Excitement, Contention Surround D.C.’s RFK Stadium Proposal; Residents Voice Concerns Over Noise Pollution, Traffic

As a House committee advances a bill for the District’s new 99-year lease for the RFK campus, the debate about how to develop the 174-acre federal landmark rages on with some community members vehemently opposed to the prospect of a new football stadium. 

While D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has aggressively marketed RFK Stadium as the ideal home for the Washington Commanders, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Ebony Payne said that, other than a few nostalgic elders, many of her constituents aren’t excited about the return of football to RFK Stadium.  

Payne, commissioner of single-member district 7D05, which includes Kingman and Heritage Islands Park, said she and her neighbors have been burdened by the noise pollution and traffic brought by the spring and summer festivals on the RFK campus.   

Other points of contention include the dearth of parking space during events. Payne told The Informer that the D.C. Department of Public Works hasn’t been the most diligent in enforcing parking restrictions that ensure her constituents living near Kingman and Heritage Islands Park can park their cars close to their homes.  

Payne said Bowser is scheduled to speak to community members at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in Northeast on the evening of Oct. 18. By that time, Payne and her colleagues would be well into the collection of data from an RFK Future Stadium Survey they’ve circulated among community members. 

In regard to a football stadium, Payne said that District residents deserve projects that are more creative and of greater benefit to their collective well-being. In recent weeks, she has heard a bevy of suggestions, including Olympic-size swimming pools, basketball courts and activity space for seniors. 

“I’m against taxpayer dollars toward billionaires for a private stadium. Residents have needs like addressing juvenile crime,” Payne said as she recounted previous attempts to secure accommodations in her single-member district.  

“I’m asking the Department of Transportation to improve pedestrian access to our triangle park at D Street and 21st Street, and Oklahoma Avenue NE,” Payne continued. 

“The park has an art project coming and a church across the street, and is one of the main entry points to the RFK campus,” Payne said. “They said they couldn’t do it. It doesn’t sit well with me that we couldn’t get a crosswalk but they’re going to get a superdome.” 

The House’s Hard Deliberation on the RFK Campus Lease 

On Wednesday, Bowser watched as the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability conducted a markup of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus Revitalization Act, co-introduced by Rep. James Comer (R-Kentucky 1st District) and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) in July. 

Currently, the 70-year lease the District has for the RFK campus, located in Ward 7, expires in 2038. Mystery surrounding the campus’ future complicated Bowser’s development plans. Earlier this year, her budget proposal allocated funds toward the construction of a D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Sports Complex. 

If the legislation passes, jurisdiction over the RFK campus would get transferred from the U.S. Department of the Interior to the General Services Administration (GSA). 

The GSA would then enter a 99-year lease with the D.C. government. From that point, the D.C. Department of General Services (DGS) could develop a stadium, or commercial and residential property. 

This local-federal partnership would follow similar arrangements that led to development of Franklin Park and Walter Reed in Northwest, the Wharf in Southwest, and St. Elizabeths East Campus in Southeast. It would also align with the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, the Fields at RFK, and environmental programming conducted on Kingman Park and Heritage Island. 

During Wednesday’s markup meeting, Comer introduced an amendment in the nature of a substitute (ANS) that allows the GSA administrator to assume the National Park Service director’s responsibilities as it relates to the RFK campus.

It also mandates the completion of a survey that determines the exact acreage of the RFK campus, designates 30% of the land as “parks, recreation or open space,” and mandates that development on the campus improves public access to the Anacostia River Trail. There would also be restrictions on development on land located along the edge of the Anacostia River. 

Comer’s ANS also designates the campus for stadium, commercial or residential development that includes parking facilities, adequate public safety and security measures intended to reduce noise pollution and traffic.  Grounds for termination of the 99-year lease, per Comer’s amendment, include the D.C. government’s failure to correct noncompliance within 90 days of notification. 

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania 10th District) unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to Comer’s ANS that no public funds, including those appropriated by the federal government, would be appropriated for the development of a stadium, including training facilities, offices and other related structures. 

Ward 7 D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray would later comment on the blow that Perry’s amendment suffered. 

“I am…pleased that a proposed amendment to H.R. 4984 failed,” Gray said in a statement. “It would have micro-managed, if not altogether hamstrung our local spending autonomy and, as well, put the District at a distinct negotiating disadvantage with surrounding jurisdictions.” 

