Nats Park Helped Remake A D.C. Neighborhood. Could A New Stadium At RFK Do The Same? The area around Nationals Park has exploded with development since the stadium was built — now, some city officials want to realize that vision for the 190-acre lot where the empty RFK Stadium stands.
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Nats Park Helped Remake A D.C. Neighborhood. Could A New Stadium At RFK Do The Same?

People make their way to RFK Stadium in Washington before the start of an MLS soccer match between D.C. United and Toronto FC, Aug. 5, 2017. D.C. United had its final season at RFK Stadium in 2017 before moving to a new stadium at Buzzard's point. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo hide caption

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

When Major League Baseball decided to relocate the Montreal Expos to the District back in 2005, there was a big catch: the team's new home would have to pay to build a brand new stadium. After a tense back-and-forth debate in the D.C. Council, the city eventually did, agreeing to put almost $700 million into what's now Nationals Park.

With the Nationals' World Series win last month, boosters say the investment has paid off. Not only can D.C. now boast a championship team, but the area around the stadium in Southeast's Navy Yard neighborhood has exploded with development, creating a dense neighborhood where before there were mostly industrial warehouses and strip clubs.

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Now, some city officials want to realize that same vision for the 190-acre lot where the now-empty RFK Stadium stands. But a big question remains: will a new stadium for the Washington Redskins be a part of it, and if it is, will taxpayers be on the hook for paying for it?

A New Stadium, A New Neighborhood

It's possible, but it's also complicated. Not only has Redskins owner Dan Snyder done little to ingratiate himself to the elected officials who may eventually have to clear the way for the team's return, but the legal and political status of the large RFK campus remains in flux.

With the cost of housing as high as it is in D.C. — and Mayor Muriel Bowser pledging to build 36,000 more housing units by 2025 — some ask whether the land would be better used for a new neighborhood. But even that's not a sure bet: the land isn't owned by D.C., and the city's lease currently requires that it be used for sports or entertainment purposes only.

"We need a different vision for that space, and that includes building more housing, building more neighborhoods, building more jobs with small businesses. You're right on top of Metro. There's an incredible opportunity our city to be able to have a different vision for that space," says D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).

In the wake of the Nats' win, Anthony Williams, who helped lure the team back to town when he was mayor, has basked in the victory more than many. And the reason isn't just the team, but also what he says is an entirely new neighborhood that has popped up around it.

"We thought it was a great investment for the District both for civic spirit, the economic benefits from the team, that we would be importing revenue from outside the city from bringing a fan base to D.C., all those things," he said.

Over the last decade, thousands of new residents have moved into sleek apartment buildings and condos in and around Navy Yard, which has also taken on a new name — Capitol Riverfront. There are now more than 10,000 people living in the area, with 30,000 estimated to be living there once it is fully built out. There are also two new supermarkets, offices, plenty of bars and a park overlooking the long-ignored Anacostia River.

"We built a beautiful stadium. And we also see that the area around it has developed with office and residential," said Bowser.

Coupled with the city's improving economic fortunes, that has meant more tax revenue than expected to pay off the $534.8 million in debt the city took on to build the stadium. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt says the stadium should be fully paid off by 2025 — 11 years ahead of schedule.

Bowser and other city officials now want the same for the RFK campus, which they deride as now being a "national park dedicated to asphalt." And there's long been talk of a new Redskins stadium being a centerpiece of the campus's redevelopment and rebirth. Bowser wants the team back in the city, and Snyder even commissioned architectural renderings of a massive new stadium that could go where RFK now stands.

If that happens, D.C. would finally become what Bowser has taken to calling it: the "sports capital."

Can Football Do What Baseball Did?

But some city leaders are doubtful that a football stadium could serve as an anchor for a new neighborhood the way Nats Park has done for Navy Yard.

"The best case scenario, your NFL stadium sits empty 350 days a year," said Allen. "That's fundamentally different than a baseball stadium, a sports arena that has multiple sports like the Capital One Arena. Those are very different things and they create a whole different level of economic growth and activity around them."

Allen wants the city to focus on putting more housing on the site once RFK is torn down, which is expected to happen by 2021. But even that will be a challenge. The land is owned by the federal government, and the city's lease requires that it be used for sports and entertainment.

"A stadium is really all that can be built there. But we need to have that restriction removed. We want to buy it. Clean it up and get it into productive use," said Bowser, who is now supporting a bill from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton that would let the city buy the land outright from the federal government. (Last year, Bowser unsuccessfully teamed up with some congressional Republicans and the team to try and extend the lease on the land so a new stadium could be built.)

If D.C. can buy the land, it would clear the way for a more ambitious redevelopment of the large riverfront parcel that Allen wants. But what remains unclear is whether a new stadium would be part of that — or whether D.C. taxpayers would again be asked to foot the bill for at least part of the cost of a new football stadium, the way they did with Nationals Park.

Critics hope not, saying that the Nationals winning the World Series in a publicly financed stadium shouldn't be an excuse for another pro sports team to come along and get one of their own.

"When the Caps won it was great and the city didn't have to spend $700 million to have that happen. I don't buy that a place like D.C. that's a super desirable location for a sports franchise there's just no reason for the public to have to subsidize a sports stadium. There's lots of good business reason for sports owners to want to be here," says Pat Garofalo, an editor at Talk Poverty and author of "The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Our Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs."

Garofalo also says that even if a new football stadium were privately financed, it wouldn't be able to anchor a neighborhood redevelopment the way other facilities have.

"The case for a football stadium is the absolute worst. You're going to have at most 10 home games, maybe an international soccer game, maybe some concerts, and those stadiums are always completely encircled by acres and acres of parking you need to be able to manage to cram 80,000 people into them," he said. "So of the available options for helping a neighborhood develop a football stadium is the absolute worst."

Plans In Flux

Bowser has been coy about how much D.C. could put into a new football stadium, should one ever be built. Some city officials have floated the idea of a deal similar to that which was struck with D.C. United to build Audi Field — a 50-50 split, with the city clearing and prepping the land and the team paying to build the stadium.

In the meantime, future plans for RFK remain in flux. Events D.C., the city's sports and entertainment authority, has build some new public playing fields where one parking lot once stood, and has sketched out an ambitious plan for a larger sports, recreation and entertainment destination there. And yes, that could include a football stadium as a centerpiece.

Allen says whatever happens, the lesson D.C. should learn from Nats Park and Navy Yard is that the neighborhood didn't succeed only because of the stadium.

"The reason the ballpark is successful is that the city also made investments in public spaces, in parks, in the health of the Anacostia River, in really helping grow that entire neighborhood," he said.

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