What D.C. Should Demand of a New NFL Stadium

A plea to Virginia, Maryland, and District of Columbia leaders.

Image Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Something is stirring in Washington, D.C. Wide-eyed professional football fans are looking forward to their first playoffs win in a decade. Super Bowl chatter fills the air. Locals keep shouting “You like that!” for no good reason. Yes, folks are still trying to make the ‘Skins happen.

None more so than team owner Dan Snyder. After spending years carving seats out of FedEx Field, he’s looking to pull out of Landover, Maryland, for greener pastures. Now Sports Business Daily reports that Bjarke Ingels Group, the Danish architecture firm, will design a new stadium for the Washington football team.

This could be Snyder’s year: He’s got a quarterback whose knees haven’t buckled under the weight of bad coaching. The team could even scratch out one playoff victory. Which means, in Snyder’s world, that it’s high time a local government bought him a new stadium.

All the team needs is a location. Some D.C. leaders would like for that place to be the District, where Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium still stands. Counties in Northern Virginia are also angling for position. Maryland isn’t out of the picture.

With so many entities looking to land the Washington football team, there’s little doubt that Snyder can find the deal he wants. That’s the reality, but it isn’t how things should go. The team is anchored to the D.C. area, and governments across the DMV should drive a hard bargain on certain points. Here are some to keep in mind.

Say goodbye to the District

RFK Stadium and the District. (Dennis Dimick/Flickr)

Snyder’s plans to leave Landover inched closer to fruition Wednesday, but they take him further away from many fans’ dreams of having the team fight for old D.C. in D.C.

The Bjarke Ingels Group reveal suggests that the organization won’t be returning to the District. Back in October, Events DC, the sports authority for the city, hired OMA, another globally accomplished architecture firm, to oversee development at RFK Stadium. It’s unlikely that the city and the team each hired star firms, only to have them work at cross purposes. (BIG did not respond to requests for comment by press time. UPDATE 3:00 P.M.: Events DC provided this statement: “The Bjarke Ingels Group's work with the Washington Redskins has nothing to do with Events DC’s work with OMA.")

As it stands now, a return to the District isn’t an option anyway. The National Park Service owns the land underneath RFK Stadium, and Sally Jewell, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, has said that the Washington football team likely cannot build another stadium on the same site unless it changes its racist team name. While Obama administration appointees may not be around when a decision happens, it’s hard to imagine any Interior Secretary, even one appointed by a Republican president, siding with hate speech against Native Americans.

Which brings up the next point . . .

Change the team name—full stop

Native American Indians protest a matchup between the Washington football team and the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Arizona, in October 2014. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

Change the name. It’s got to go.

Any local government entertaining the idea of hosting the team should make the name a deal-breaker. Virginia leaders should cartelize on this front, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe should find his spine and back them up. (Don’t expect as much from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.)

Frankly, Bjarke Ingels should have declined the commission. One of BIG’s flaws is its sometimes-indiscriminate selection of clients, something that The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott describes as the “polyphonic ethics of contemporary architecture.” BIG doesn’t flinch about taking a commission in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for example. While Snyder isn’t suppressing human rights on the order of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ingels should nevertheless be wary about attaching his name to a racial slur. (BIG is hardly alone in taking on problematic clients: see Zaha Hadid.)

The D.C. suburbs have more to lose than Ingels in this deal. If Snyder fails to win his appeals in the federal decision to cancel the team name’s trademarks, then that’s going to cost licensed merchandise sellers money. The list of media companies that don’t refer to the team by name is growing. Those are small points. The larger one is moral.

Drop the logo, lose the mascot, change the name.

Demand great design

The Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in France in September. (Herzog & de Meuron)

As a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, it pains me to say this, but the Washington football team has done a very exciting thing in reportedly hiring Bjarke Ingels Group. Snyder may have very nearly almost made an actually good decision. (Blech!)

BIG’s playful, accessible approach to design has won the firm major commissions all over the world, including a $2 billion master plan from the Smithsonian Institution and World Trade Center 2 in Manhattan. Locally, the firm has designed a torquing secondary school for a location just outside of D.C. BIG is edgy and competent.

The Washington football team stadium would be the firm’s first sports venue. The BIG selection alone would mark a major turning point in U.S. stadium design. For decades, American sports teams have hired the same handful of architecture firms, which have churned out safe, recycled concepts. Straying from the well-worn path means taking risks. Soccer clubs in Europe that have embraced design have been rewarded handsomely so far.  

Make a play for the Silver Line

As Jonathan O’Connell and John Woodrow Cox report in The Washington Post, Virginia has a number of advantages over Maryland in the tug-o-war for the team. The organization’s headquarters and spring training camp are both located in Virginia, and many of the players live there. “In recent months, McAuliffe has also personally asked economic development officials in Northern Virginia to suggest potential stadium sites,” they wrote in April.

Virginia’s biggest advantage, though, is the Silver Line. Its ongoing construction yields opportunities for a new stadium to be Metro adjacent. A stadium could potentially anchor a transit-oriented development project at (or near) one of the six new stations coming with phase two of construction.

The new Silver Line stations may not open to passenger service until 2020. The Washington football team has a lease on FedEx Field in Landover through 2027, although the team could walk away earlier than that. Four years may be too soon to negotiate a deal, design a stadium, and begin construction, although that could be why Snyder is proceeding with the design stage in advance.

Don’t give Snyder a dime!

Of course, the best option for D.C. and any locale in Virginia or Maryland is to not entertain Snyder at all. A football stadium, especially one that is sure to draw massive public subsidies, is a terrible deal for any local government.

To build a football stadium suitable to host the Super Bowl, a stadium must have at minimum 70,000 fixed seats and 35,000 free parking spaces. Those are just a few of the NFL’s absurd requirements for Super Bowl eligibility. These conditions run counter to the needs of transit-adjacent development, especially given how rarely a football stadium is even used. At the very least, local governments should resist Snyder’s appeals to build out to the NFL’s Super Bowl specs.

I know, I know: It’s wishful thinking to believe that Snyder won’t get exactly what he wants from somebody, and on the taxpayer’s dime. But leaders should still remember that they hold some cards in this exchange. The truth is that no one needs to pay Dan Snyder to build a wildly excessive stadium–lot complex with a racial slur hanging on its façade.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.