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Half billion-dollar plans for RFK Stadium site include sports center, market, RFK memorial

In a rendering from architects OMA, an enclosed food market, in the foreground, would accentuate an RFK Stadium campus with more playing fields than parking lots. (Courtesy Events DC)

Several parking lots around RFK Memorial stadium would be turned into a $490 million complex comprised of a spacious sports center, community market and a new memorial to Robert F. Kennedy under a new proposal by the District’s sports and convention agency.

Built in 1961 and originally named D.C. Stadium, RFK is expected to largely empty by 2018 or 2019 when the D.C. United professional soccer team moves into a new stadium on Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington. Officials at Events DC, the quasi-independent convention and sports manager, unveiled broad concepts for re-purposing the 190-acre site east of Capitol Hill in April.

In a Thursday night meeting with residents, officials planned to drill down on those plans, laying out an array of recreation and community facilities sought by neighbors that they said would largely be paid for by taxes from the city’s booming hotel and restaurant industries.

Rather than focusing on how to return the Redskins to the RFK site or build a new home for the Washington Wizards and Capitals — two ideas that remain possibilities for the center of the site — the plans focus on community amenities to replace surface parking lots to the north and south of RFK originally built to accommodate Redskins and baseball fans.

[RFK Stadium site offered as home for Redskins or maybe Wizards and Capitals]

Max Brown, a businessman named to chair Events DC by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), said the mission was to determine “what can we do now in the next two to five years on this site to capture the economic development that has been happening in the city.”

Working with Dutch architects OMA and local consultants Brailsford and Dunlavey, Events DC plotted a cornucopia of attractions led by three multi-purpose athletic fields, a 47,000-square-foot food market hall and a 350,000-square-foot indoor sports complex that could feature indoor lacrosse, paintball, bowling, go-karting, video-gaming, trampolines and batting cages.

The plans also call for three new pedestrian bridges connecting the RFK land across the Anacostia River to Kingman Island and to the River Terrace neighborhood on the far side of the water from Capitol Hill.

Brown and Gregory A. O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC, said the group heard from many in the city clamoring for better recreation facilities.

“We’ve heard a lot from the community that there are just not enough fields. There aren’t enough fields. Scheduling fields is just an impossible task,” Brown said.

A D.C. resident, Brown said he remembers trying to find a batting cage for his son and driving to Ashburn. “There is nothing like this around and if we want to attract families to D.C. and have them stay here, we are going to have to have amenities for them and also attract people from out of town,” Brown said.

There isn’t a lot not to like about new baseball diamonds and soccer fields. D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who represents Capitol Hill, said that residents “consistently hit on the same thing over and over and over again, and that is field space and green space. And remove parking lots.”

The question of whether the Redskins or another professional team would move to RFK remains open. Brown and O’Dell said they have not discussed their plans with Redskins officials. Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the Wizards and Capitals, has talked openly about possibly leaving the Verizon Center. William Hall, a lawyerwho has represented Leonsis on other facility deals, is an Events DC board member.

[Ted Leonsis looks toward the future, hints at possible move for Capitals, Wizards]

Although Brown said he would like to see many of the group’s plans completed by 2026 the obstacles are far more daunting than building playing fields would be at a school or public recreation center.

The RFK land is owned by the federal government and controlled by the National Park Service. Although the land was conveyed to the District in a lease that expires in 2038, Events DC would have to either wrest control of the site from the Park Service or seek congressional approval for a change or extension that would allow the financing of the plan’s larger elements, such as the sports complex.

A number of government agencies including the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have to approve the plans. The D.C. Council would have to approve contracts of at least $1 million related to the work.

Events DC also has a different mission from the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which typically manages sports and recreation facilities. About 80 percent of the group’s budget comes hotel and restaurant taxes and because of an increase in large conventions booked for the convention center, the group expects to see its numbers continue to rise.

Of the $489.6 million projected cost (a very rough estimate that is likely to change) Events DC envisions paying for about half, $239.9 million, from its own budget, and another $83.2 million coming directly from the D.C. government.

The group then plans on raising about one-third, $166.5 million, from private sources, some of which would include leases to sports leagues and teams interested in using the facilities. “It has to be activities that are financially feasible, that support the cost of the building. It can’t just be things that are free to everybody,” Brown said.

Allen said he has pressed Events DC to start with straightforward improvements, namely green space and playing fields, rather than tie those to the larger components. “Even within the short-term there’s still different time frames,” he said. 

Among the nascent plans are those for a new memorial to the late Robert F. Kennedy, the Democratic attorney general, senator and presidential candidate who was assassinated in 1968. Events DC laid out only a framework for design and location ideas for a new memorial after speaking with members of Kennedy’s family including Maeve McKean, his granddaughter.

Born Maeve Kennedy Townsend and daughter of former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, McKean said she was excited at the prospect of replacing the stadium with “some type of living memorial where people get to learn about him and his life and his legacy, especially for people who weren’t around when he was alive.”

A Capitol Hill resident herself who works for the federal government, McKean said she agreed with a lot of her neighbors that the property could be used for something better than parking lots.

“The idea right now is to knock down the stadium, which is old and no one really uses, and to create something that is useful and productive and accessible,” she said. “A football stadium in my mind is not the most accessible to people.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that the RFK land lease expires in 2038, not 2026. 

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz