Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
RFK Stadium is taking up a very desirable plot of federal land in Washington, D.C.—and no one can agree what to do with it.
Back in June, international soccer star Wayne Rooney joined a ribbon-cutting opening for a suite of new multipurpose recreation fields in Washington, D.C. He was an awfully big get for the event, given that these fields won’t be used by D.C. United, his (soon-to-be-former) team, or any other professional sports outfit. The Fields at RFK Campus is a venue for locals and amateurs, available for league play and pickup games.
For more than 20 years, D.C. United played at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, but the soccer team moved across town, to Audi Field in southwest D.C., in 2018. The Washington Nationals also called RFK home for its first three seasons in D.C. after the franchise moved from Montreal in 2005. Those aren’t even the only professional baseball and soccer teams that have held the fort at RFK, which is best known anyway for its three decades of service as the rumbly home of D.C.’s pro football franchise, which played its last game there in 1996. The city’s NFL games are now played at a built-to-order stadium in suburban Maryland.
Now, for the first time in its long and checkered history, RFK Stadium sits vacant, a placeholder for intramural sports at the nearby fields. Officials have given notice: The nearly 60-year-old stadium will be demolished within the next two years. It’s just too expensive to keep the facility standing.
The RFK Stadium campus totals 190 acres right along the Anacostia River—an enormous tract of land for the geographically challenged District of Columbia. It isn’t destined to serve as flag-football grounds. Investors, leaders, and residents are lining up with ideas for what to do next with the plot. The current master plan offers three concepts. A new NFL stadium (possibly with a windsurf-able moat) would bring the city’s NFL franchise back inside the District border. Another plan could see the Capital One Arena, home to the Wizards and Capitals, move here from its current home downtown. A final possibility shows a vast reach of indeterminate sports fields and rec centers without any one anchor tenant.
Many neighbors and residents would like to see a fourth option: more housing. The moat might be more likely.
With a booming local economy and several recent championships to its name, the District has changed since football moved to the suburbs. A stadium that only hosts NFL games and hapless classic rock revivals no longer makes the same sense in an expensive and desirable city, where housing is rare and displacement is a worry. But D.C. is prevented from even considering using RFK’s expanse of empty parking lots to build housing, thanks to the nature of the city’s weird relationship to the federal government. And the only way that’s going to change is if the District’s local leaders unite on this issue, either for or against the urban stadium.
Nobody agrees about what to do next. That’s normal. What’s more unusual is the fact that no one knows exactly how to proceed with any development. It’s a peculiarity of D.C.’s unique city status: The land belongs to the federal government, and the District leases it from the feds, so to change the lease requires action from Congress. The current lease requires the campus to be used for sports and recreation, and it expires in 2038—too soon for the city to put into motion any long-term plans. To do anything with the site requires putting a plan in front of Congress, and that process has already opened a rift between the council and the mayor’s office.
“I certainly think that the District should be in control of the land and the site,” says Charles Allen, council member for Ward 6, which includes neighborhoods near RFK Stadium’s location in Ward 7. “I think that’s probably about the last place of agreement that we have with the mayor in terms of what should be done with it.”
In order to move forward, city leaders must sort out several thorny problems at once. They need to purchase or take ownership over a mile-long parcel of dozens of acres of land stretching along the Anacostia River. They need to strike an agreement that gives the city a greater hand over the development of the site. And they need to decide whether the idea of an urban stadium in this location still makes sense in the D.C. of 2019.
The city is already pursuing the land itself. D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced a bill earlier this year that would authorize the National Park Service to sell the land to the District at fair market value. Gregory O’Dell, the president and CEO for Events DC, the city’s official sports authority and the agency with the lease, says that the sale could also take the form of a fee-simple transfer or a long extension. A 99-year lease for $1 would be a straightforward answer for the disposition of unused federal land that only the city can realistically occupy.
Yet powerful members of Congress won’t take the city up on its offer unless the city promises not to build another stadium for the Washington professional football team, which is exactly what some local leaders hope to do at RFK. Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum, who leads the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior and co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus, has said she firmly opposes a new stadium and considers the team name to be a racial slur. New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, shared similar objections after a failed effort by local and federal officials to slip a stadium provision into a GOP spending bill in 2018.
Distant lawmakers are happy to hold up the lease in order to thwart Washington football team owner Dan Snyder from building a new stadium for a team with a controversial name. So why not just change the name? That would certainly ease the path to building a stadium at RFK, but Snyder is firmly opposed to changing the name. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser isn’t forcing the issue, either. NFL team owners have leverage over these demands, since they can move the team elsewhere, and D.C.’s suburbs in Virginia and Maryland are even more accommodating.
“The mayor has signaled her desire to bring the team back to Washington, D.C.,” says John Falcicchio, interim deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “In terms of what that would look like, we don’t have anything further that we’ve mapped out, other than RFK would be the only site where it would be feasible.”
