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House Advances Bill Transferring RFK Campus to DC

On Wednesday, the House passed HR 4984, The DC Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus Revitalization Act, by a vote of 348-55.

Co-sponsored by an impressive bipartisan coalistion led by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Republican James Comer (R-KY), the bill transfers administration of the 174-acre RFK Campus to the District fo 99 years. It mandates that 30 percent of the site be used for parkland and adds the proviso that federal funds cannot be used to build a stadium at the site.

This is the first time any version of this legislation has been considered on the House floor.

When it opened in 1961, the stadium was home to Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Football League (NFL) teams. They departed in 1971 and 1996. DC United was the last team to call RFK home in 2017, kicking off a future planning process.

The abandoned stadium is currently in the process of being demolished, with an RFP for the demolition reissued in 2020.

DC has control of the campus under a lease with the National Park Service (NPS) set to expire in 2038. The current terms restrict land use to stadium or recreational purposes, or other public purposes. That means under current law, one of the last open sites in the District cannot be used for commercial or residential development.

In her floor statement, Norton said the bill is a “win-win for the federal and DC governments.”  The Congresswoman said the bill would allow DC to transform the campus from “acres of asphalt to a complex focused on community sports, recreation, park space and cultural amenities” and would “guarantee public access to a sizeable amount of park land and outdoor recreation areas.” It would also allow DC to create a mixed-used development which could bring in additional tax dollars.

The site is one of the largest open spaces left in DC; Norton was also instrumental in land transfers for two other sites, championing bills to transform land that is now The Yards on the Southeast Waterfront and The Wharf on the Southwest Waterfront as well as development at Reservation 13. Rezoned in 2009, the 67 acres next to the RFK Stadium campus is being transformed into a mixed-use development at a much slower pace than the properties further south.

Most of those who spoke during the brief debate spoke in support of the bill, regardless of party affiliation. But there was opposition, and it came from Maryland. Glenn Ivey (D-MD) argued that the transfer of RFK would give DC an unfair advantage in the competition for the Commanders.

“It is most certainly not a level playing field when one interested jurisdiction receives a free transfer of Federal Government-subsidized land,” Ivey said. “I’m not opposed to DC bidding to be the new home of the Washington Commanders, but its pursuit of the Commanders should be no different than its efforts to compete with Virginia for the Wizards and the Capitals.”

Ivey said the free land was also a bad deal for federal taxpayers, arguing that this is a “transfer of control of federal government property at no apparent cost to the District of Columbia so the private ownership can build a football stadium.”

Norton pushed back, pointing out that NPS has a $23 billion maintenance backlog, $2 billion in the District alone. “The [NPS] does not have the money to transform the RFK Stadium site from acres of asphalt into parks or mixed uses,” Norton argued, adding that DC will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to transform the asphalt covered-acres into development.

RFK Stadium has been slated for demolition for the past four years. E. O’Gorek/CCN

Norton also emphasized that the bill does not require a stadium to be built on the site. That, she said, is a decision for the DC Council, many of whom have expressed opposition to bringing the NFL to RFK.

Although most of the comments were in support, language was key. While Democrats such as Norton and James Clyburn (D-SC) spoke of the bill as good stewardship of the RFK site, many republicans presented it as good stewardship of not only federal dollars, but also of the District. Westerman painted the bill as a way to save money at NPS. “The National Park Service will no longer have to maintain and operate the campus freeing up finite  resources to focus on their deferred maintenance backlog,” he said.

Comey, who co-sponsored the Bill, presented the legislation as another paternal example of Congress taking care of the District, this time by ensuring the best use of land in the city.

Making that link explicit, Comey referenced previous stand-offs between Congress and District officials, leaving no room to interpret the RFK bill as a sign that Congress would let up pressure on DC officials.

“Let me be clear: Congress has a constitutional duty to oversee the nation’s capital city,” Comey said. “We have diligently exercised this role by holding numerous oversight hearings in the oversight committee this Congress with DC Mayor and City Council. We have also successfully blocked— in bipartisan fashion with the president’s support— the city councils ill-advised criminal reform legislation from going in effect last year, the first law of the 118th Congress,” he said.

“And we will continue looking for legislative opportunities to return order to the District by addressing the rising crime crisis, returning federal workers to their offices in the district to contribute to the local economy and seeking ways to bolster the educational system,” Comey finished.

The bill must now be considered by Senate before going to the President’s desk.

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