The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Del. Norton floats a new way for District to control RFK Stadium site

Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, also known as RFK, in April 2017. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, is filing legislation that asks Congress to sell to the city one of the largest tracts of vacant land in the District: the 190-acre RFK Stadium site.

Acquiring the land would give D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and members of the D.C. Council the chance to address goals they largely agree on: the acute need to build new housing, recreation facilities and parks in place of the asphalt surrounding RFK.

Sharp disagreements are likely to arise, however, over whether plans should also include an NFL stadium.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder wants to relocate his team to the site. And Bowser, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, has made it clear she wants to be the mayor to bring home the team that left the city to play in Landover, Md., in 1996.

But some D.C. Council leaders would aggressively oppose any public incentives sought by Snyder to build a new stadium on the site, and others would object to a stadium used only a few dozen days a year.

“Building a stadium for a billionaire is just a horrible waste of taxpayer dollars,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) whose ward is adjacent to the “oceans of concrete” that he said define the RFK site. “Build more housing. Recruit more jobs. More parks that could connect to Anacostia neighborhoods.”

And some members of Congress, which would have to approve a land sale, consider the Redskins team name offensive and bristle at the idea of allowing the team to build on federal property, although they may support an outright land sale in the name of giving the city control over its own affairs.

All sides agree something better could be done with a crumbling stadium and the surrounding vacant parking lots.

Bowser last summer endorsed a new Redskins stadium on RFK property, but she remained neutral this week in her State of the District address when she announced Norton’s bill allowing the city to buy the land outright.

Given the District’s housing crisis, Bowser said the city could not let any untapped land go to waste, including the RFK site, which is owned by the National Park Service. The mayor called the site “nothing more than a vast and desolate parking lot” and “the only national park dedicated to asphalt.”

“To be clear, there is no deal to bring a professional sports team to that site,” she said. “Whether a stadium or sports arena is included in the reimagined RFK Campus is a debate for a future date, which we as a city must decide for ourselves.”

In August, Bowser backed a new stadium, declaring “Bring it home!” during the team’s annual preseason luncheon at Washington’s Marriott Marquis as a delighted Snyder looked on.

The Redskins didn’t respond to a request for comment on Norton’s proposed bill.

As Congress considers what to do, Allen is thrilled with the progress on three multi-use sports fields with lighting and a pavilion with restrooms set to open this summer. A new memorial for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is also being planned for the site.

But as a statehood proponent, Allen said, it would be hypocritical of him to ask Congress to put conditions on the property, such as ruling out a stadium, in exchange for the sale.

Another stadium opponent, council member David Grosso (I-At Large), said once the District acquires the land, the council will engage in a methodical public process for determining its best use.

“It’s important for us to have that land under our control,” he said. “I just hope we keep in check the desires of Dan Snyder, because he’s proven he can’t be trusted.”

First Congress must approve Norton’s bill.

An eight-page draft of the legislation, known as the RFK Memorial Stadium Campus Conveyance Act, makes no reference to the Redskins or a new stadium.

“This bill isn’t about a stadium. It’s about clearing title on the land,” Norton said in an interview. “This is the largest piece of important land left in the District of Columbia that has not been put to good use. I have made it my business to get all such land used.”

Although Norton considers the team name a racial slur, she said she has no preference for how the District uses the land. Even if she did, she said, she wouldn’t discuss it, because “then members of Congress would feel free to jump in and offer their preference.”

The draft bill says the District should purchase the site for fair market value based on an appraisal performed by a professional selected by the federal government and the District.

The price would factor in the costs of environmental cleanup and flood management as well as the price of demolishing the existing stadium, which would fall to the District, according to the bill.

The bill comes months after Snyder and Redskins President Bruce Allen worked behind the scenes with select D.C. officials and congressional Republicans to slip into a spending bill a provision that would have paved the way for development of a new stadium.

Language they were considering would have extended the existing lease for 99 years and removed the recreation-only language, opening the site to commercial development.

The backlash was swift from Democratic members as well as national civil rights and racial justice organizations, and the effort fell apart.

Lawmakers objected to the potential long-term private use of federal land without a thorough public process and didn’t want to facilitate the construction of a stadium to promote a team whose name many Democrats consider racist.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who now leads the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies, opposed the lease extension but is open to an outright sale that could generate billions in revenue for the federal government.

“This does not change her perspective on the team name,” McCollum’s chief of staff, Bill Harper, said. “She remains adamantly opposed to the team name. But the team is not involved in this transaction. This is the federal government to the District government.”

A spokesman for Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the corresponding Senate Appropriations subcommittee, declined to comment on Norton’s bill but reiterated the senator’s opposition to any action that could be construed as promotion of the name.

“I firmly believe that Congress should not send any message that we support or give our stamp of approval to the Washington football team’s racist name,” he said in a statement.

For the team and other stadium proponents, the essential first step is for the District to gain control of the RFK site. Then they will have to convince the D.C. Council that the best use of the land is a Redskins stadium.

According to people familiar with his thinking, Snyder believes the best way to revive fans’ interest and amplify his profits is a new stadium on the RFK Stadium site, which is revered among Redskins fans who remember three Super Bowl triumphs under Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs.

Neither Snyder nor Bruce Allen has publicly stated that the RFK site is the team’s first choice for a new stadium.

But amid the team’s waning popularity, Snyder and Allen have waited in vain for a bidding war to erupt among officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District in the form of tax breaks and concessions to land a new NFL stadium.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has shown only mild interest and has said there is little appetite in his state to offer taxpayer incentives for a stadium. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in February essentially rescinded the site he had previously dangled, near MGM National Harbor.

That has left Snyder with the District, where he has hoped to build all along, but without the leverage of pitting multiple jurisdictions against one another for the most favorable financial terms.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly called Bowser a third-generation Washingtonian; she is a fifth-generation Washingtonian. This story has been updated.

Fenit Nirappil and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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