New neighborhoods, and not Redskins practice fields, are the District’s future

March 2, 2012

Which of the following do you admire about Washington? Feel free to check more than one:

[ ] A. Lively neighborhoods filled with great restaurants and fun local shops.

[ ] B. Grand federal parks, meaningful monuments and numerous museums (many of them free!).

[ ] C. Giant fenced-off spaces where only a handful of people work each day.

[ ] D. Other (feel free to write in your own): ______________.

Whether you checked “A,” “B” and/or “D,” my guess is you didn’t mark “C.” And why would you?

Yet this is exactly what Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and a few D.C. Council members are pushing to bring to a plot of underused land. They want to make a deal with the Washington Redskins to build a practice facility on 33 acres of Reservation 13, a 67-acre site in the southeast corner of the Capitol Hill area.

It might be one thing if there were no other use for this land, but there is: a new, mixed-use neighborhood that will become an attractive place to live or visit, just like the existing neighborhoods that make many people choose “A” as one of the things they love about the District.

The surrounding community on Capitol Hill spent years working with D.C. officials to devise a plan for a new neighborhood. Yet on Feb. 13, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins told concerned residents that Gray had put any progress toward that plan on hold while the administration negotiates with the Redskins about the practice facility.

These fields would be completely closed to the public except for a few events. They would provide, at most, a small fraction of the reasons to visit the area, and none of the reasons to live there.

Practice fields would also bring in little tax revenue and possibly none at all, if the District grants tax exemptions — something almost surely necessary to entice the team. But a mixed-use neighborhood would house tax-paying new residents, businesses and jobs.

The idea of bringing in practice fields is a prelude to trying to build a new stadium in place of RFK Stadium. That, too, is a foolish idea, especially if the team expects taxpayers to pay for it, the way the District did for Nationals Park. Study after study has shown that publicly funded stadiums are almost always a bad deal for a municipality.

The District is at a budgetary disadvantage compared to other cities: It has to provide the same services — police, fire, roads, transit, street cleaning and more — but it doesn’t get tax revenue from all the government buildings and nonprofits that fill the downtown area. The District has made great strides in achieving fiscal stability, and the best way to cement that is to attract private-sector jobs and residents who want to live in an urban environment.

The original Reservation 13 plan would have done just that; the Redskins practice facility would do none of it.

Sports teams can be a great asset to a city, especially if they play in urban spaces that suit their neighborhoods. Downtown does benefit from Verizon Center, which hosts four sports teams and numerous concerts, and the Nationals’ baseball stadium may catalyze development in the Capitol Riverfront area. But football teams play just 10 or so home games a year, and the sport has a strong tailgating tradition, which requires large surface parking lots. A football stadium doesn’t stimulate the development of a neighborhood at all. Why spend enormous taxpayer funds to build something that fits better in the suburbs?

In many ways, it’s quite baffling that any of the District’s leaders, who all recognize the importance of firming up the District’s budget and the value of attracting businesses and residents, would even begin to entertain this ludicrous approach. It’s as if they’ve simply lost their minds.

And that’s likely exactly what they’ve done: The only reason to pursue this crazy plan is an emotional one. Some believe that having the team inside the District is necessary for civic pride. But while many residents of all parts of the region may love the team (regardless of their feelings about its play of late or its current owner), the team isn’t moving to Oklahoma City.

The District shouldn’t be trying to emulate the suburbs or to attract elements, like football stadiums and practice fields, that better fit suburban areas. The District isn’t the suburbs, and the people who live inside its borders, especially in rowhouse neighborhoods like the area around Reservation 13, chose to live in the District because of what it is, not because of what it’s not.

Once, a high crime rate and fiscal insolvency defined the District’s national and local reputation. At least residents had their sports teams to feel good about. But today, the District is an extremely desirable place to live. Besides, the District has six other professional teams, and numerous college programs.

The District’s leaders need to look forward. The future of the District and places like Reservation 13 is in mixed-use neighborhoods, which bring in needed revenue and, most important, expand just those qualities which people love about D.C.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.

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