On July 27, 2023 Mayor Bowser announced DC is edging closer to a way to develop RFK Campus that could bring a major league stadium to the site. Currently the RFK Campus is owned by National Park Service (NPS) and managed by DC in a lease that designates the site for recreational use only.
Rep. James Comer (R-KY) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) introduced a bill today in the House. It would extend DC’s lease at RFK Stadium for 99 years and would also allow for mixed use development on the site. The bill includes requirements for open space and access to the Anacostia River. It allows for construction of a stadium, commercial and residential development and/or recreational facilities on the 140+ acre site.
Coming a week after the sale of the Commanders, this is widely seen as part of the effort to get the NFL to RFK. And outreach is increasing: Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) held a press conference July 27 to announce the creation of a “Sports Team” within DMPED.
Led by former Interim Director of Private-Public partnerships Jonathan Kayne, the team will commission a study to help come up with new ideas for how to approach such a build. An RFP is expected within a few weeks.
While the mayor didn’t explicitly say getting the NFL to RFK was the plan, Bowser did say she talked to new Commanders owner Josh Harris. “Of course they’re going to look at [RFK], of course,” the mayor said. “Having said that, we know what we are working with,” she said. “That location is great, whether there’s a stadium there or not. And that’s how we’re going to approach [this].”
But she also acknowledged her position on bringing the Commanders back to DC wasn’t a secret: “There’s really only one place for the team in this region,” she said.” I’ve been a little coy, but there’s only one choice.”
It’s the Economy
The press conference was held at Nationals Stadium. Speaker after speaker made reference to the economic boost given to the area when the MLB field opened in 2004. In the nearly two decades since, the area has experienced exponential growth and development. That trend appears to be continuing at Buzzard Point, where buildings are quickly growing around Audi Field, which opened in 2018.
“What we’ve seen around stadiums and arenas in cities has been nothing short of transformational,” Bowser said.
But some argue that is a misinterpretation of what really happened. “A strong case can be made that Nationals Park merely threw accelerant on the redevelopment fire that had actually started smoldering a few years earlier,” argued Jaqueline Dupree, who chronicled change in the area for her blog JD Land.
In an editorial for the HillRag, she pointed out that by the time ground was broken in spring 2006 for what would become Nationals Park there were already five new office buildings completed along M Street SE and one more underway. Others say that development in Buzzard Point was inevitable, given its location and that it is the site of some of rare undeveloped pieces of land in the District.
And others have questions about the appropriateness of this move while current major league team owners are asking the city to help with maintenance and improvements to the stadiums we already have. Both the owners of the Washington Capitols and of the Nationals have discussed the need for repairs to their home stadiums and hinted they’re considering relocating their teams.
Bowser acknowledged that funding major league sports versus social investments, such as schools and programs, would always be a question. “But my job as mayor is to make sure that we’re always growing,” she said, trying to refocus the conversation. “We can do both,” she said.
Bowser said DC wants team owners and prospective teams to keep their teams here and focus on that growth. She also advocated for the infrastructure as a way to attract events like the Olympics to the city.
Asked about the city’s role in funding, Bowser cited Audi Field as an example, an agreement had a long, sometimes rocky path. Five years after the field opened, she summarized it as, “we give the land, we prepare the land; the team builds the stadium.”
RFK Campus is currently managed by Events DC, the District’s Sports and Entertainment Arm. They have been working on plans to redevelop the campus since at least 2017. Aside from the 2019 opening of recreational fields, few of those plans have solidified, partially because the District’s lease is set to expire in 2038.
“Right now, we are really focused on getting control of the land, because without control there won’t be any investments by the city,” Bowser said, “not even recreational facilities.”
Disagreement on Council
Most DC officials agree that DC should have control over the RFK Campus and develop the site. But there has been widespread disagreement about bringing the NFL to the site. Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D), who represents the area, has been largely supportive. (He was not present at the conference).
Support was given from Councilmember Kenyon McDuffie (At-Larg-I). McDuffie did not advocate for NFL at RFK during the conference, although he did call for applause after noting the sale of the Commanders.
But he issued a press release the day the sale was finalized. In it he called the sale a “new era” for the Commanders and said the government must work together to bring the team home. “We are indeed the District of Champions and all of our city’s professional sports teams belong in the District of Columbia—that is to say within our 68-square-mile capital city,” the press release read.
Others are decidedly against it. Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) opposed an NFL stadium when the RFK site was in Ward 6, even creating a website around advocacy, www.hailnorfk.com.
Reached last week after the sale of the Commanders, Allen said he welcomed the end of Dan Snyder’s ownership and the focus on rebuilding with new owners under Josh Harris.
But, he said in a statement, dedicating a massive piece of land and millions of tax dollars to a new NFL stadium remains a bad deal for the District.
“These types of stadiums are shown to waste public money and be bad economic investments for taxpayers,” he said. “Instead of a stadium to be used eight days a year, I’d rather our city build housing, parks, retail, and jobs that will benefit the District of Columbia every day of the year.”
Meanwhile the DC Council Chairman struck a more resigned tone. In a press release issued during the mayor’s conference, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he didn’t oppose the bill put forward in the House, and that he thought council would support it. But, he said, the primary challenge with developing the area is funding, pointing out that the District is maxed out on borrowing. “Any development of the campus must come at the expense of private developers,” Mendelson said.
“I look forward to working with the councilmember,” Bowser said, when read a part of Mendelson’s statement. “He might have said the exact same thing in the debate over Washington Nationals Stadium and we’re here today.” Bowser said Mendelson shares her commitment to make the best financial decision for the District, “and I would expect no less.”
Bowser said she’s literally talked about RFK legislation for eight years, noting that the site is in disrepair while the city looks elsewhere housing jobs and opportunity. “I can’t emphasis how much how getting control of that is a win for the city,” Bowser said.
The bill must pass a vote in the House as well as in Senate.