The Future of RFK: Parks, Parking and Politics


Proposed playing fields for CRYSP along the Anacostia River on the RFK site. Image Courtesy of CRYSP.

Proposed playing fields for CRYSP along the Anacostia River on the RFK site. Image Courtesy of CRYSP.

Look for this article in the January print edition of The Hill Rag-in news stands Jan. 3.

The Capitol Riverside Youth Sports Park (CRYSP), a Capitol Hill community group made up of interested neighbors, civic organizations, and local sports leagues, wants to bring four new multi-use playing fields to the banks of the Anacostia River and create a new Eastern Market-like pavilion for the weekend farmers market on the northern section of the parking lots that surround the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (RFK).

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The admittedly modest proposal faces the challenge of capturing the attention of key decision-makers and investors: the vision for community athletic playing fields pales in comparison to the promise of a new 100,000-seat NFL stadium or the 2024 Summer Olympic stadium.

The Land and the Lease

There are approximately 80 acres of underdeveloped parking lots on the RFK campus along the western banks of Anacostia River. The land is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, but is currently under a 50 year lease to the District government.

In October 1986, the federal government signed into law a lease for RFK Stadium and the surrounding land (in all 190 acres–including the stadium, the non-military portions of the D.C. Armory, open land and the parking lots).

The lease restricts the uses for the site to stadium purposes, recreational facilities, open space, public outdoor recreation opportunities and other uses as approved by the National Park Service.

Since the lease was first signed several different entities have managed the property under the District government’s authority. D.C. created the Sports and Entertainment Commission in 1994 to operate and manage RFK. Then in 2009 Events D.C. was formed (trade name of Washington Convention and Sports Authority) through the merger of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission into the former Washington Convention Center Authority to manage the site.

The stadium has served in recent years as the home of the Washington Nationals, DC United, concerts of varying sizes and other sports and entertainment events. The surrounding lots have been used for sporting event parking and tailgating, concerts, race courses for both running and vehicle races and at one point housed 15-20 foot mountains of snow leftover from 2010’s “snowmageddon.”

The nature of the lease with NPS prevents the sort of redevelopment seen along the Navy Yard area of southeast where Yards Park and new residential and commercial buildings sit along the banks of the Anacostia in the shadow of the new Nationals Stadium. Condos with ground floor retail do not exactly fit the recreational requirements of the lease.

To evaluate just what could happen on what is increasingly looking like prime riverfront real estate, Events D.C. issued a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) to study the future use potential of the RFK campus grounds in November 2013. In October 2014, Events DC officially awarded the RFEI to Brailsford & Dunlavey (B&D) which is now tasked with identifying short-term (8-10 years) and long-term uses for the stadium and its surrounding property.

The study area does not include Reservation 13–District-owned property to the south of the stadium site and its parking lots–for which there already exists a development master plan and where at least one mixed-use development will soon begin construction.

Big Talk for RFK

The sprawling expanse of parking lots and aging stadium have been the focus of groups angling for two major potential uses: the return of the Washington NFL franchise to the District and the 2024 Olympic Games.

Several city leaders have been vocal in their calls for the return of the area’s NFL franchise to the city for which it is named. Former Mayor Vincent Gray has repeatedly called for the football team to come back to D.C. once the lease is up for FedEx field in Prince George’s County in Maryland. Several members of the District Council have echoed that enthusiasm, notably Ward 2’s Jack Evans and At-large member Vincent Orange.

More recently, Washington 2024, the private group orchestrating Washington’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, has included RFK, its parking lots and Reservation 13 among its potential sites for an Olympic stadium, athlete housing and practice facilities.

A Community-based Vision for RFK

CRYSP evolved from a need for more sports fields for youth (and adult) recreational leagues. Just as political and business leaders saw opportunity in the open space along the river, local sports organizations in need of more green space looked to RFK for its potential.

“We got together and we just started looking around the neighborhood, the Hill. Where are there spaces? Vacant lots?” explained Mike Godec, president of CRYSP and a leader at Sports on the Hill.

With input from leaders from other sports organizations like Capitol Futbol Club and Capitol Hill Little League and civic groups, the idea for a new sports field complex–modeled after Arlington’s Long Bridge Park built on a former brownfield along the Potomac River–came into being.

