Rumors are swirling once more that the Washington NFL team could be moving from its stadium in Landover, possibly to the District. A new stadium in DC is almost certainly a bad idea, though it’s possible — just very unlikely — it could actually have positive effects.
The most logical place for a stadium is the Anacostia riverfront site where there’s an existing, unused, aging stadium already: RFK. But RFK occupies a massive amount of waterfront land that could be far better used for new housing, fields for community sports, monuments, or just about anything else.
It’s not that a stadium is so noxious. But around it is 80 acres of parking lots. Not only are they almost always empty, they’re damaging ecologically, pouring stormwater runoff directly into the river, absorbing heat, and depriving the District of other ways to use valuable land.
Could a stadium exist without such surface parking lots? In theory, sure. Since games are on weeknights and weekends, one could imagine a new district with office buildings, each with underground garages that serve workers by day and football fans during games.
That, however, would interfere with tailgating, a strong fan tradition outside football games. It also would mean yielding some control over the parking arrangements, something owner Dan Snyder is unlikely to do without strong incentives. He makes big bucks on parking charges at FedEx Field (and tried to charge fans for walking to the stadium instead).
The team recently made news by hiring Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a highly-respected architecture firm, to design a potential new stadium. The team didn’t announce where, but if that’s DC, BIG is capable of creating something much more innovative than the typical bowl-in-sea-of-parking.
I don't support D.C. building a stadium at RFK. But D.C. could get much more out of a stadium built by BIG than people expect.— Kriston Capps (@kristoncapps) January 12, 2016
Citylab’s Kriston Capps says that even if Snyder were willing to go with an urban design that doesn’t involve massive surface parking, the NFL would not then let a Super Bowl be played there, and a Super Bowl represents massive revenue.
The NFL's requirements for Super Bowl—hosting eligibility are vast oceans of traffic spaces. That's incompatible with an urban stadium use.— Kriston Capps (@kristoncapps) January 12, 2016
What else a DC stadium should have
If a stadium were to come to the District, a few other elements should be prerequisites for any deal:
Change the football team’s name. It’s offensive. This has already been discussed extensively and need not be rehashed here. But the team should change it.
No public money. Economist after economist has demonstrated that public subsidies for pro sports stadiums rarely come anywhere close to paying off for cities, and least of all for football, where teams play just eight regular home games a year.
No free tickets for public officials. The mayor and DC Councilmembers get free tickets to Nationals games. This is a big perk for top officials, who can enjoy the games and give out tickets to staff, constituents, and donors. It also means that everyone potentially voting on such a deal has a massive conflict of interest — they can spend taxpayer dollars and get a perfectly-legal kickback.
Some argue that a city-controlled box is a valuable tool for wooing economic development to DC. If that’s true and not just a rationalization, perhaps there’s a way to set up an independent body that gives out tickets only when there’s a strong enough case, and sells or lotteries the tickets to residents the rest of the time. But it shouldn’t be yet another perk of incumbency.
This probably won’t happen
Unfortunately, there’s little reason to believe DC would successfully push for such features or that Snyder would accept. There’s too much political pressure on officials just to get the team to DC regardless of the cost, and a traditional parking lot-ringed stadium would serve Snyder’s interests fine.
To be clear, this is all wishful thinking. Dan Snyder will try to steal from the city and D.C. leaders will open doors to him. Good morning!— Kriston Capps (@kristoncapps) January 12, 2016
The chance of that got a little stronger thanks to a baffling Washington Post editorial that called a stadium at RFK “the logical and obvious move” because of its transportation access and “waterfront vistas that can’t be beat.” (Never mind that there are trees in the way of waterfront views from RFK; trees on federal parkland have not stopped Snyder before.)The editorial made no mention of the opportunity cost of foregoing ball fields, bucolic parks, and buildings.
If a football stadium won’t be urban in nature, there’s no reason to have it in DC. The District has scarce land and huge demand for housing and offices. For something that needs 80 acres of almost-always-empty land around it and gets used eight or so times a year, suburban areas are far more sensible.
Landover is a fine place for a stadium. A site in Loudoun County, near a future Silver Line stop, has been widely discussed as a likely contender, especially since Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has been wooing the team, and its practice facilities and headquarters are already in Ashburn.
DC might have once needed the kind of pride and reputation that comes from having a team inside its borders, but now it has plenty of other reasons for pride (and the team will still be called Washington, anyway). A stadium that truly anchors a new neighborhood could be great, though. It’s just extremely unlikely. I’d love to be surprised, though.