The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What to do with RFK Stadium? First, D.C. must take control.

RFK Stadium in September 2019. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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There is a pretty good record of redeveloping underused and run-down federal land in the District of Columbia into vibrant neighborhoods. Look at the transformation of the Navy Yard and the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center into flourishing urban areas filled with bustling businesses and new life. The 190-acre RFK Stadium campus is desperately in need of a similar transformation. But whether the District will get the chance to make productive use of the crumbling stadium and its miles of abandoned parking lots remains up in the air.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has for several years urged federal officials to cede control of the land, owned by the National Park Service but leased to D.C. in 1988 for 50 years. The lease is limited to a sports stadium, open space and recreation uses. After D.C. United moved to a new soccer stadium, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) introduced legislation that would allow D.C. to purchase the property at fair-market value and leave up to the city how to use the land, such as for housing, retail or a sports and entertainment venue. The bill failed to advance. Ms. Bowser this year redoubled efforts, partly out of the belief that the prospects would be better while Democrats still control Congress and the White House.

Unfortunately, apparent disagreement between Ms. Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has left the plan in limbo. Ms. Norton said she cannot introduce legislation until Ms. Bowser and Mr. Mendelson agree on the bill’s terms and conditions. A major sticking point between Ms. Bowser and Mr. Mendelson seems to be whether the District would try to lure the Washington Commanders back to their old home at the RFK site. Ms. Bowser favors the team’s return and would use city funds to build infrastructure but not the stadium; Mr. Mendelson said he is open to a deal that would prepare the land for the Commanders but first wants the National Football League to release the findings of its sexual harassment investigation into the team.

No question there is much to debate about whether the District should welcome back the team. Is a stadium the best use of this valuable, centrally located property? Has the team, under investigation by Congress for sexual harassment and financial improprieties, become so degraded under the ownership of Daniel Snyder that it is not worth having? For now, the team’s toxicity is such that a majority of the D.C. Council opposes bringing it back. A push in the Virginia legislature to subsidize a new stadium there imploded in the wake of the latest Commanders controversy, over a coach’s inflammatory comments about the Capitol insurrection.

Questions about the Commanders don’t have to be decided now and should not muddy efforts to get city control of the land. No development can happen until the city has authority over the property, and specific plans — for housing, for retail, for a stadium — would be subject to a lengthy process with layers of approval and much public debate. Unless the city has the ability to chart a future for RFK, it will continue as a wasteland of missed opportunities. Surely that is something Ms. Bowser and Mr. Mendelson can agree on.