Gray went on to speak about the anticipated impact of the RFK campus’s development on his constituents. 

“I have always been open to discussions about re-imagining the RFK site, including the possibility of a new stadium, provided the best interests of District residents — in particular those in the surrounding communities — are at the forefront of any outcome,” Gray said. 

“Given today’s encouraging vote, I am eager to learn more about what the Josh Harris Group has in mind for the future of the team. Certainly, many discussions will follow,” Gray continued, referencing the current owner of the Washington Commanders. 

Acting Director Hunter Mixes Nostalgia, Urgency and Collaboration in His House Testimony 

RFK Stadium, which opened in the early 1960s, once served as the home of the Washington football franchise, and the Washington Senators, DC United, along with high school and college-level athletic competitions. 

In 2017, RFK Stadium hosted its last event, a Major League Soccer match between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls. 

By the end of the year, the stadium is scheduled for full demolition. Earlier this year, D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (I-At large) expressed interest in bringing the Washington Commanders to a newly developed RFK Stadium.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) stood in opposition to the idea, reportedly out of concern about whether a football stadium would be the best economic development strategy for the RFK campus. Allen, whose constituents live nearby, wrote a Washington Post op-ed in early August arguing that, when it comes to sports arenas, an aging Capital One Arena in Gallery Place-Chinatown deserves much more attention. 

During a D.C. Council breakfast on Tuesday, Sept. 19, one of Mendelson’s staffers alluded to discussions among House committee members about which party — the federal government or D.C. government —  would be responsible for environmental liabilities. 

The staffer also said that the House committee is seeking some alignment between the D.C. Council and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) about the 99-year lease. 

Later that day, DGS Acting Director Delano Hunter, a onetime student-athlete and alumnus of the shuttered Spingarn Senior High School, which was located near the RFK campus, testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. 

In his testimony, he articulated Bowser’s vision of a campus that would not only bring professional football back to D.C., but serve as a “launching pad” for athletes of all ages from across the nation. 

The sports complex Hunter described to committee members includes an Olympic-size swimming pool, a gymnastics training facility, an indoor track and multipurpose field, and outdoor and indoor basketball and tennis courts.  

These resources could be brought on by local-federal partnerships, similar to what Hunter noted have been successful in years past. 

For Hunter, former DPR director, the current state of the RFK campus doesn’t serve the best interests of District residents, particularly student-athletes who travel outside of the District to compete in tournaments and events. 

“Instead of connecting our community or serving as a grand entryway on the east side of our monumental core, [the RFK campus] is a mostly desolate sea of asphalt,” Hunter told committee members on Sept. 19. 

“Under the District’s stewardship, we can transform and activate the RFK campus so that it becomes a world-class destination for families, residents, visitors, and athletes, while also better connecting our beautiful waterfront and the neighborhoods along its banks,” Hunter added. 

While Kingman Park resident Cosby F. Washington said it makes no difference to him whether or not a new football stadium comes to the RFK campus, he told The Informer that there’s a real opportunity for the D.C. government to facilitate an outcome that benefits all parties. 

Since the age of 7, Washington has been a fan of the team once known as the Washington Redskins. During the team’s heyday in the 1980s, he attended championship games in Tampa and San Diego.  That’s where he saw Doug Williams make history as the Washington football team’s first Black quarterback. 

For Washington, the ideal use for the RFK campus would include a football stadium chock full of stores, attractions, and amenities for the community. He said that such a structure could go further with the inclusion of a multimodal public transit system bringing patrons to the stadium and collaborations with Pepco, the Langston golf course and other nearby landmarks. 

Washington said the property could also include a medical center. 

In making his case, Washington mentioned the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where the Dallas Cowboys play their home games. His only asks for a similar design in D.C. were that the D.C. government not provide tax breaks to developers nor displace long-time homeowners living along Oklahoma Avenue in Northeast. 

“There’s a real good bargain here if the D.C. government plays it right. They should bring back a stadium that’s conducive and supportive of the neighborhood,” Washington said. 

“If you design it right and they clear up the water down there, you can have boats coming up to the dock for lunch before the game, with tailgating and things like that,” he added. 

“If [the stadium] is designed for community use, it can be a valuable asset. We would need provisions where Kingman Park residents could get tickets.”