Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is getting help from District officials, congressional Republicans and the Trump administration as he tries to clear a major roadblock to building a new, 60,000-seat stadium on the site of RFK Stadium.
Nearly three years after the Redskins unveiled futuristic designs for their next football stadium, the team has been working in concert with local and federal officials to insert a stadium provision into the massive spending bill that the Republican-controlled Congress is rushing to complete this month, according to four people familiar with the effort but not authorized to discuss it publicly.
The provision could pave the way for the NFL stadium and other commercial development on the 190-acre site that was the setting of the team’s greatest triumphs. By tucking it into a complex spending bill, the team and local officials could sidestep some public debate over whether other uses for the coveted parcel of land would benefit a broader swath of D.C. residents.
The provision’s passage would not guarantee the stadium would be built at the RFK site, and the District government would retain control of the property. But it could give fresh momentum to the D.C. plan before officials in Maryland or Virginia have an opportunity to make a meaningful play for the project.
The effort comes as Snyder and government officials fear that the coming change in House control from Republicans to Democrats could complicate future attempts to secure the RFK site, according to multiple local and federal officials familiar with the discussions.
It also comes in the wake of the team’s widely panned decision to sign linebacker Reuben Foster days after his second arrest for a domestic violence incident. The Redskins were the only NFL team to pursue the troubled player after he was dropped by San Francisco and did so three months after signing running back Adrian Peterson, who had served an NFL suspension in 2014 in connection with child-abuse charges in disciplining his son.
While controversy over the team’s name has subsided, it remains vehemently opposed as racially offensive by some Native American groups. In 2014, 50 U.S. senators sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to change the name.
According to the officials, the stadium effort has the backing of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and some congressional Republicans, which could ease the process of getting the provision included in the spending bill. Former White House legislative director Marc Short, a Virginia native and Redskins fan, is among those who have promoted the plan, one official said. He declined to comment Friday.
Heather Swift, a senior Interior Department official, said the department would not comment on legislation. Redskins President Bruce Allen did not respond to a request for comment.
Developing the RFK site, which is on federally owned land along the Anacostia River, is politically fraught. The city controls the land only through 2038 under a National Park Service lease that states the land must be used for “stadium purposes” or “recreational facilities, open space, or public outdoor recreation opportunities” only, precluding commercial development.
According to one congressional official and a D.C. official, the language under consideration would extend the existing lease for 99 years and remove the recreation-only language, thus opening the site to other, commercial development.
A Democratic congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions said members of the Appropriations committees are aware that Republican leadership and the White House are exploring adding the stadium provision to the bill. But no specific text has been presented, and Democrats have not taken a position on whether they would support or oppose its inclusion in the final bill.
The fate of the bill remains in flux. Congress on Thursday passed a two-week measure extending the deadline to Dec. 21. But partisan division remains over funding for President Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, which threatens to derail any agreement and spark a partial government shutdown.
Maryland officials have not given up on efforts to keep the Redskins stadium in their jurisdiction. The office of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) acknowledged Friday the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Interior Department in September 2017 to give the state control over the 300-acre tract of federal land in Oxon Cove, adjacent to MGM National Harbor in Prince George’s County. Hogan’s vision is to offer that site for a stadium.
Interest by Virginia officials in landing the next stadium is less feverish under Gov. Ralph Northam (D) than predecessor Terry McAuliffe (D), who vigorously courted Snyder. Northam secured a far bigger prize in November, when Amazon announced it would build one of its two new headquarters in Crystal City, creating as many as 25,000 new jobs.
Among the local officials playing a key role are D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Beverly Perry, a top aide to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). D.C. House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who has spoken out against the team’s name but also tends to defer to the wishes of local officials, is also engaged in the process.
Said Norton in a statement: “I am continuing to work on multiple legislative options for the redevelopment of the RFK site.” Evans declined to comment, as did Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio.
Getting the land deal done before this Congress adjourns is critical to Snyder, who has taken pains to cultivate Republicans in power and donated $1 million to President Trump’s inauguration fund.
