to Baltimore and other areas in Maryland and northern Virginia, said Tom Hunt, D.C. United’s president of business operations.
In the end, the Buzzard Point site won the competition, capped by a unanimous vote among D.C. Council officials. Other approvals played a key role as well, including passage of the Soccer Stadium Development Act, which created legislation ramping up to the city vote.
“If you go back to MCI Center [now Capital One Arena] and Nationals Park, city council approval was narrow for both of those projects, which were catalysts for development,” Hunt said. “For us to get a 12-0 vote was exciting. It’s been one great milestone after another, which culminates in the opening of this sports and entertainment district.”
The momentum includes a realignment of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which sits a couple of blocks east of the new stadium. At a cost of $440 million, it stands as the most expensive construction project in district history, according to local reports. After it’s completed in 2021, a new traffic oval around a 12-acre memorial will connect Nationals Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals, with Audi Field’s footprint, Hunt said.
It’s a footprint that came with some challenges, typically the case with urban stadiums. Project officials had to stay clear of high-voltage transmission lines next door at the Potomac Electric Power Co. station, lines that run underneath the stadium’s east side.
The result was construction of an easement on First Street, which runs along the stadium’s east side, said Jon Knight, a senior principal at Populous who helped design the venue.
“We couldn’t build anything on First Street,” he said. “That was a no-go [and] caused us some serious design constraints.”
The easement, an elevated steel and concrete structure, runs 18 feet above grade and 80 feet wide and is treated as a concourse, providing circulation to the south stands and seating at field level on the east side, Knight said.
Similar to other MLS facilities built in the past decade, the building has a European feel with its roof canopy and steep rake. The north stands pay tribute to soccer stadiums that are part of the top German league, the Bundesliga, Hunt said.
The premium seats are among the priciest in MLS, reflecting their proximity to the pitch. Seven of the 31 total suites sit at field level on the west sideline. Those seven units, which cost $125,000 a year with five-, seven- and 10-year commitments, quickly sold out, Hunt said.
There are no fixed seats tied to the field-level suites. Instead, D.C. United went with a setup of hightop tables and high-back chairs for 16, with room for four more people.
“We did a lot of focus group testing with that product, and what we heard is that people love the communal nature of soccer and they wanted more of an open space accessible to their neighbors,” Hunt said.
The remaining 24 suites are distributed on the northeast and east sides and run an average of $105,000 to $110,000 a year. Those suites have 12 to 23 seats. In mid-June, there were two suites remaining to sell, Hunt said.
Apart from the field-level suites, 550 field-level seats sit next to the team benches on the east side. Those tickets, an all-inclusive product covering the cost of food and drink, are priced at $250 a game. One month from opening, there were still some individual seats available for season tickets at both ends of the section, Hunt said.
(Audi, the stadium’s naming- rights holder, has roughly 20 field-level seats at its disposal. Those seats, branded for the luxury automaker, are still going through final design, but they will be themed after a race car, Hunt said).
The 1,500 regular club seats cost $175 a game and are also all-inclusive. Those patrons get access to the Eagle Bank Club, an 11,000-square-foot lounge and an outdoor patio with room for 500 that has views to Nationals Park and the Anacostia River.
“The final version of the club is better than the vision, which is not always the case,” Hunt said.
The supporters section, which holds 1,500, is made up of bench seating. D.C. United officials preferred a safe-standing design similar to Banc of California Stadium and Orlando City Stadium, the two most recent MLS stadiums. But the decision to go with that setup came too late in the development, according to Knight.
Hunt said the district drove the decision to go without a safe-standing section to create flexibility for booking special events apart from soccer.
“This is a soccer-specific stadium, but it was important to the district that it’s just not our home,” he said. “We’re talking to rugby and others for concerts and lifestyle events. Safe-standing put us at a disadvantage with some of the promoters we’re looking to attract to the building.”
Supporters essentially get their own concourse on the north side, extending to a rooftop bar in the northeast corner. The bar is among the stadium’s signature features, Knight said. It has spectacular views to the Capitol, and those hanging out there can gaze below at the main entrance, where 70 percent of fans will pass through the gates.
All told, D.C. United is pushing close to 12,000 in season-ticket sales, both full-season and equivalent plans, Hunt said. That number compares with 2,500 season-tickets sold at RFK Stadium in 2012, the year new ownership took over the team.
“We’ve seen steady growth, using all of those milestones … the stadium act, zoning and refreshing our brand to a much broader segment,” he said. “We fully expect to have a waiting list and cap [on season-ticket sales] for 2019.”
On the sponsorship front, Audi’s activation includes six Audi vehicles on display along a portion of First Street that’s undergoing realignment and will eventually become a private roadway renamed Audi Drive. In addition, there will be valet service for Audi drivers among suite holders and other VIPs, Hunt said.
Founding partners are Eagle Bank; Heineken, which sponsors the field-level club and rooftop bar; and Mobilitie, which is building the stadium’s Wi-Fi network and distributed antenna system. Other founding partner deals are pending, Hunt said.
To put_things in perspective, D.C. United had no sponsor zones at RFK and was restricted to brand activation on game days only. The team ranked toward the bottom of MLS in that category, but with the new stadium generating interest from the corporate community, D.C. United tied Toronto for the largest growth in sponsorship sales in 2017. Now, the team has jumped into the top 10 in the_league_before the stadium has opened and has its sights on moving up to the top fivefor the 2019 season, Hunt said.
Aside from the team store, Populous designed 14,000 square feet of retail space attached to the building’s east side, facing First Street. It’s the most retail space integrated into an MLS facility, Knight said, and is part of the effort to integrate the stadium into the neighborhood.
Over the next few years, district officials project 6,000 residential units within a 20-minute walk to Audi Field. Those residents will have access to a new public park outside the stadium on the northeast side. The city required the park design as part of the project, Knight said.
It’s all part of reshaping one of the country’s great historic cities.
“Every major developer that owns land on Buzzard Point has been in front of the Office of Planning,” Hunt said. “They thought we would be a catalyst for economic development, but five years [later]. It took Nationals Park over seven years to really begin their
development. We’ve expedited what the district thought we’d be doing.”