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Obama administration rebuffs D.C.’s efforts to bring back the Redskins

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, speaking in her office a week before meeting with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Efforts to lure the Washington Redskins back to the District have come up against a potentially insurmountable challenge: the Obama administration’s objections to the team’s name.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser this spring that the National Park Service, which owns the land beneath Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, was unlikely to accommodate construction of a new stadium for the Redskins unless the team changes its name.

Jewell oversees both national park land and America’s trust and treaty relationships with Native American tribes.

Her decision not to extend the District’s lease of the RFK land badly hinders Bowser’s bid to return the Redskins to D.C. — and boosts efforts to lure the team across the Potomac to Northern Virginia.

Since joining the Obama administration two years ago, Jewell has repeatedly echoed the president’s concern that the name is offensive to Native Americans. Last fall she called the name a “relic of the past” that should be changed.

“Personally, I think we would never consider naming a team the ‘Blackskins’ or the ‘Brownskins’ or the ‘Whiteskins.’ So, personally, I find it surprising that in this day and age, the name is not different,” Jewell told ABC News.

Jewell reiterated that position with Bowser (D) at an April 27 meeting, telling the mayor that she was unlikely to rework the lease terms for a stadium in part because of the team’s name, according to a Department of the Interior spokeswoman, Jessica Kershaw.

Team owner Daniel Snyder, who insists that the moniker honors Native Americans, has vowed never to change it.

Bowser, jockeying with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to land the team’s new stadium, had inquired with Park Service officials about extending the District’s lease for the RFK property to allow for a new stadium. Extending the lease would also require congressional action.

[Tug of war for new Redskins stadium is complicated by name debate]

Jewell  “did mention in that meeting that she was uncomfortable with the name,” Kershaw said. “The president has said something similar, that he is uncomfortable with the name, and she clearly clarified that position.”

A second factor the secretary raised, Kershaw said, was that with just 18 months remaining in the Obama administration, re-working the lease was not likely to be a top concern before the president leaves office. D.C. owns RFK stadium but leases the 190 acres beneath the stadium as well as surrounding parking lots and land from the park service. The lease expires in 22 years.

“Given the timing, this is not likely to be a priority for this administration,” Kershaw said.

Robert A. Vogel, regional director of the Park Service, responded formally to the mayor’s request for a lease extension in a May 19 letter.

“As I believe the Secretary made clear in our discussion, the NPS will not take a position in support of such an extension at this time,” he wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “You are, of course, free to seek such legislation without NPS support.”

The Park Service’s position hampers Bowser’s bid to return the team to the city from FedEx Field, in Prince George’s County, a stadium that is only 18 years old but that the team is trying to vacate before its lease there expires in 2026. Team officials, citing fan complaints about the stadium’s configuration, have removed seats from FedEx three times in five years.

Bowser spokesman Michael Czin declined to comment. Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie also declined to comment.

[Redskins remove seats from FedEx Field – again]

RFK will be largely unused by 2018, when D.C. United is expected to move into a new soccer stadium on Buzzard Point in Southwest. Events DC, the sports and convention arm of the District that operates the property, has been studying how best to use the RFK land into the future.

Officials said they expect to release the results of that study later this summer. That’s later than some onlookers expected, but Events DC Chairman Max Brown, a prominent District businessman and lobbyist, said figuring out how to accommodate the interests of many stakeholders “is not just like saying where do you want to put the couch in your living room.”

Not only is the RFK land in a flood plain and adjacent to heavily populated Capitol Hill neighborhoods, but the federal lease also restricts use of the land to stadium purposes, recreation and parking. The future of the D.C. Armory, built in 1941, is also being considered.

“We’ve got a tremendous opportunity here to reuse this site under the constrictions that the NPS mandates for sporting, recreation and other uses,” Brown said. “There is a broad opportunity citywide for people to use that space. You’ve got 18 million tourists who could come use that space. You’ve got the surrounding community who could use that space.”

The restrictions in the Park Service lease could complicate financing of a new NFL stadium because of the way stadium development has evolved in the 55 years since construction began on RFK.

Rarely are stadiums built in urban settings today without shops or hotels nearby, but it isn’t clear how much of that would be permitted on the RFK site, which could make financing major improvements difficult.

“There aren’t single-use facilities anymore that don’t have ancillary uses that support the sports and entertainment,” said Gregory A. O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC.

NFL owners still insist on including thousands of parking spaces for new stadiums, however, something D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and some residents of Capitol Hill don’t think is the best use of the property.

One group, a nonprofit called Capitol Riverside Youth Sports Park, is advocating for Events DC to build a series of playing fields with a pavilion for farmers markets on a portion of the site, although that may not preclude a stadium.

“We don’t have enough green space in the city,” said the group’s president, Michael Godec. “We have growing populations of kids and less and less places for them to play.”

Although Snyder has openly reminisced about attending the team’s games at RFK as a child, McAuliffe is making a determined bid for a new stadium, an effort that includes a hand-offs approach to the team’s name and stadium sites that don’t require federal approval. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has also pitched the team on remaining in the state.

McAuliffe said 66 percent of the team’s season ticket holders live in the commonwealth, as do almost all the players. The team already has its headquarters and practice facilities there as well.

“I would love to have the Redskins come to the Commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said in April. “It’s where they belong.”

Robert McCartney and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report. 

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz