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Norton: D.C. leaders’ disagreement leaves RFK Stadium plan in lurch

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in 2021. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Disagreement between D.C.’s mayor and council chairman has for months prevented the introduction of a bill in Congress that would allow the city to purchase and develop the derelict RFK Stadium site, according to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

The stalemate centers on the inability of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to agree on a plan to acquire the site, ultimately leaving 190 acres of land dormant in the heart of a city struggling with affordable housing and other issues.

Norton said in an interview she will not introduce legislation until Bowser and Mendelson can reach an agreement, noting that they appear to differ about how to use the land and whether to try to attract the Washington Commanders to the stadium site.

“I’m stuck on stupid here — I can’t move until they move,” she said of D.C. leaders. “It would be in their best interest to move now while we have control of the House, the Senate and the presidency.”

In interviews, Mendelson and the city’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, John Falcicchio, blamed each other’s offices for the lack of unity.

Bowser has made clear that she wants the Commanders to return to D.C. at RFK Stadium, which is National Park Service land, but D.C. cannot negotiate a deal unless Congress allows the city to purchase the land. Several council members — including Mendelson — have said they do not want to use local resources to build a stadium for the Commanders, a team that remains under investigation in Congress for alleged sexual harassment and financial improprieties. Mendelson also has said he’s open to discussing a deal that would prepare the land for the Commanders but wouldn’t support their possible move into the city until the National Football League releases the findings of its sexual harassment investigation into the team and its owner.

The delay by D.C.'s leaders is just the latest speed bump for the Commanders’ stadium search, which has been complicated by the investigations. The team has struggled to drum up a competition between D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and on Tuesday, a key Virginia General Assembly leader said the body would again delay voting on legislation meant to entice the Commanders to the state. Maryland has a plan to spend $400 million to develop the area around FedEx Field, where the team plays now, but not build the stadium itself.

But as other jurisdictions forge ahead on stadium efforts, the disagreements between Mendelson and Bowser about land use — and apparently poor communication — have stunted D.C.’s ability to formulate a plan of its own.

On March 8 and April 6, staffers for the mayor, congresswoman and Mendelson held calls about the legislation, according to Mendelson. During one call, a staff member in Norton’s office urged the mayor’s staff to brief Mendelson, given Norton would not move forward without his and the mayor’s buy-in.

In a letter dated April 12, Falcicchio outlined the mayor’s proposed legislation to Mendelson, noting it would amend the current RFK lease, which runs until 2038, and allow the city to obtain full control of the land from the federal government within five years. It would also remove land-use restrictions, allowing D.C. to begin development in the meantime. The D.C. Council would still need to vote on how to use the land and to approve development contracts.

“Mayor Bowser has been abundantly clear that the RFK Campus should be put back to productive use to address our housing and economic needs, and with this Legislation, we have a framework to move this forward,” Falcicchio wrote in the letter. “It is critical that we coalesce around this Legislation and push for its passage this year while the political environment may be best suited for success.”

“[My office] stands ready to brief you on this momentum and the path forward if you are interested in learning more,” Falcicchio added.

But Mendelson said he found the letter disingenuous. He noted Falcicchio in the letter never mentioned bringing the Commanders back to the District, a move Bowser has publicly championed since the team changed its name Feb. 2.

“What’s the expression?” Mendelson said. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”

Mendelson never responded to the letter. Falcicchio said he also offered Mendelson a briefing and said the first time he’d heard about the chairman’s discontent was from a reporter.

“We communicated with the chairman last month in writing where we stand with the legislation,” Falcicchio said. “We continue to work on the legislation. We stand ready to brief the chairman, who seems convinced that the best way to communicate is through The Washington Post.”

Asked why he hasn’t contacted the mayor’s office himself, Mendelson — who, along with Bowser, is running for reelection — said he has been busy with other issues, such as the city’s redistricting process and finalizing the 2023 budget.

“This is not my initiative,” he added.

