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Time for Change at RFK Campus

Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Stadium opened in 1961 and has been the home for numerous events as well as the District’s major league baseball, football and, currently, the DC United soccer team. But DC United is expected to move to their new stadium in Buzzard Point next year.

The time seems opportune for change, and the community has long been eager for the nearly 80 acres of parking lot that surrounds the outdated building to be converted into green or recreational fields.

Events DC, the sports and entertainment authority of the District, currently holds a lease with National Parks Serve (NPS) on the property which is set to expire in 2038. In January, they presented an ambitious $500 million plan for short-term development over the next ten years, likely even before the current stadium is torn down. The longer-term project to redevelop the main stadium could take 30 years or more, but Events DC and the community have yet to decide on what will fill that space.

At a community meeting July 10, Events DC announced that elements of the program will be advanced even as they seek to secure long-term control of the site in order to facilitate financing of the plans.

The plan for the RFK Stadium Campus first presented by Events DC in January contains an array of attractive components: multipurpose fields, a market hall, a sports and recreation complex, pedestrian bridges connecting the west and east banks of the Anacostia River to Heritage and Kingman Islands, and a new memorial site for Robert F. Kennedy, for whom the stadium is named.

Of these, the playing fields are the first elements expected to be completed. President and CEO of Events DC Gregory O’Dell said that timeline estimates were preliminary until the regulatory process had been concluded, but it was possible that construction could begin as soon as early 2018.

The Phase I environmental assessment, already underway, will look at the whole site, but O’Dell said that NPS had suggested a way to expedite the process.

“[NPS is] really trying to be a great partner and help us as we try to get some of these short-term elements done,” he said.

On July 10 the Program Management Firm working with Events DC presented three possible test fits for the fields. All call for three artificial turf fields with flexible uses, two for lacrosse and soccer and one field for soccer and little-league baseball. A representative of Capitol Riverside Youth Sports (CRYS) said that their research indicated that maintenance costs for artificial turf are typically 10 percent the cost of grass, and are usable for a significantly larger part of the year.

Not Soon Enough
Based on evidence from the July 10 meeting, the community is eagerly anticipating the fields. One resident said that more fields could transform the west side of the Anacostia into a regional sports center, especially if the proposed fields were linked to fields planned as part of improvements to other District parks, such as Anacostia-Kenilworth.

Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) said that the conversion of the parking lots could not begin soon enough.

“I have been a long time advocate for the fields of asphalt around RFK Stadium to be converted into recreational fields, so I am so glad to see Events DC and some others embracing this idea,” he said

“It’s a big step forward towards turning that asphalt into something we can all enjoy.”

Transportation is one area of concern that remains for area residents. There is opposition to a road shown in some renderings that divides the campus from the Anacostia River. One resident said, ”I think a road of any sort in that area is going to be met with a big ‘no’ from folks.”

O’Dell said that the final decision about the road had not yet been made, in part because studies had not yet determined if access needs could be met without it, but that the community concern had been heard.

Other questions relate to the price tag. Cost of the fields is estimated at $12 million. O’Dell said that financing had not yet been determined, adding in a later interview that Events DC was open to third party management of the fields if that party could balance both the multiple uses of the fields and a financial investment to off-set the costs.

“There’s no way we’re going to charge the community or all these leagues that amount of money to make up that difference.”

Commissioner Denise Krepp (6B10) said that while it was clear tax dollars would be sought to implement these plans, she was still unsure how much money Events DC was hoping to acquire from either the District and Federal Governments.

But in order for Events DC to secure financing for the plans, long-term control of the site is necessary. O’Dell said that the fields were probably as far as Events DC was willing to progress on its plans before that control is secured.

One possibility – and the most likely one – is the extension of the current lease that grants Events DC management of the site. The current lease expires in 2038. O’Dell said that a 30-year extension was typical but that they were working for 50 years or a transfer of title.

To this end, O’Dell announced at the July 10 meeting that Events DC had hired lobbyist Squire Patton Boggs to communicate with Congress. The lobbyist will be paid for by Events DC.

Related news was announced July 25, when Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC) told the Hill Rag that she will submit a bill to extend the lease for RFK by 50 years under the currently existing terms. The Congresswoman said the extended time will provide the long-term control of the site necessary to secure financing for development planned by Events DC.

The news of Congresswoman Norton’s bill was welcomed on all sides.

“I appreciate the Congresswoman’s efforts to support advancements in the programming at the site and I appreciate her efforts on behalf of the District. There are always two options on the table, and we’re happy to pursue both,” O’Dell said.

Councilman Allen said he was in favor any time the District could control the land inside its borders, and that, while a transfer of jurisdiction to the District would be preferable, he said a lease extension between NPS and Events DC is the best way to go about that right now.

“In all my conversations with Events DC it is very clear that they are operating on behalf of the District and in the best interests of the city,” he said.

Mayor Muriel Bowser could not be reached for this article. But in a letter to President Donald Trump dated March 29, 2017, she asked for either transfer of jurisdiction from NPS to the District for RFK Stadium or a 100-year extension of the lease without restrictions on use.

Congresswoman Norton said that she does not believe the bill will be controversial. She said that she was hoping the bill could be placed on the suspension calendar, generally used to quickly pass non-controversial bills in the House. A motion to suspend the rules allows members to set aside procedural and other rules that would delay them from considering the matter.

Norton said Events DC had visited her office to discuss the plans, and she was delighted that they were going to take the campus and make it into something that residents can enjoy.

“This is the perfect location. Whoever decided where to put this stadium picked the right place; now we’re going to give it the right purpose.”

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