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Mayor Answers Questions on RFK’s Future

Do neighborhood residents care about what will happen at RFK Campus? A recent meeting showed just how many people are concerned about development on the nearly 180-acre site near the Anacostia River.

More than 350 people packed into the meeting room at St Benedict the Moor Catholic Church (320 21st St. NE) for a discussion on the future of RFK Campus with Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). Many dozens more waited outside the doors of the room and even the church for a chance to be part of the discussion.

During the meeting, the Mayor answered questions posed by audience members. She also made some promises around community concerns.

The meeting was organized by the Friends of Kingman Park (FOKP), which helped spearhead a coalition of residents from the neighborhoods surrounding RFK Campus. A survey taken by 2,000 DC residents found that 67 percent were opposed to an NFL site on the park. At-large FOKP Board member Sarah Miller presented the survey results, quoting from one response. “The site is tremendous opportunity,” she read. “Please don’t blow it on a billionaire’s playground.”

The neighborhood coalition, RFK Future, started the meeting by presenting results of the survey, which was conducted from August to October. Of the 2,000 respondents, 80 percent were from surrounding neighborhoods. Many of the 67 percent opposing an NFL Stadium on the site said they opposed public funding for construction but also citing concerns with noise, parking and traffic. Asked to rank five different uses for the site, most chose a parks and nature complex, followed by recreation and sports and open green space and placed an NFL stadium at dead last.

Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) speaks at the RFK Future meeting Oct. 18. Photo: L. Nunn

“We Only Have One Site”

In her opening comments, Mayor Bowser defended her work to have the Washington Commanders return to RFK Campus, saying that there is sufficient space to do everything the community wants, from recreation, sports and nature to mixed-use development.

“These are not either-or, either there would be a stadium or there would be youth sports,” she said.

Asked if any other locations in the District had been considered, Bowser said no. “We only have one site,” she said.”And not only is it the best site in DC, but it is the best site in the region,” she said. One other site was considered, she added, but dismissed due to transportation issues.

“One thing I think we can agree on is that the current state of RFK is unacceptable,” Bowser said.

Bowser tried to focus community energies, saying change at RFK is best facilitated by residents advocating for and supporting the transfer of control of the RFK property to the District from the National Park Service (NPS). She said the first step is for Congress to approve DC control of the property, referencing legislation introduced by Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and James Comer (R-KY) that would allow a 99-yr extension on the lease, now set to expire in 2032. Without that legislation, Bowser noted, the only development permitted under the current lease is for sports or recreation.

The Mayor denied the District is working on a deal with the Commanders behind the scenes. “We are working not on any deal with the team,” she said. “We are working on getting control of the land.”

Questions

FOKP President Lisa White posed questions at the meeting. Photo: L. Nunn

FOKP President Lisa White posed questions from the civic group and submitted in writing by audience members. There was particular interest in the question of funding. Many attendees wanted to know how DC could justify funding a stadium rather than meeting other needs, such as school modernization. Bowser pointed out that the District built Nationals Stadium at the same time as it modernized schools such as  “The answer is, we’re a big city, we have to do both,” she said, to audible grumbling.

The Mayor pointed to Audi Field as an example of where the city acquired the property but the team build the stadium. “I expect that will be the case with RFK Stadium,” Bowser said, later noting that remediation is required on the site and infrastructure is required whether an NFL stadium is built or not. (Feedback is open now on the NPS Environmental Assessment for demolition).

However, Bowser argued that sports has a positive impact on the city. “We are indeed a growing sports capitol and it is an important part of our economy,” Bowser said, pointing to Capitol One Arena as an economic booster for downtown and arguing that the development around Nationals Park “has more than paid for itself”.

“We cannot talk about sports without mentioning it also linked to how the city invests in itself,” the Mayor said. The Deputy Mayor of Planning and Development (DMPED) is working on a contract with an outside agency to study how to best support sports in the city, she said. That study includes how to best fund a new stadium.

She resisted pressure from the audience members, one of whom pointed out that NFL Stadiums in particular are not economic drivers. Referencing the bustling neighborhood around Nationals Park as proof that stadiums can lead to growth, Bowser nonetheless acknowledged that it was a fair question.

“There are fewer games,” Bowser allowed. “We have to be able to commit to more activations for more than just those eight games and build a facility that supports that.”

While the Mayor described a potential football stadium as beautiful and monumental with parking, which she thought should be in garages, to support the operation, she would not speculate on what size it might be. She acknowledged that the area cannot currently support large-scale events. But, she said, “when you actually plan the area for large-scale events, you will better able to manage large scale events.”