The city’s efforts to acquire RFK ramped up at the end of last year, according to three people involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to imperil the ongoing deliberations. The team and mayor’s office, according to those people, planned to advocate to attach the legislation to Congress’s omnibus spending package.

A Commanders official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, confirmed the team met with Falcicchio’s staff regularly, as often as weekly, in the months leading up to Congress’s introduction of its spending package in early March. But the package passed without the legislation attached. In the letter Falcicchio sent Mendelson a month later, he wrote the new proposal was to attach it to a coronavirus relief bill moving through Congress.

Both Norton and a spokesman for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) — whose committee has jurisdiction over the bill — said they were never involved in any discussion or approached about any plan to include the legislation in an omnibus spending package or covid relief bill, indicating that it was probably not a serious proposition.

“If it didn’t come through me, it’s not going to happen,” Norton said. “So I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The spokesman for Grijalva, Jason Johnson, said “any further action on the land would follow a process with transparency and public input. That process would start with a public hearing.”

“The future of the RFK Stadium site is an important matter for the District of Columbia, and like any decision about the future of public land, Congress has to ensure a fair, equitable and transparent process,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Any future development plans should be supported by local residents and broadly reflect the public interest.”

Since the omnibus effort, the Commanders official said, the team has been on standby while waiting for city leaders to act.

“As I have said before publicly, it is unconscionable that the District government cannot determine nor provide a public, social, and economic good for the communities that surround the RFK parcel and the entire city,” Commanders team president Jason Wright said in a statement. “For too long, that site has been left idle, robbing it of the enormous opportunity to build a true gateway across the river and deliver social and economic growth for Wards 7 and 8. Whether the future of that site includes us or not, we stand united with District leadership in helping to secure rights to that property so the city can properly control their own economic destiny.”

Still, even if the mayor’s office briefed the council in a way that was satisfactory to Mendelson, the chairman said he couldn’t guarantee the council’s support. In early March, when Mendelson said he became aware of the meetings between Falcicchio’s staff and the Commanders, he surveyed council members and found them divided over how to use the land.

According to Mendelson, some members opposed any effort to obtain the land because they either wanted it to remain a public park and/or they did not support the Commanders — and they believe “the mayor’s true design is to attract the football team.”

In the letter, Falcicchio wrote the mayor’s goal was to address “a growing need for affordable housing and jobs for our residents.” He pointed out acquiring the land would help the mayor’s efforts in the area, including the Hill East redevelopment project, and noted several additional initiatives she included in the budget, including $60 million for a new sports complex with a gymnastics training facility, an indoor track, climbing walls and boxing.

In a recent Washington Post survey of candidates for mayor and the council, 21 of 24 respondents said taxpayers should not subsidize construction or development to support a new Commanders stadium — including Mendelson and three current members of the council. Bowser supported helping develop the land, as the city did at Audi Field.

“I support bringing the Commanders back to DC and would be willing to prepare the land for their use, but will not pay for stadium construction or subsidize it,” Bowser wrote in response to the questionnaire. “Regardless, I call on the federal government to transfer the land so we can use it to maximize recreation, retail & affordable housing.”

While the disagreement between Bowser and Mendelson remains the most immediate hurdle, Norton faces a twofold challenge with the legislation. She said that, even if she were to introduce a bill, she expects to face skepticism from many within her own party.

Norton has described the bill as home-rule legislation to empower D.C. to use the RFK site for development however it would like — but many Democrats still see it as a proposal that could ultimately benefit the Commanders. Because of the ongoing sexual harassment and financial improprieties investigations on the House Oversight and Reform Committee — on which Norton sits — Democrats aren’t necessarily inclined to take any actions that could help the team.

“All [Bowser and Mendelson] have to do is give me a bill they both agree upon — then I will have a lot of challenges still here in the Congress,” Norton said. “I can’t move anything in the Congress if I can’t get my own city officials to agree on a bill.”

clarification

An earlier version of this article reported that D.C.'s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, John Falcicchio, said he thought a letter he sent to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was a briefing. The article has been clarified to indicate that the letter, which had many specifics, was not considered by Falcicchio to be an official briefing.

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