WASHINGTON — In the middle of the nation’s capital are 190 prime acres that include Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, once the home to a National Football League team, two Major League Baseball teams and a professional soccer team. The stadium sits idle, awaiting an uncertain future.
Leaders in Washington, D.C., have ambitious plans to redevelop the site — including luring the Washington Redskins back from FedExField in Maryland — but they hinge on a renewal of a lease for the land from the National Park Service. Extension of the lease, which expires in 2038, would give the district substantial sway over how the project evolves.
But the push to redevelop has met resistance from some local leaders who fear that residents could lose their voice in the decisions that reshape the property.
The first piece of the $489.6 million redevelopment plan has already begun. Last month, bulldozers started to plow 27 acres of asphalt, known as Parking Lot 7, soon to become three multipurpose playing fields of artificial turf. The land will eventually include a 6,000-square-foot pavilion, a 65,000-square-foot food hall and a 350,000-square-foot sports and recreation complex. This first phase is expected to take five to seven years.
The activity fields, which are expected to cost $32 million, are scheduled to be ready in March and will accommodate soccer, lacrosse, baseball and softball games and related amenities.
District leaders would like to expand their vision, but are hampered by lease restrictions, which limit the city’s semipublic sports and convention agency, Events DC, to oversee “stadium uses” and other “public outdoor opportunities” at the site.
“We are pushing for long-term control of this land,” Washington’s mayor, Muriel E. Bowser, said at the fields’ groundbreaking ceremony in August. She has also been lobbying for a return of the Redskins to the district.
Any change that would make the site more than a local amenity would require congressional action. In 2017, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate to the House, introduced legislation to extend the lease to 2088, but the bill never got out of committee.
“I am continuing to work on multiple legislative options for the redevelopment of the R.F.K. site,” Ms. Norton said in a statement.
Even moving forward with the next short-term projects involves private financing that hinges on a longer lease. Gregory O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC, said formal requests for proposals would be made in the first half of 2019. But the lease amendment was intended to be included in the federal spending bill, and uncertainty over passage of the budget has put Mr. O’Dell’s timetable in doubt.
Ms. Bowser and Ms. Norton declined to be interviewed for this article.
In March 2017, the mayor wrote to President Trump, requesting that the federal government extend the lease or turn over parkland, including the R.F.K. campus, to the district. At the time, she envisioned not only a new sports facility but also “much needed housing and retail.” She received no response. On Dec. 4, her office said she was continuing to work “both sides of the aisle” to accomplish this.
Charles Allen, the district councilman who represents the stadium area, opposes using the site for the N.F.L. team, and would rather include housing for families as well as retailing. But he said he had heard speculation that pro-stadium efforts were accelerating. “Anytime there is a sudden clamming up, and they’ve all started saying they are not willing to talk, it’s a pretty big signal that something’s coming,” he said.
But talk of the team’s return has filled newspaper columns and sports radio talk shows. Said Mr. O’Dell: “A lot of it frankly is atmospheric noise.”
The property offers a lot of benefits to the community, said Brian T. Kenner, deputy mayor for economic development.
The site is about four miles east of the National Capitol building and borders the Anacostia River. Plans also call for providing pedestrian bridges to the neighborhoods on the other side, which are economically and culturally removed from the rest of the city.
The R.F.K. campus is right next to a stop for the Metro, the region’s commuter rail system, Mr. Kenner said.
“In New York and D.C. terms, this is a valuable piece of property,” he said. “It also has great sight lines into Washington and is one of the gateways off East Capitol Street into the District of Columbia.”
But the restrictions have also prevented the R.F.K. campus from being absorbed by nearby neighborhoods that have begun to be gentrified.
“If not for existing land restrictions there now, that area would have been developed into a new, vibrant, mixed-use community,” Mr. Kenner said. “Absent the restrictions, it would be a prime opportunity for us to think about adding affordable housing, additional grocery stores and additional residences.”
Opened in 1961 as D.C. Stadium, it received its current name in 1969 after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy a year earlier. The Kennedy family has been meeting with Events DC to come up with a design for an R.F.K. memorial on the site.
“Through this memorial, it is my hope that together we can help capture his forever-burning spirit and commitment to service,” his widow, Ethel Kennedy, said when the plan was unveiled two years ago.
In recent years, the stadium and surrounding acres of parking have been used less frequently. The Redskins left in 1997 for a new facility, now called FedEx Field, in Landover, Md. The stadium was also once home to two M.L.B. franchises, the Washington Senators and the Washington Nationals, as well DC United, the city’s professional soccer team.
Since 2007, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Redskins, has expressed interest in returning to the district. And last August, Ms. Bowser showed her support by saying that she hoped the team would come back to a new stadium built at the R.F.K. site. “Bring it home,” she said.
Whether the 58-year-old R.F.K. Stadium will be replaced with another stadium or its footprint put to other uses remains to be seen, but other cities have employed a range of approaches in similar circumstances.
Houston’s Astrodome, which harbored flood refugees during Hurricane Katrina, is due for a $108 million renovation, scheduled to begin early next year. Given its status as a historic landmark, the Astrodome was protected from demolition. The former Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, which hosted sports teams from 1931 to 1996, was partly torn down and converted into Stadium Lofts, a 100-unit apartment complex around the original ball field.
Mr. O’Dell of Events DC said planners were inspired by how other cities used such spaces, citing Chelsea Piers in Manhattan as a “great example for a sports and recreation complex and what it’s done for that neighborhood.”
Of the nearly $500 million earmarked for near-term projects, half are projected to come from the district’s hotel and restaurant taxes, about $83 million from the district budget and $160 million from the private sector.
For the longer term, Events DC, working with the international design firm OMA, has suggested three scenarios: a new N.F.L. stadium, a 20,000-seat indoor basketball and hockey arena, and other development with no single large anchor. “We are agnostic which option gets selected,” Mr. O’Dell said.
While all of this is being sorted out, Events DC has started a marketing campaign that includes a social media push and a local microbrew called RFK Untapped.
“This is a once in a lifetime chance to reimagine a vision not only for this campus but for this part of city,” Mr. O’Dell said. “We want to raise awareness of it.”
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