The return of Washington football is a divisive subject in the District. Some on the D.C. Council, including Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, want to bring the NFL team back from suburban Maryland, where its lease for FedEx Field—a boring but serviceable stadium in a residential area—expires in 2027. More than half of D.C. respondents said they would like to see a new stadium for the team at RFK in a 2016 poll, although support fell when the question turned to public funding.
On this point, the District’s RFK dilemma resembles other stadium conflicts around the country. Team owners in the NFL have turned to localities for public funding for stadiums that now routinely cost $1 billion. Owners frequently threaten to withdraw their teams and move to a different market when cities raise objections to their stadium demands. And not just in the NFL: Cities are now chasing professional soccer franchises by promising them top-dollar, publicly funded arenas.
Sometimes the city has no say. The Minnesota Vikings were able to land a new billion-dollar home in Minneapolis without local consent, despite a public referendum requirement. In D.C., Bowser arguably disregarded home rule by working with Snyder and Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration for a federal back-door solution to RFK last year.
Lisa Delpy Neirotti, professor of sport management at George Washington University, says she supports a new NFL stadium at RFK as a boon to the surrounding neighborhood and another source of revenue for the city. She recalls speaking at 11:30 at night before the D.C. Council to voice her support for public financing for Nationals Park, which won a vote for public funding by the very narrowest of margins. Growth in the Navy Yard neighborhood around the ballpark area is so explosive today that it makes up a significant and rising share of city revenues, and the city has gone on to approve public financing for a dedicated soccer arena.
“[The financing] wasn’t taking away from schools. It wasn’t taking away from libraries,” Neirotti says. “The money is being generated when the stadium is built.”
Tax-increment financing, the instrument used to finance Nationals Park, leaves the city on the hook if revenues can’t pay off the capital investment. Not a chance at Nationals Park: Navy Yard’s households have quadrupled, area median incomes have more than doubled, and residential and commercial real estate value has shot up from $1.15 billion to $2.65 billion over a decade, according to The Washington Post.
Bowser has taken to calling the city the “District of Champions,” a reference to recent titles bagged by the NHL’s Capitals, WNBA’s Mystics, and the MLB’s Nationals. The city may well be on a 3–0 winning streak in public investment in their respective arenas, too. But pro football will be different, Allen says, because a gridiron-only stadium sees so little use: only eight home games per season, plus a pair of preseason contests. He also argues that strong parks, infrastructure, a rising economy, and the waterfront all contribute to the explosion of growth at Navy Yard.
It’s a rare success story: Stadiums and arenas never deliver on their promises, on average, according to Dennis Coates at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He began tracking stadium growth in 1995, when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens, bringing pledges of jobs and growth. Looking at 35 cities that gained or lost sports stadiums and teams over 35 years, Coates found that job growth was minimal and income gains were negative.
Coates’s research contributes to a large body of academic research that shows that sports taxes aren’t worth it. But the near-consensus among academics has rarely mattered much when the local team’s owner shows up hat in hand. The arguments for stadiums have cycled over the years, Coates says, between claims of direct economic impact and support for a more intangible boost in a city’s image.
Yet the actual split in costs and revenue has tilted over time in favor of owners. Revenues for parking and concessions, which used to be governed mostly by the city, now tend to favor the owner. Publicly funded stadiums are more privatized than they used to be. That’s clear just from looking at RFK Stadium: A no-frills multipurpose facility built in 1961, its lack of luxury sky boxes and other premium amenities aimed at affluent fans make it look like a relic.
“Even on the cost side, in the past, it was unusual for the contract between the club and the city or the club and management group to not involve the club covering game-day costs,” Coates says. “A lot of those operating costs are now being picked up by the city.”
McCollum, the Minnesota representative, has said that she supports statehood and home rule for the District, but that Congress has no business subsidizing a billionaire NFL team owner by giving him federal land for a stadium, even if that’s what the city wants to do. By that logic, a new basketball and hockey arena for billionaire Ted Leonsis might not be any easier to build. Under the current lease, the city can only use the land for sports and recreational uses—and in the current era, sports stadiums only get built with public subsidies. If members of Congress hold to a no-stadium-boondoggle rule, then that might totally rule out sports.
In regular quarterly community hearings on the subject, area residents have said that they want to see more parks and affordable housing. But many could sour on the idea if it were to become a reality: The city faces opposition to building housing almost everywhere else, and neighbors might find that they prefer the current low-impact blend of recreation fields and centers.
In the near term, Events DC will continue to pursue amenities at RFK, including pedestrian bridges to connect the recreation areas to communities east of the river, a food and beverage hall, and a suitable memorial to former U.S. attorney general and senator Robert F. Kennedy, who will be left without one when the stadium meets the wrecking ball.
Keeping the stadium isn’t an option: It costs millions just to keep the increasingly tattered structure standing empty. Digging up its many surface parking lots, which shuttle stormwater runoff into the river, is the best thing the city can do with the site. For now, a long-term plan is out of reach.
“With something of that magnitude, it would really have to be a citywide conversation, about the elements that folks wanted to see,” Falcicchio says.