The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. bid for RFK site as new home for Redskins stadium dealt blow in federal spending bill

The RFK stadium site is owned by the National Park Service and leased to the District until 2038. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

For the second time in the past year, an effort on Capitol Hill to get the former RFK Stadium land in the hands of D.C. government, an essential first step toward potentially building a new Washington Redskins stadium there, has failed.

This, in turn, leaves the Redskins with no clear path for returning to the District by 2027, when the team’s legal obligation to play at Landover’s FedEx Field expires.

The attempted measure was a long-term lease extension to the District that would have allowed for development of the 190-acre federal parcel of land along the Anacostia River. But it was ultimately omitted from the massive federal spending bill that was approved last week.

Because it probably was the final “must-pass” bill that Congress will consider for months — and perhaps until late 2020 — the Redskins will have limited opportunities to get access to the land through such channels.

In December 2018, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and team president Bruce Allen were unsuccessful in working behind the scenes with D.C. officials and congressional Republicans to slip into a spending bill a provision that would have paved the way for development of a new stadium before Democrats took control of the House.

The RFK site is owned by the National Park Service and currently leased to the District until 2038. The lease restricts the land’s use to sports, recreation and entertainment, precluding the vast commercial ecosystem of office space, hotels, restaurants and retail outlets that Snyder envisions surrounding the new stadium to maximize revenue and drive traffic to the destination year-round.

Meanwhile, the Redskins are mired in one of their worst seasons in Snyder’s 20-year ownership (3-11 heading into their final two games). For competitive and business reasons, Snyder is eager to start marketing sponsorships for a new, $1 billion stadium at the former RFK site, which he believes will rekindle memories of Super Bowl championships long past and, in turn, jump-start ticket sales.

According to three congressional officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations, there was a push this month to include an RFK lease extension in the year-end spending package.

After private discussion, it was omitted.

Among the roadblocks, according to the officials with knowledge of the discussions, was Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, who feared that tucking a lease extension in an appropriations bill would set a bad precedent. Grijalva has also raised concerns in the past about dedicating federal land for the Redskins, whose name he has called offensive to Native Americans. A spokesman for Grijalva declined to comment Saturday.

Some congressional leaders want to see a united front on the District’s plan for the RFK land — reflecting the view not only of the D.C. mayor but also the D.C. Council and District residents — before approving a long-term lease, land transfer or sale.

Members of the D.C. Council are divided on whether a new Redskins stadium is the best use of the land, and the public hasn’t yet weighed in.

Another major sticking point, according to one person with knowledge of recent deliberations, is Snyder himself. Many oppose signing off on any measure that would give the Redskins owner, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $2.6 billion, access to public funds or assets.

Through a team spokesperson, the Redskins declined to comment on the issue Saturday.

John Falcicchio, chief of staff for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), emphasized Saturday that conversations with congressional leaders about the RFK site are ongoing.

“We continue to coordinate with our partners on the Hill and will seek every opportunity to ensure that the only national park dedicated to asphalt is transformed into a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood connecting both sides of the Anacostia River,” Falcicchio said. “Revitalizing the RFK campus is a proper way to honor the life and legacy of the late attorney general and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and we hope the Congress will act soon to ensure we can do just that.”

Bowser, who is on record as supporting the Redskins’ return to the RFK site, met with Grijalva in November to make the city’s case for gaining control of the land.

Bowser followed up with a Dec. 2 letter to Grijalva in which she cited the city’s success with public-private partnerships in redeveloping The Yards along the Anacostia, the Wharf in Southwest and the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Bowser also outlined the city’s process for soliciting public comment in any discussion of developing the RFK site. But she made clear that the process couldn’t start until the District acquired the land.

“We cannot begin the process until the land transfer legislation is passed by Congress,” Bowser wrote.

Bowser took her case public in a Nov. 29 opinion piece, “Congress Should Let DC buy RFK Stadium,” in The Washington Post that she co-authored with her four living predecessors in the mayor’s office — Vincent C. Gray, Adrian Fenty, Anthony A. Williams and Sharon Kelly.

The mayors argue that whether the land should be used for an NFL stadium is a matter for the city to decide — not the federal government.

“Whether a stadium or sports arena is included in the reimagined RFK campus is a debate for a future date and is something we should decide by and for ourselves,” Bowser and the former mayors wrote. “We must all stand united to put back to productive use a vacant sea of asphalt parking and convert it into a thriving neighborhood.”

This is the tack that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) takes in the legislation she proposed in March that would authorize the District to buy the RFK land from the federal government at “fair market value.” So far, the bill has gotten little traction.

“This bill isn’t about a stadium. It’s about clearing title on the land,” Norton told The Post in an interview. “This is the largest piece of important land left in the District of Columbia that has not been put to good use. I have made it my business to get all such land used.”

Norton said this week that she had worked to overcome Grijalva’s opposition by trying to arrange a joint meeting between Grijalva and both Bowser and D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson (D).

Mendelson confirmed Saturday that Norton had attempted to arrange the joint meeting but said it fell apart over a dispute about whether the council should be able to review any plan to bring back an NFL stadium. The council inserted language in the current budget to block the city from spending money to buy the RFK land from the federal government.

“The council was different from where the mayor was because we wanted a review of any plan and the mayor did not,” Mendelson said.

Read more:

Most Washingtonians want a new Redskins stadium on RFK site but not the bill, Post poll finds

‘Like you were inside a drum’: Readers share their memories from RFK Stadium

For some Redskins players, the NFL season can complicate life as a dad

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