The proposal calls for four multi-use fields to include a baseball diamond and corresponding bathroom and other necessary facilities built on top of the existing parking lots to ideally avoid environmental hazards that may or may not exist below the asphalt of RFK. The project also calls for green features to help reduce surface runoff into the Anacostia River and a permanent open-air structure for the weekend farmers market that would feature solar panels, which would help power the site.

Newly-elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for ANC 7D01 and CRYSP officer Bob Coomber said when CRYSP first started one of its goals was to create a positive vision for the future of a small section of the RFK parking lots that abut Kingman Park, the neighborhood he now represents.

Kingman Park residents have a long and vocal history of pushing back against many of the plans for the site–like American Le Mans Series sports car racing–but Coomber said he wanted to take that energy and put it towards advocating for something beneficial. Coomber said the idea was to “introduce a positive vision so that whatever came was not imposed upon us, but instead we got out there and said ‘This is what we want’.”

CRYSP also sees a role for the playing fields to benefit the entire city. Coomber said families in the city want safe places for their kids to run around and play–especially given the negligible backyards that accompany the city’s dense family housing stock.

CRYSP estimates construction would run between $25 and $30 million, some of which would need to come from the District government and some of which could come from private entities.

“Providing space for kids to play isn’t the responsibility solely of Sports on the Hill or Capitol Hill Little League or the Capitol Futbol Club. It’s the responsibility of government leaders. If you don’t do that these families are going to leave,” said Godec.

Where CRYSP and Everything Else Intersect

“It’s a good idea regardless of what happens,” said Godec about CRYSP in relation to proposals like a new football stadium or the 2024 Olympics.

CRYSP has had conversations with the team behind the Olympic bid about how the community park could work with future plans. It is even possible were D.C. to win the Olympic bid that the CRYSP fields could be built for community use well in advance of the games and then utilized during the games as practice fields for Olympic athletes.

“Usually when you do the Olympics, the legacy to the community of the Olympics comes after the Olympics are over. Why not have a legacy that comes 10 years before?” suggested Godec.

The B&D study currently underway takes into account the Olympic bid, according to Ashley Forrester, manager for communications and marketing at Events DC.

Another option for CRYSP comes on the heels of the recently approved new D.C. United stadium at Buzzard Point in southwest D.C. The soccer team will still need practice fields and, without access to RFK once its lease is up, locker rooms and other facilities. CRYSP sees an opportunity to secure at least some funding for the new park and playing fields through the upcoming Community Benefits Agreement D.C. United will create with the District government as part of the new stadium deal.

What about the return of professional football to a new stadium in D.C.?

CRYSP would take away some of the surface parking, but the organization argues there would still be significant parking remaining and that an urban stadium would draw many attendees via Metro. CRYSP estimates there would be parking sufficient for a stadium or event of 50,000 people–more if the new stadium added structure parking.

“There’s nothing that Events D.C. does that they couldn’t still do if CRYSP were there,” said Coomber.

CRYSP is ready to co-exist or stand on its own, come what may.

Political Will

CRYSP is aware of the challenge of convincing city leaders they should support anything other than the status quo at RFK. Coomber said one “major barrier” is to change the mindset of those who think, “What’s the point of spending a lot of money on anything when we’re just trying to get the football team back in 10 years?”

Newly-sworn-in Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen said he hopes to “champion” CRYSP as he begins his time on the District Council.

“There’s no question that it is a poor use of space–and that’s being generous,” said Allen about the sea of parking lots at RFK. “Everybody sees that.”

The challenge is convincing some of his colleagues and other leaders in the city that the CRYSP proposal can truly co-exist as the group believes it can.

“I want to make this a priority of the council, but it’s going to take pushing and pulling from a lot of different directions to make this happen,” said Allen, acknowledging the complicated nature of the District’s lease for the land and other interests in the site.

What’s Next?

The winning U.S. Olympic bid could be announced anytime through the end of January. The winning bid for the games would be announced in September 2017.

D.C. United will begin playing at its new stadium in 2017, according to current estimates. By then the team will have determined what to do about its current practice fields and where it will be practicing moving forward.

Dan Snyder has a lease for his football franchise in Maryland through 2026. Though he has indicated he is already looking for a new home, there’s no telling when that decision will come down.

For CRYSP the course is clear: convince city leaders that new playing fields will not hinder whatever may come at RFK–the Olympics or a new football stadium or something else–but would enhance future development and benefit the city as a whole.

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