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Bye-bye, bouncy seats: District to raze RFK Stadium by 2021

D.C. officials say maintaining the empty RFK Stadium, shown above in 2017, is costing $3.5 million a year.
D.C. officials say maintaining the empty RFK Stadium, shown above in 2017, is costing $3.5 million a year. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The District plans to tear down the dilapidated RFK Stadium by 2021, a move officials say is driven by a need to save money and not to advance any plans for the Redskins to build a new football stadium there.

The decision announced Thursday will end the life of the 58-year-old stadium best known for hosting the Redskins during the team’s glory years in the 1980s and early 1990s, when it won three Super Bowl championships.

RFK, located on the Anacostia River two miles east of the U.S. Capitol, also was home for a time to both the Nationals and Senators baseball teams, as well as the D.C. United soccer team. It also hosted concerts, including performances by the Beatles, Madonna and Foo Fighters.

Events DC, the District agency that manages the 47,000-seat stadium, is seeking bids by Oct. 25 from contractors to demolish the facility. Since D.C. United left in 2017, RFK has attracted few events and is costing the city $2 million a year for maintenance, landscaping, pest control, security and other services. Utility bills add another $1.5 million a year.

“We don’t want to throw money after a resource that’s exceeded its useful life,” Events DC President Gregory A. O’Dell said.

The demolition also will make it easier for the District to move ahead with plans over the next five to seven years to build a $500 million recreational and event space for residents and tourists, O’Dell said.

He and other officials pushed back against speculation that the city was bulldozing RFK to pave a path for the Redskins to replace it with a new stadium. John Falcicchio, chief of staff to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), said the District has had “no substantive conversations” with the team about a new stadium in 13 months.

Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie said the team would have only one comment: “We support the mayor’s decision.”

Both Bowser and team owner Daniel Snyder have expressed hope that the team might return to the District, which it left in 1996 to play at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. in Prince George’s County.

Snyder would like to recreate the electric atmosphere at RFK, where fans famously stomped feet so hard that the stadium shivered. Bowser would like the team to anchor a complex with retail, restaurants and affordable housing.

But the District would first need to gain control of the land, which it leases from the federal government. At present, the lease allows the site to be used only for sports and recreation.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city’s nonvoting member of Congress, has filed a bill to sell the entire 190-acre RFK Stadium site to the District, but that legislation has not progressed.

A return by the Redskins would be controversial; some members of Congress and the D.C. Council object to the team’s name, while others are concerned by the prospect that tax dollars could help fund the project.

“I’m glad to see it’s going to come down — I just want to make sure it doesn’t go back up,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), whose district borders the RFK site. He wants it converted into housing and green space.

“This is a place where we need to extend our city, not build a stadium for a billionaire,” Allen said.

The team could seek to build a new stadium in Northern Virginia or the Maryland suburbs, but those prospects appear to have dimmed. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is cool to the idea, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said in February he was dropping an effort to persuade the team to build its next stadium adjacent to MGM National Harbor in Prince George’s.

O’Dell said a new professional football stadium was one of three possible long-term uses — along with an indoor sports arena or green space — but that the city is not currently looking at those alternatives.

“We are not working on any of those long-term options right now, nor have we talked to the Redskins about that or any of this demolition effort,” O’Dell said.

Instead, the city is moving ahead with short-term plans for the site, which is valuable both for its waterfront location, nearby Metro station and proximity to downtown.

While a stadium rots away, new fields offer a glimpse into the future

Events DC opened three multipurpose turf fields in June to host recreational soccer leagues, kickball teams and school groups, among other events. The next steps are to build an indoor sports complex, a market for dining, pedestrian bridges across the Anacostia, and a memorial to Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of president John F. Kennedy.

Originally named District of Columbia Stadium, the facility was renamed in 1969 following Robert Kennedy’s assassination.

Kennedy’s granddaughter, Maeve Kennedy McKean, lives on Capitol Hill a mile from the stadium. She said she was pleased about the planned memorial and does not regret losing the facility.

“I have wonderful memories of going to the stadium [for football games], but that was a long time ago, and things change,” McKean said. “It’s time for something new, and for something that gives back to the community.”

News of the demolition spurred longtime residents to reminisce.

John Innocenti of Springfield, Va., recalled helping to build the stadium while working as a carpenters’ helper when he was in high school. “It was very cool when I was later able to attend baseball and football games there,” Innocenti said. “My dad was a D.C. police detective, so most of the time I went with him and he got us in free by waving his badge.”

Speculation about the District reaching a stadium deal with the Redskins surged in August 2018 when Bowser told the team’s annual Welcome Home Luncheon, “We think all of our professional sports teams should be in our city limits.”

But Falcicchio said the city and the team have had no significant talks since then.

“Since that point, there hasn’t been anything of substance,” said Falcicchio. “There’s no substantive conversations, and there are no negotiations underway.”

Demolishing the stadium will show Congress that the District is serious about reimagining the RFK site, Falcicchio said.

“There’s an opportunity there for mixed-used development, with a large portion being housing,” Falcicchio said. “Especially if it were workforce housing and affordable housing, that would be a great way to honor the legacy of Robert Kennedy.”

Jimmy Lynn, an adjunct professor of sports marketing at Georgetown University, said demolishing the stadium now would make it easier eventually for the Redskins to build a new one there, but he doubted an agreement was in place.

“I can’t imagine they have a deal this far out,” Lynn said, noting that the team is contractually obliged to play at FedEx Field until September 2027.

O’Dell said razing RFK could take up to a year after a contractor is selected, with demolition mostly completed by fall 2021.

The agency has not yet decided whether it will auction off seats or other parts of the stadium. “At an appropriate time, we’re going to celebrate this building and honor its legacy,” O’Dell said.

Redskins, D.C. working with Congress to slip stadium provision into spending bill

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