Photo by angela n. on Flickr.

A couple weeks ago, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans made some comments about bringing the Redskins back to a stadium in the District.  Though Evans clarified his remarks later, the story sparked some debate here on GGW as well as elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Urban stadiums have been built in cities around the world, with varying level of success.  Several GGW contributors weighed in on the issue, debating whether a move by the Redskins back to DC would be welcome or not. 

Today we share their thoughts about DC, while tomorrow we will feature some thoughts from other urbanist writers about the experiences in their cities.

Bradley Heard

Although I, as a Prince George’s resident, would hate to lose this economic engine, I think the ‘Skins should be back in DC. More importantly, building a new RFK stadium would be a profound opportunity to revitalize that important part of Ward 7.

A new stadium could be the anchor of new TOD redevelopment of the vast parking lots, creating something more urban.  At a minimum, some low-rise mixed use buildings with street-level retail could be added around the perimeter.  The project could be coupled with the addition of the oft-talked-about infill Blue/Orange/Silver Line Metro Station at Oklahoma Avenue, which could tie into the Benning Road/H Street Streetcar line and commercial district, and bike and pedestrian improvements along East Capitol (east to Benning Road and beyond) and along the river.

The Redskins say they’re not planning to leave FedEx Field until their lease is up in 2027, so that gives the District plenty of time to plan. At the same time, the departure of the Redskins from FedEx Field in Landover would give Prince George’s County an opportunity to redevelop that awful site into something a bit more transit-oriented — something that connects more logically (probably via frequent bus routes) to the Morgan Boulevard and Largo stations and the Landover Gateway area.

Alex Block

I’ve seen some urban stadiums work out well.  They can even have nice joint-development opportunities. However, the incentives for all parties are in complete opposition here.

The only way a giant new stadium at RFK makes sense for the city is if it hosts lots of events, and that requires an expensive roof.  Likewise, the city’s interest is in developing those parking lots to make better use of that space.  And if you develop those lots, you take away Dan Snyder’s ability to charge $40 per car on game days. 

The goals for a successful urban development are often in opposition to those of a profitable NFL team.  This isn’t necessarily the case for baseball and soccer stadiums, or indoor arenas such as the Verizon Center. As mentioned in this discussion, pro football stadiums are lousy for generating activity because they’re very large, very expensive, and host relatively few events. 

There’s actually an interesting proposal in Los Angeles from Anschutz Entertainment Group to build an NFL stadium near the LA Convention Center in downtown LA (next to the Staples Center as well as the recently developed LA Live entertainment complex).  The stadium, like what Jack Evans seems to want, would have a retractable roof, and would essentially be a very large arena. 

The challenge is in incorporating any kind of superblock development of that size into an urban context.  The very nature of the structure (as well as the events it hosts - and all the usual pomp and circumstance of tailgating, etc) isn’t a great fit.  It certainly could be accomplished at the RFK site, but would require some significant changes to the current NFL stadium paradigm.  You can’t just plop a new version FedExField down on East Capitol Street and expect success.

Tim Krepp

As someone who lives about 120 feet from the Stadium-Armory Metro stop, I’m pretty dubious of any development of a football stadium, for several reasons.

A 100,000+ seat stadium gets used, optimistically, 20-25 times a year.  When it’s being used, it may be a great asset to the area, but otherwise it’s a giant blockage to urban connectivity. Furthermore, before the Redskins moved to FedEx field, Stadium-Armory metro had a pretty significant backlog when RFK sold out (40,000 or so), often taking an hour or more to clear all the passengers. An Oklahoma Avenue station could potentially take a little more, as well as streetcar lines, but the overflow would still swamp the neighborhood, both metro access and driving.

Parking is both a giant revenue stream for the Skins and part of the football culture is the tailgating. There will be huge resistance to a new stadium with out acres of surface parking, which, most of us would agree, is not a good use of the site.

Lastly, the District has bigger and better development opportunities to be concerned about.  DC has a fairly significant backlog of promising urban in-fill sights (Reservation 13, SW Waterfront, Near Southeast/Capital Riverfront, Popular Point, etc.), which will take 5-10 years to come to fruition.

It’s quite sensible to start long term planning for the RFK site, as well as beginning the process of turning it over from the federal government, as that will no doubt take a decade in itself. But why not just develop a TOD plan for the site without a stadium? What does the Redskins being there do that a well thought out TOD plan doesn’t? As a close neighbor, I would say yes to a new transit oriented development, but “no thanks” to the ‘Skins. And not just because I’m a Giants fan.

Erik Weber

Matt Yglesias says that NFL stadiums belong on the periphery of cities, because of their low-intensity use, and their large need for parking.  I agree to some extent with his argument, but I would hardly call FedEx field’s location “on the periphery” of DC. While very few people, I think, would argue for a large football stadium in the heart of a downtown, because of their greater size that basketball arenas or even the newer “throw-back” style baseball stadiums, football stadiums can be successfully integrated at the edge of dense urban areas, much like RFK’s location.

Still, to be truly successful, a new RFK would have to reject Yglesias’ assumption that a large, mostly unused stadium surrounded by parking is somehow a fait-a-complit for NFL stadiums. If the stadium is designed to be flexible and accommodate more than just football games, one of the most compelling arguments against urban stadia can be eliminated by encouraging non-football uses.  The Georgia Dome, home to the Atlanta Falcons, sits in downtown Atlanta.  It has a variety of problems of its own, but underuse is not one of them: it hosts regular season college football and basketball games, major tournament and bowl games, as well as scores of other events.

With a strong site plan that ensures good access to Stadium-Armory and a new Oklahoma Avenue metro stations, stadium siting that is surrounded by multi-use park/event space to accommodate “tailgating” metro riders, and a reduced amount of structured parking, the Redskins could anchor a revitalized Anacostia riverfront.  Redevelopment would offer DC a chance to revisit the pedestrian unfriendliness of of the streets surrounding RFK and create new access points for pedestrians and cyclists to reach the river.

A succesful new RFK stadium hinges on several ifs: excellent transit access, improved walkability of the surrounding, multi-use design, and minimal structured parking.  But, after all, the Redskins aren’t really moving anytime soon, so perhaps, by the time they do, these ifs won’t be so far fetched.

As it stands, large urban stadia have been successful in other cities around the world, particularly with soccer stadiums in Europe, though these are used far more often than most NFL stadiums.  Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium, seating slightly over 60,000 sits on a large block in the middle of central London, without so much as a scrap of surface parking. FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou is similarly situated in the middle of the city, and seats nearly 100,000. 

Tomorrow, courtesy of some our blogosphere colleagues, we’ll take a look at some examples in the US where cities have chosen to keep their NFL stadiums in the city.

We've just launched our brand new website and are working out some kinks. Find something that looks like a bug? Please help out by sending us an email with the details!

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009.  Hailing from the home of the nation’s first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find.  Views expressed here are Erik’s alone.