Timing is significant to the city, too. When Bowser raised the prospect of extending the lease during the Obama administration, with an eye toward a new Redskins stadium, the Interior Department declined, with Secretary Sally Jewell saying she was unlikely to rework the agreement to accommodate an organization with a name she felt was a “relic of the past” and ought to be changed. Leaders of the incoming Democratic majority in the House could raise similar concerns.
City officials have long had their eyes on redeveloping the stadium site, as well as an adjacent 67-acre tract of former federal land to the south. Bowser asked Trump in a March 2017 letter for “either a full transfer of jurisdiction or an extension of the term of the lease for an additional 100 years with a removal of restriction limiting the use of the property.” The letter was also sent to Zinke.
“We believe the site can be transformed to create and preserve green space, add much needed housing and retail, include a sports and/or entertainment purpose and above all generate jobs for our residents and the region,” she wrote.
But inside the District, locating a stadium on the RFK site remains deeply controversial, with residents in adjacent neighborhoods and other activists calling for the development to focus instead on creating accessible green space and easing a deepening housing crunch.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who represents the neighborhoods west of the stadium site, said it would be an “incredibly wrong decision” to build a new stadium and feared that residents could lose leverage in shaping the future of the site.
“All we’re going to get is what we’ve got already, which is a place that is unused on the edge of a neighborhood where we have the opportunity to really extend our city and extend our neighborhood down to the river,” he said. “Every dollar and every square foot that we put into a stadium and parking lot is a one that we’re not putting into affordable housing or local businesses or parks and green spaces.”
The Redskins’ lease to play at Landover’s FedEx Field expires in 2027. For Snyder, the remaining years at the stadium that former team owner Jack Kent Cooke built largely with his own money in 1997 are a mounting source of frustration.
Snyder increasingly sees FedEx Field as a liability — a drain on his bottom line, as well as a home-field that provides little advantage and is shabby compared to the newer, shinier venues of his NFC East rival Jerry Jones, whose Dallas Cowboys opened high-tech AT&T Stadium in 2009, and his counterparts in Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Francisco and New York.
The standard for NFL venues is being raised anew by Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke. The price tag of his Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, which includes not only a stadium but a vast commercial complex, has ballooned past $4 billion. Kroenke has pledged $1.6 billion of his money toward the cost.
Snyder hopes to create something similar on the RFK site, albeit on a smaller scale.
Rather than a stand-alone NFL stadium plopped in a parking lot, like FedEx, he wants to the team’s new stadium to be the centerpiece of a vibrant commercial district that would be a year-round destination, thus insulating the project, in theory, from criticism that it would be used for just 10 home games per year.
The city, not Snyder, would retain control of the development rights under the kind of lease extension being discussed. But Snyder could negotiate with city officials to secure at least a portion of those rights as part of any stadium plan. In August, city officials joined with leaders of Events DC to unveil a $489 million master plan for a redevelopment project that included three options at its center, an NFL stadium among them.
Two D.C. officials said the city and team have explored for months options for securing the site for redevelopment, including the possibility of a land transfer from the federal government to the city. But that process got bogged down, and team and government officials now see a lease extension as the most viable way to secure control of the site.
From Bowser’s perspective, a new Redskins stadium at RFK would be the crowning achievement of her ongoing initiative, in partnership with Events DC, to position Washington as “a sports capital.”
Nationals Park, which opened in 2008 during Mayor Anthony Williams’s administration, serves as a model given the development that has since boomed in the Navy Yard area. Under Bowser’s watch, D.C. United opened its $400-500 million, 20,000-seat Audi Field at Buzzard Point in June. A city-financed sports and entertainment venue opened this year in Ward 8, hosting the Washington Wizards’ training center and the home courts of the WNBA’s Mystics and a new NBA G League affiliate.
At the Redskins’ annual Welcome Home luncheon in August, Bowser erased any doubt that her personal dislike of the team’s name would stand in the way of a new stadium, sitting beside Snyder at the head table and taking the dais to declare, “Bring it Home!” — alluding to the place the team played from 1961 to 1996. Joining Bowser at the luncheon at D.C.’s Marriott Marquis were four D.C. Council members, including former D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).