RFK stadium turns 50. Experts ponder what happens to it during the next 50.


RFK Stadium as seen looking west from East Capitol Street. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

As Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium turns 50 years old, much of the focus has been on the building’s past. The District and its promotional wing, Events D.C., have even started a campaign of events to commemorate RFK’s days gone by.

What about the future?

RFK is home to D.C. United  soccer and hosts two annual college football games, but its propects otherwise are thin. The 190-acre property offers thousands of of parking spaces, access to Metro, views of the Anacostia River and proximity to Capitol Hill. But it is also bound by federal legislation that allows the District to lease the property from the federal government. And symbolically RFK has been more than a stadium since 1968, when it was renamed for Robert F. Kennedy after he was assassinated.

We asked five experts from the fields of planning, development and sports what they thought would make a bright future for the once-glorious stadium.

Patrick L. Phillips, chief executive, Urban Land Institute

“It’s a building that is well past the end of its useful life I think, and the state-of-the-art stadium design has eclipsed it in any number of ways,” Phillips said.

The site’s uniqueness and prominence, he said, begs for a use that is similarly grand and one-of-a-kind. “I would like it to be something that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and I think it’s obvious that it won’t be a use that is mostly commercial in nature. I think it will be much more civic.”

A new, smaller stadium might work, he said. But so might a Kennedy Center-esque concert hall or a large urban park.

And the woeful economy should not be an excuse: “Now is the best time to put together a strategy for that. The economy is going to come back, as stubborn as its been — now is the time to put on our thinking caps.”

Ellen McCarthy, director of planning and land use, Arent Fox

McCarthy, who was director of planning under former mayor Anthony Williams, said any long-term plan for RFK should incorporate surrounding assets such as Langston Golf Course, Kingman Island, D.C. Armory and Congressional Cemetery. “On the northern and southern ends, redevelopment of the property could reinforce residential neighborhoods,“ she said.

McCarthy supports commercial uses at the Metro, but said RFK offers the rare opportunity to offer active recreational uses to the city, such as biking , boating and field sports, something a recent study shows in short supply. In terms of parks, she said, “We have so much passive space now — what we need are activities and facilities that will enliven the waterfront.”

John “Chip” Akridge, developer of Gallery Place

Akridge took a long, hard look at RFK 20 years ago when Washington was working to lure a Major League Baseball team, and although others claim it would be cheaper to tear down RFK and replace it with a new stadium, his plan had been to renovate the existing building. “We planned to do a major upgrade of the stadium to bring it to modern standards,” he said.

Replacing the stadium with another use, he said, would also be difficult because the legislation governing the site requires that a stadium occupy it. “If that use ceases, the lease terminates,” he said.

Bob Murphy and Frederick Rothmeijer of MRP Realty, owners of Washington Harbour

In the short-term, Murphy and Rothmeijer agreed with the strategy Events D.C. has taken in using RFK to attract new and alternative sporting events, including a skate park that will be built in the stadium’s parking lot. The next step could be a velodrome or rock-climbing venue.

In the long-term, Murphy said a major mixed-use redevelopment makes sense, given the site’s proximity to downtown, highways and Metro. “A great location long term, and one that could support a mix of uses ... but timing-wise lines up behind NoMo, Southeast and Southwest Waterfront,” Murphy said.

William N. Hall, p artn er at Venable

Hall helped return baseball to Washington and is among the most enthusiastic of trying to lure the Redskins back to Washington by tearing down RFK and replacing it with a more modern stadium, even though the team is effectively bound to FedEx Field until 2027. Hall has considered the effect that might have on the Kennedys, whom he said likely “regard it as a wonderfully appropriate memorial to a member of their family.” His solution? Retain Kennedy’s name on a new stadium.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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