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‘Bring it home’: Bowser, Snyder speak glowingly of RFK site for next Redskins stadium

Mayor Muriel Bowser (center) and other local politicians and community organizers break ground for the project to renovate the RFK stadium campus into multi-purpose recreational fields in a parking lot outside RFK Stadium on Wednesday. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Just hours after breaking ground on a $489 million project to transform the barren parking lots surrounding RFK Stadium into an easily accessible sports and recreation hub, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Wednesday left no doubt about the structure she hopes will anchor the 190-acre parcel: the Washington Redskins’ next stadium. And she’s not going to let the team’s name, which she does not like, stand in her way.

“Bring it home,” Bowser said from the dais of Washington’s Marriott Marquis, alluding to the Redskins’ home stadium, to a delighted audience that included Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who sat beside her throughout the team’s annual Welcome Home Luncheon, and four D.C. Council members, including former D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray.

In an interview after her remarks, Bowser, who is running without serious competition for reelection in November, said that although she didn’t like the team’s name and for a period declined to use it, she was focused on reusing the land occupied by RFK Stadium now that D.C. United has departed for its own new stadium.

“We think all of our professional sports teams should be in our city limits,” Bowser said when asked why she believes the city would benefit from the Redskins’ return. “We think it’s important that in a world-class city, we have all of the major things — arts, culture, restaurants, theater and sports.”

The proceedings thrust Washington’s RFK site into the forefront of what to date has been a largely speculative debate over whether the Redskins will build their next stadium in Maryland, Virginia or the District, where they played at RFK from 1961 to 1996 and won three Super Bowl titles.

Bowser didn’t share any details about a potential stadium deal but said the “model” would be the D.C. United agreement, in which the city provided the land to the team free on a long-term lease and the team was responsible for building the stadium. Nationals Park, by contrast, was built entirely with taxpayer dollars.

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Snyder, who acquired the team’s current stadium, FedEx Field in Prince George’s County, as part of his purchase of the Redskins in 1999, opened Wednesday’s proceedings by noting that he attended his first Redskins game as a 6-year-old, when the team played at RFK.

“It’s nice to be home,” Snyder said, setting the tone for what proved a virtual lovefest between the Redskins and D.C. officials.

Bowser followed suit with prepared remarks that summarized the city’s sports renaissance over the past decade, mentioning the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup championship, the Washington Nationals, United’s new Audi Field at Buzzard Point, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics (heading to a new facility next season in Ward 8) and achievements by the Wizards, Valor and Spirit.

“But something is missing!” the mayor added after a dramatic pause.

Snyder, in a brief interview after the mayor’s remarks, called her speech “great” and echoed her sentiment.

“[Washington] is a special place, and she’s right that it’s the only sports team that’s not in the city,” Snyder said. “It’s special to me. I have great memories there.”

Though Bowser did not speak to Snyder when she attended the team’s home playoff game against the Green Bay Packers to cap the 2015 season, the Redskins assigned her a prime seat for Wednesday’s luncheon at the head table next to Snyder. Four members of the D.C. Council, among them Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), sat at an adjacent table with Redskins President Bruce Allen. Gray, Bowser’s longtime rival and current Ward 7 council member who also supports a Redskins return to the city, joined her at the RFK groundbreaking and sat next to Allen at the luncheon.

Setting up a bidding war?

As with a real estate agent seeking multiple bids on a house, it’s in the Redskins’ interests to gin up a bidding war among multiple jurisdictions for their next stadium, which could cost as much as $1 billion. To date, however, none has come forward with a package of incentives, according to people familiar with the process.

The Redskins ideally would like to choose and announce the site for the stadium by the end of the year. That process could be delayed if offers aren’t forthcoming.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said in October 2016 that he would do “whatever it takes” to keep the Redskins in Maryland after the team’s lease at FedEx Field expires in 2027. Hogan’s position remains unchanged, according to associates, and his office was represented at Wednesday’s luncheon by Benjamin H. Wu, the state’s deputy secretary of commerce. Maryland’s leading site for a new stadium is a parcel of land adjacent to Prince George’s County’s MGM National Harbor, which is teeming with bars, restaurants, hotels and a casino but poses challenges of public transport.

