News & Politics

We Asked Urban Planning Experts About What They Envision for RFK Stadium Land

And it's definitely not a new NFL stadium.

Capital improvement plan: What should we do with all this space? Photograph by MSgt. Ken Hammond/Wikimedia Commons.

In the words of Mayor Muriel Bowser, the federally owned land on which RFK Stadium sits is the “only national park dedicated to asphalt.”

It’s also dedicated to housing as many sports teams as possible. From its construction in the 1960s to the departure of D.C. United last year, the Ward 7 stadium was home to 11 college and professional teams. For the past year, however, RFK and its 190-acre parcel have sat largely empty.

Now, a bill introduced by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s proposes the sale of the tract to the District of Columbia. With so much of its land under federal or joint jurisdiction, ownership and control over such a parcel would be an important and rare opportunity for the District, says Jenny Schuetz, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute.

But before the city agrees on a price for the riverside expanse of concrete, it must have an idea of how much revenue the site will generate in the future. Meaning planners, policymakers and community members will be weighing in long before the purchase is completed.

“I’m sure everybody’s going to be lined up with their opinions on this one,” says Schuetz.

In the past, Bowser has expressed interest in using public subsidies to lure back the Washington Redskins, whose lease of FedExField in Landover will expire in 2027. Along with the introduction of Norton’s bill, however, Bowser has only reiterated that, at the moment, there are no official plans for the soon-to-be city-owned plot.

Ahead of the inevitable political battle, we spoke with area urban planners and community representatives about what they imagined for the site. Spoiler: Definitely not an NFL stadium.

An obvious—and unanimous—vision from planners included housing. However, there’s less agreement on what that housing might look like. Brian McCabe, a sociologist and instructor in the Regional and Urban Planning program at Georgetown University, says the acreage should be dedicated entirely to mixed-income housing and should bring investment that reconnects the area to the Anacostia riverfront.

Others envision a live-work-play community like a less upscale District Wharf; one that provides more housing but also brings jobs, retail and entertainment to a historically underserved area.

“Build more housing. Recruit more jobs. More parks that could connect to Anacostia neighborhoods,” DC Councilmember Charles Allen told the Washington Post.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, an advocacy group focused on promoting equitable development, agrees. “The best use of this land is a walkable, liveable mixed-use community,” says Stewart Schwartz, the organization’s executive director. He imagines a “true neighborhood,” with all the services an area would need to be self-sufficient.

With the displacement rate in Washington, DC ranking among the highest in the nation, every expert Washingtonian spoke to said a percentage of newly constructed housing should be designated affordable. Most envision a community of mixed-incomes, with a significant amount of space for low-income families. As with many large-scale developments, new construction along the riverfront might bring with it further gentrification. To keep this from happening, McCabe suggests policies, services, and employment opportunities that make it possible for residents already living in adjacent Kingman Park to stay there.

Tamara Blair, an Advisory Neighborhood commissioner who represents the section of Kingman Park next to the RFK tract, says that her constituents are calling for something more in line with what the land’s lease currently stipulates. An agreement between the National Parks Service and the stadium operator, Events DC, requires the land be used for “recreational facilities, open spaces, or public outdoor recreation opportunities.” Rather than a stadium, though, Ward 7 citizens hope for green space, public areas, and sports entertainment development that can be utilized year-round by the community, rather than for a smattering of football games and concerts that may be mostly attended by out-of-town and suburban guests.

For her part, Blair believes that planners should consider the housing needs of low-income, senior Washingtonians. She also questions whether a purchase of this size is prudent for a city facing a number of other challenges. “We’re talking about purchasing some land, but yet our schools are failing,” says Blair. “Where are our priorities?”

Whether a housing or commercial space, extending the grid of Capitol Hill is essential, says Schwartz. “The one thing we think is most important, though, is re-establishing the street grid,” he says. “Nothing works better than a good urban street network.”

Above all, Schwartz and others insist a new stadium would be a poor use of a large and quite valuable parcel.

“I can’t imagine a worse idea,” says McCabe. “Until you take care of making sure that everybody has safe, decent affordable housing, I don’t think we should be talking about building more sports stadiums.” Schuetz agrees, seeing the potential purchase as a great opportunity for the District to do something transformative.

But, McCabe worries about the likelihood of that happening. “It seems like some people high up want a stadium and they are swayed by some arguments about the economic benefits of it or the political accomplishment of bringing the Redskins back to DC,” he says. “[It’s] good politics, but it’s not good for the well-being of Washington.”