The meeting was attended by about 350 people, some of whom did not make it into the room. Photo: L. Nunn

Promises Made

The meeting began at 7 p.m. and was originally slated to last for 2 hours. Organizers said two days prior, the Mayor’s office indicated she had to leave by 7:35 p.m. but Bowser remained on the dais for about 45 minutes.

FKOP Secretary and ANC 7D05 Commissioner Ebony Payne said the group was pleased with the way the meeting turned out. “Our goal was to have a very informative discussion with Mayor Bowser on her vision for the site, and to provide a platform for the community to voice their concerns,” she said. “We were pretty happy with how it turned out —and with the turn out,” Payne added.

The level of interest in the future of the site was indicated by the bodies in, and waiting outside of, the room. Organizers had to close doors to keep the room in compliance with fire code.

Commissioner Ebony Payne (7D05) speaks at the opening of the Oct. 18th meeting. Photo: D . Hibbs

Payne said she heard the Mayor make promises at the meeting. “She promised that everything was possible, in that the two things that the community really wanted to see —the sports and recreation complex and housing were all deliverable,” she noted. “So I hope to see that.” The Mayor had allocated $60 million to a 100,000 square foot indoor youth sports complex on the site.

She also promised to help the surrounding community deal with issues of noise, traffic and trash that they are currently experiencing around 15-30,000 person events such as Broccoli Fest and Glowfest. Bowser said those problems should be dealt with now, noting that it would years before a stadium that could hold more than twice those numbers would be built. “I can commit to you now that we’re going to work on that now, before the summer,” she said, “so that we will have better activation.”

There was concern about the future of The Fields at RFK, the subject of three years of planning and opened in 2019. The legislation proposed by Norton and Comer allows for 30 percent green space; neighbors wanted to know if The Fields would be preserved. “I can commit to there being fields,” she said, adding that she thought The Fields were always intended to be temporary. In the future, fields might be in another location, she said, noting that the vision is to bring people closer to the Anacostia River.

And critically, the Mayor did say there would be an agreement with the community, particularly around the number of events held at the stadium. “[As] part of any discussion that we are going to have in the community, those things are up for discussion,“ Bowser said, noting that any stadium package would be part of legislation passed by DC Council. “The community can say, we want to limit the number of days it can be used,” she said. But, Bowser said, a stadium has to make money.

Payne said RFK Future will explore those options moving forward.

The meeting was over capacity with attendees waiting outside the doors to the room and even the church itself, showing the interest in the future of RFK Campus. Photo: L. Nunn

Disappointment

Nonetheless, there was some disappointment from attendees.

Many found the nature of her responses less than satisfactory. For instance, there was great concern around the fate of the Maloof Skatepark at RFK, designed by pro skater Geoff Rawley. It’s the last skate park in the area, after improvements south of Garfield Park removed the site under the bridge.

A group of skaters sat in the front row to pressure the Mayor to maintain the park throughout construction and beyond. Asked about the fate of the park, Bowser said she would make sure the team considered it adding she would ensure it was considered in a study of infrastructure needs.

After the meeting, one skateboarder said the group was concerned with the “wishy-washy” response. Tom Schrack, a father of one who lives on the Hill, said he’s seen a lot of youth use the park as an outlet over the years. “With or without a stadium,” he said, “we need accessible skateboarding for the youth in a time of youth crime skyrocketing.”

Others were disappointed in the level of engagement. “This meeting was a ‘non-event’,” tweeted long-time RFK Campus advocate Skip Strobel, who has worked to preserve the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the property that bears that name.

Strobel has opposed the NFL on the site for decades. He said the meeting was just more of the usual. “The mayor was not there to interact with residents,” Strobel wrote. “Attendees were not allowed to address the mayor directly. She stayed less than 45 minutes!”

RFK Futures continues to focus on any plans for the campus. They will lobby Congress and DC Council to ensure that that all parties are aware of community concerns. More public forums are planned on the topic; the group hopes to have a strong dialogue on the topic with city leadership, from the start of any potential plans to their conclusion. At this point, she said, the best thing that the community can do is show that it is paying attention to details and ensure their voices are heard.

“We are hopeful,” Payne said. “We are.”

See the survey results, offer your views and get more information on RFK Future at https://www.rfkfuture.org. There were technical difficulties with the online stream of the Oct. 18 meeting; the Hill Rag live-tweeted it here.

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