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Virginia lost its most vocal proponent for a Redskins stadium when Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s term ended in January. But his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam, made clear during a visit to Redskins training camp in Richmond this month that he views a parcel of land in Loudoun County near Dulles International Airport, which would be served by Metro’s Silver Line, as an ideal home for the new stadium. “Our doors are open, and we’d welcome them,” Northam told reporters.

On Wednesday, however, Washington’s RFK site appeared to emerge as the front-runner — for at least a day — although the construction of a new NFL stadium would be fraught with challenges.

Chief among them are rules governing the 190 acres of land, which is still owned by the federal government on a lease to the Department of the Interior that has 19 years remaining. The Obama administration, citing the team name, rejected the mayor’s efforts to extend the lease. But appointees of President Trump (a recipient of $1 million from Snyder for his inaugural festivities) may be more receptive to such a pitch, and there has been discussion on Capitol Hill about transferring the land to D.C. ownership — which could allow for a broader array of uses than sports and recreation.

Any proposal for a new NFL stadium at the RFK location probably would receive a thorny welcome in the Capitol Hill neighborhoods that most closely border the site. “Most residents I certainly hear from in Hill East and across Ward 6 don’t want to see a football stadium there,” said council member Charles Allen, who represents the area.

Allen said he worked with residents for seven years to make new playing fields a reality and that they marked the first step toward reconnecting neighborhoods there with the river. He said he would not support building a new stadium that might not get used more than on NFL game days.

“Dedicating that much space to be used eight days a year would be a big waste of space,” he said.

District advantages

From the Redskins’ perspective, there are many arguments in favor of the District. Returning to the RFK site would tap into the team’s glory days, when victories on Sundays and postseason campaigns drew a disparate population together. A downtown, urban site would be more attractive to millennials, whom the team must lure if it’s to counter an aging, winnowing fan base. And a home in the nation’s capital would have obvious cachet.

But the Redskins have said little publicly about their wishes or timetable. And their process, as managed by Bruce Allen, has been puzzling.

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Before choosing a site, the Redskins hired a Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels Group, to design a futuristic, semitransparent, parabolic stadium and in March 2016 unveiled renderings on “60 Minutes” that showed the venue surrounded by a moat, set in a generic setting with no buildings around it. To the extent the design generated buzz, it has long since fizzled and generated no traction with local government officials.

While Snyder still favors the design, according to a person close to the process, his vision has since expanded — not of the stadium itself but of the setting around it. The team’s current thinking involves placing the stadium in the center of a commercial ecosystem that would include hotels, restaurants, retail and entertainment venues. The stadium would be just one facet of a vibrant commercial complex that would be its own destination, thus countering criticism from taxpayers who would object to public support for a venue that would be used 10 times a year. The new NFL stadium complex under construction for the Rams and Chargers — Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, with an approximate cost of $5 billion — is a high-priced prototype.

The shortcomings of FedEx Field are many. There are few dining or entertainment options nearby. Traffic tie-ups are routine. The team has reduced seating capacity at least three times and still falls short of sellouts. Those things, combined with two decades of poor performance under Snyder, have eroded the team’s fan base. This summer, the Redskins acknowledged that a season ticket waiting list long that claimed to top 100,000 no longer exists.

The $489-million price tag for redeveloping the RFK site reflects the projected cost of five “short-term” projects on the periphery of the venue and Anacostia waterfront: Three multipurpose fields; a 61,000-square foot market hall for food and dining; a 350,000-square foot indoor sports complex with basketball courts, go-kart track, fitness center and more; three pedestrian bridges; and a memorial honoring the late Robert F. Kennedy.

It also covers demolition of RFK Stadium, which is an element of a “long-term” development plan, but not the three scenarios for an “anchor facility” to replace it: an NFL stadium; 20,000-seat, NBA-suitable arena; or an open-air, multipurpose space.

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