City will study RFK Stadium options in wake of soccer deal

August 2, 2013

The recent announcement of a tentative $300 million deal between Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the D.C. United soccer team may not be a stadium deal as much as a stadiums deal.

The agreement, should it come to fruition, would result in a new 20,000-seat home for the team in the Buzzard Point area of Southwest Washington. But it would also have major implications for the team’s current home: 52-year-old RFK Stadium, which would be left without an anchor tenant and with significant questions about its future.

The city authority that operates the aging former home of Redskins football and Senators and Nationals baseball says in the wake of the United deal that it plans to study options for replacing the stadium and redeveloping its 190-acre site.

“We have seen this time was coming,” said Gregory A. O’Dell, the president and chief executive of Events D.C., the agency formerly known as the Washington Convention and Sports Authority.

O’Dell said the authority will hire a firm in the coming months to evaluate options, with and without a stadium. It also will explore whether it makes sense to keep RFK standing and operating in the interim. “We’ll look at the as-is condition and what’s viable and financially feasible,” he said.

In this fiscal year, the RFK campus generated $4.1 million in revenue for the authority against $5.3 million in expenses. It is not clear how much of that revenue comes from D.C. United’s rent.

In addition to 17 to 22 United games each year, the stadium hosts two college football games and several non-United soccer games, as well as a number of festivals and other special events.

But United’s departure would leave the authority without its main source of stadium revenue. O’Dell demurred when asked whether a United-less RFK is sustainable, saying the authority has been unable to host other events because of the soccer lease.

“I don’t want to presuppose the study we’re going to do,” he said.

RFK’s future is also tied to the desire of several high-ranking city officials, including Gray (D), to lure the Redskins back to the city as soon as the team’s lease on FedEx Field in Landover expires in 2026 — if not sooner.

Asked last week what the stadium deal means for the future of RFK, Gray made no secret about his preferences. “I frankly think it would be a great site for a new football stadium,” Gray said at the news conference announcing the soccer deal. “And not just for college games.”

Gray has made a push for nearly two years to have the Redskins consider relocating their team headquarters and practice facility to a government-owned parcelsouth of the RFK campus.

The move was widely seen as a prelude to a future stadium deal with team owner Daniel M. Snyder.

Those hopes appeared to be dashed last summer, when the Redskins announced that their non-game-day facilities would remain in Loudoun County. But hopes for a stadium remain.

“It’s the number one site in my view to put a brand-new Redskins stadium,” D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said of RFK. “There’s nothing else you can do there.”

But others are pushing to use at least parts of the site for other purposes. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — who represents some of the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium and, like Evans, is running to succeed Gray — said he supports creating a community sports complex, with soccer and softball fields and other facilities. Wells said he was not necessarily against a new Redskins stadium on the RFK site but said the campus could better serve the public. “I think preserving a sea of surface parking in an inner city for at best 10 games a year is shortsighted,” he said.

The city has title to the stadium and controls the RFK site under a long-term lease from the National Park Service. Under the agreement, which expires in 2038, the premises must be used for “stadium purposes”; for “providing recreational facilities, open space, or public outdoor recreation opportunities”; or for “other similar public purposes.” Any other type of development requiring the sale of the land would require an act of Congress to proceed.

The National Capital Planning Commission released a redevelopment study for the site in 2006, proposing to replace the stadium and its parking lots with a combination of recreational amenities, cultural attractions and private mixed-use development. The study has not translated into any meaningful action.

Wells questioned whether Events D.C. was equipped to conduct a study of RFK redevelopment options, considering the authority relies on stadium revenue for its livelihood. But O’Dell said he was committed to impartially evaluating a range of options, including “decoupling” the stadium from the surrounding land.

“You’ve heard from the leaders of the city,” he said. “We want to stay objective in the process.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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