Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A new master plan for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium campus would create a waterfront sports mall in Washington, D.C. Does the city need it?
Whether or not professional football ever returns from the suburbs back to Washington, D.C., the site where football was once played may yet again be the permanent home for a pro sports team. Or maybe just a home for sports.
The Office for Metropolitan Architecture, an international Dutch design firm led by Rem Koolhaas and eight other partners, has produced a new master plan for Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the former home of Washington football. The 55-page plan outlines several options for the future of the campus, a 190-acre site that runs along the Anacostia River.
Call it the National Sports Mall. The OMA campus plan imagines several scenarios for moving forward at RFK Stadium: two design concepts, with three potential anchor tenants. With or without the Washington professional football team attached, the new campus plan will reserve land for sports facilities and restore a waterfront that has been allowed to languish.
Those facilities could be spaces where boxing, soccer, swimming, golf, or racing happens. The campus could also include an aquarium, a track-and-field center, a water park, and even a floating swimming pool—some of them features that were suggested by community input. “We picture a series of potential futures for this site,” says Jason Long, the OMA partner in charge for this project.
Events DC, the independent government agency and sports authority in the District, manages the city’s sports stadiums and convention center. Under its lease with the National Park Service for the RFK Stadium campus, Events DC can only use the land for stadium purposes, meaning sports arenas, recreational facilities, and related retail uses.
“Based on the existing lease and keeping any potential land usage constraints in sight, Events DC is mindful in developing concepts there are flexible and manageable regardless of the anchor and with program elements that are multifunctional in design,” said a spokesperson in an email.
Events DC released the plans this week in advance of a community meeting on Monday in the District, where it will receive public feedback on the plans. (Events DC declined requests for interviews last week, saying that most news organizations would not be permitted to speak with the group’s before about the plans until Tuesday.)
With its design, OMA has tried to counter some of the concerns that always attend stadium proposals. Long says that the master plan anticipates an “urban arena,” one that “allows other programs and activities to get as close to the stadium as it can, so it’s less of a decimator of all life around it.”
One of the most contentious aspects of any stadium proposal is its parking requirements, especially for an NFL stadium. In the first of its two design schemes, OMA has proposed a neat solution for this problem: a parking plinth running along the site’s mile-long north-south axis. This would be in essence a series of interconnected parking structures that will accommodate one to three levels of parking. Because the land is adjacent to the Anacostia River, the parking would be below grade, underneath the various facilities. “When you’re coming from the city, the topography slopes down to the river bank,” Long says. “We’re able to tuck that parking in.”
If the parking plinth cannot be built (for cost reasons), a second scheme would involve more conspicuous parking structures. For either of these two central design schemes, OMA imagines one of three anchors: a 65,000-seat NFL stadium, a 20,000-seat arena, or a tournament campus. The arena could be a future home for the Washington Wizards, Washington Capitals, or the forthcoming Arena Football League team, or some combination of teams. A tournament campus, on the other hand, might be a lure for the Olympic Games or the World Cup.
Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington football team, aims to move the team out of its current stadium in Landover, Maryland, but he has not determined where the team will land. The team commissioned the Bjarke Ingels Group for a new stadium, the design for which the firm released last month. Its signature feature, a proposed moat surrounding the stadium, would seem to echo the Anacostia River—a hint, possibly, that the team would entertain returning to the District. According to OMA, however, there is no contact between the firms.
Long, who is leading OMA’s work with landscape architecture firm OLIN to build the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park across the Anacostia River, says that one of the most important features of the campus plan is its restoration of the “urban beach” along the river. An esplanade running north–south along the eastern edge of the parking plinth would include cafes and other retail programs to support the waterfront riverwalk. The campus plan also includes an amphitheater for Kingman Island and an ecological teaching center (for Living Classrooms) at Heritage Island, but largely leaves the wild landscapes of these areas untouched. Further, the plan imagines an expanded boathouse for the Anacostia and possibly even a permanent market halls.
These sweeteners may or may not be enough to win over D.C. and neighborhood residents who would rather see the RFK Stadium campus put to a broader use, such as housing. That isn’t feasible under the lease that Events DC holds with the National Park Service, which expires in January 2038. Changing the lease would require action from Congress. Which may be necessary to extend the lease, if Events DC aims to secure a professional sports team as an anchor tenant.
If that team is the Washington professional football team, it will raise a lot of questions for the District’s largest soon-to-be-unused parcel. (D.C. United still plays at RFK, but not for long.) While OMA’s plan to make stadium parking invisible and bring the Anacostia River to the fore will make for a more attractive and sustainable campus, it remains to be seen whether District residents will support the plan—especially if taxpayers will be asked to foot the bill.
The fate of the master plan may ultimately hinge on the details. In January, a poll conducted by the Washington City Paper found that a majority of D.C. residents supported bringing the Washington NFL team back to the city (with 58 percent supporting the notion and 38 opposing it). If building a new stadium means public funding, however, that support falls away fast.
Neither Events DC nor OMA can anticipate now what uses will be proposed for the area. “We’re just trying to put in a placeholder and sketch out potential scenarios for the future,” Long says.