The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Council chair ready to support RFK legislation — without stadium

RFK Stadium (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

After months of disagreement over the future of the dilapidated RFK Stadium, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sent a letter to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other local leaders Wednesday to express support for federal legislation that would allow the city to gain control of the site — if conditional language were added to prevent the city from using it to build a professional sports facility.

In the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post, Mendelson wrote that “housing - particularly affordable housing - is the most urgent use for the site.” He also referenced a letter that seven of the 13 members of the council sent to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) this month, saying while they approved of acquiring the RFK site for other uses, such as housing, parks and retail, they would not support a football stadium for the Washington Commanders, which is the subject of several investigations into alleged sexual harassment and financial improprieties.

“I am unequivocal that there be an additional use restriction added to” the legislation,” Mendelson wrote, adding, “I believe this change not only reflects where the Council is on the matter, but also makes it less objectionable in Congress as there continues to be much controversy over allegations surrounding conduct of some in the Commanders’ senior leadership.”

Bowser has been a vocal champion for the return of the Commanders to D.C. since the team rebranded itself Feb. 2, and has been pushing to acquire the RFK Stadium land from the U.S. Park Service to be used for affordable housing and recreation, and has expressed her desire for the site to also host a football stadium.

But John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for planning and economic development and Bowser’s chief of staff, pushed back on Mendelson’s proposal in an interview Wednesday, stating that it would be unwise and “bizarre” for D.C. to proactively set restrictions on how the site could be used.

He cited long-standing federal riders — a type of restriction on how funds can be used — imposed on the District through congressional spending packages that prohibit certain ways that D.C. can use its local funds.

“We should never limit the District of what it can do, especially by federal law; we fight against riders all the time,” he said. “We wouldn’t be supportive of that provision.”

Falcicchio also called the language Mendelson used — restricting any professional sports stadium on the site — too broad. He said he planned to follow up with Mendelson on Thursday for additional clarity.

Norton has said she will not introduce legislation to allow D.C. to take control of the RFK land unless the mayor and Mendelson agree on the terms and conditions of the land transfer. Norton has stayed out of the debate about how the land should be used, but has indicated a provision prohibiting a football stadium would likely make it easier for her to get the bill through Congress, given many in her own party have misgivings about the Commanders.

“I imagine at some point we’ll get to an impasse where the congresswoman just has to decide,” Falcicchio said. “That doesn’t mean it’s adversarial. But our point of view is, don’t restrict the District.”

Mendelson’s letter came the day after he, Bowser and Norton won their respective races in D.C.’s Democratic primary. It was sent as the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing Wednesday on allegations of workplace misconduct against the Commanders, and the NFL’s handling of them, which included testimony from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

If Norton added the exclusion to the legislation, D.C. would be the second jurisdiction in as many weeks to effectively proclaim it would not do business with the Commanders. On June 9, legislation to create a stadium authority in Virginia was pulled after its champion, State Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), said the many controversies surrounding the team became too much to overcome.

The Commanders, which are contractually obligated to play at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., until 2027, have been struggling to generate competition for a new stadium between D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Maryland has proposed $400 million to develop the land around a potential new stadium, but no funds for the construction of the stadium itself.

A Commanders spokesperson declined to comment.

Of the seven council members who signed the June 9 letter opposing the Commanders, only one — Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) — will leave the council at the end of the year. In an interview Wednesday, Mendelson — who did not sign the June 9 letter — said he has become aware of at least one other council member who would support precluding a stadium in congressional legislation to acquire the land.

“It’s a response to whether the legislative branch can be on the same page with the executive,” Mendelson said. “Now it’s the mayor’s turn, and if she doesn’t agree, then we don’t have an agreement.”

Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who represents the area around RFK, did not sign the June 9 letter. He said he supports additional housing at RFK but not a stadium “at this stage,” in part because of the allegations against the Commanders, calling the stadium “not acceptable to me.”

“I don’t think it’d be acceptable to the people of Ward 7,” he said.

Former mayor Anthony Williams, now the CEO and executive director of the Federal City Council, said he preferred the legislation allow the city to obtain the land from the federal government, then decide what to do with it.

But, he said, “if the cost of getting the land is putting some conditions on it right now, we should just go ahead and get the land.” He added: “I’d rather have the land with the conditions — and then talk about the conditions — than have no land and no conditions.”