Football or families? Fight over RFK site reaches critical stage

On April 7, a group of East Capitol Hill residents gathered in Lincoln Park to demand that a football stadium not be inflicted on their neighborhood a second time.

With the Washington football team’s lease on Landover’s FedEx Field expiring in 2027, time is running short for team owner Daniel Snyder to obtain a shiny new playground for his club with the racist name.  And he has had his eyes squarely on the site of the team’s previous stadium – crumbling Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium on the banks of the Anacostia.

He almost got his wish in a backroom deal with minimum public scrutiny.  During last fall’s debate over the federal budget – before discussions collapsed and the government endured a record-long shutdown – District officials were working with congressional Republicans, the Trump administration and Snyder to insert a provision in the budget bill transferring the land on which RFK sits, which is federally owned, to DC.  This would have smoothed the way for the team’s boosters in the DC government, particularly Mayor Muriel Bowser and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, to get a new stadium built on the RFK site with minimal opportunity for public opposition.

But the RFK provision failed to survive the shutdown and the subsequent agreement to reopen the government.  Meanwhile, two of the deal’s boosters – Evans and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke – got diverted by inquiries into their ethics, or lack of them.  Evans was reprimanded by the Council for using his elected office to further his outside business interests (a federal investigation of his ethics continues) while Zinke resigned under the cloud of a probe into whether a land deal he struck in his native Montana was a conflict of interest.

A new bill to transfer the land to the District, introduced by DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, is working its way through the current Congress.  While it would seem reasonable to allow the District, rather than the federal government, to determine the fate of the property, local activists are mobilizing to head off any fast moves by Snyder’s friends in the Wilson building to hand him the property without full public input.

Participants in the rally at Lincoln Park emphasized possible uses for the RFK site that would provide greater benefit to the city and community than a football stadium would – especially given the demands the team would make on the city for infrastructure and other costs.

“This is our land and I don’t want to give it to Dan Snyder,” said Denise Krepp, advisory neighborhood commissioner for ANC 6B.  “We have broken roads.  We have broken schools.  We have broken infrastructure.  If you’ve got $200 million extra dollars spend it on the infrastructure – don’t give it to Dan Snyder.”

Chander Jayaraman, chair of ANC 6B, expressed his ambition for “a day when somebody can start off over at Kingman Park and spend the day going all the way along the waterfront . . .and can end up at Georgetown and say ‘wow, what an amazing day.’  Putting a stadium there is not going to get to that end.”

Anti-stadium activists have gained the support of DC Councilmembers Charles Allen (Ward 6) whose ward includes the RFK site, and David Grosso (At-Large).  Most other members have had little to say on the issue.

One of the earliest salvos against the stadium shenanigans came in the form of a December letter to DC councilmembers from Rebrand Washington Football (RWF), a local grassroots group which since 2015 has been pressuring the team to change its name, a dictionary-defined slur against Native Americans.  In its letter, RWF noted that in 2013 the Council had voted to condemn the team’s name as racist.  “Instead of conspiring by back channels to relocate the team to the District with no accountability whatsoever, it should insist that the local government provide no funding or other assistance to the team until such time as it should adopt a name that is not racially offensive,” RWF demanded.  “Otherwise, its previous resolution is not only meaningless but hypocritical as well.”

In addition to the DC Council, in 2015 the Arlington County Board also adopted a resolution condemning the team’s name as racist.  But remaining mum on the name controversy are two jurisdictions that have shown interest in luring the team – Prince George’s County, for a stadium connected to National Harbor, and Loudon County, Va.  In a letter to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, RWF urged him to oppose the location of the team in Virginia as part of his professed desire to promote racial reconciliation after his past use of blackface was exposed.  “We ask that you condemn ‘redface’ as no less demeaning and racist than ‘blackface,’ and to do so by standing against a team that has adopted ‘redface’ as a business practice,” RWF wrote.

However, it appears that whatever ardor leaders of the suburban jurisdictions might have had for luring the team has cooled.  Northam was never the football booster that his predecessor Terry McAuliffe was, and the distraction over the blackface controversy seems to have turned his attention away from sports.  In Maryland, meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan in February said he was halting talks with the team about relocating to National Harbor.  Hogan had been criticized for proposing a land swap with the feds to acquire Oxon Cove, a deal that could have led to the paving over of a popular park with  a working farm in favor of a mammoth football palace.

"We’re not talking about just a stadium,” said Ian Washburn, a founder of RWF who participated in the Lincoln Park rally.  “Today’s NFL venues are evolving into campuses where the anchor team controls the development rights for the areas immediately surrounding the stadiums. The tax breaks and exemptions for billionaire sports owners live on for decades after the stadiums and neighboring entertainment zones have been developed. Current examples of NFL stadium campuses under construction can be found in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers have also recently developed commercial campuses around their existing stadiums."

The gathering opposition against a new football stadium at the RFK site and the lack of support for it elsewhere are driving Snyder into a box.  Keeping him there will require maintaining the alliance between neighborhood activists, opponents of the team’s name, and residents across the city who don’t want to spend hundreds of millions for a giant white elephant on the Anacostia.

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