On Nov. 14, 26,000 soccer fans filled RFK Stadium to watch D.C. United play the first leg of the InterAmerican Cup tournament. It was a big night for the team. D.C. United had won the Major League Soccer championship twice in three years of existence, but the team had never played a world power. That night at RFK, however, D.C. would face Vasco da Gama, a 100-year-old club from soccer-mad Brazil.
It was also a big night for RFK. After the Washington Redskins abandoned the stadium in 1996, city officials worried that it would become a civic white elephant in the middle of East Capitol Street. But, much to everyone’s surprise, the arrival of Major League Soccer has been salvation for the 38-year-old structure. With 16,000 fans regularly attending 16 home games a year, D.C. United brings RFK $1.2 million a year in rent and other revenues, enough to ensure that RFK, far from being a big money suck, is modestly profitable.
But while RFK made it into middle age by reinventing itself as a soccer stadium, wear and tear is written all over its creaky façade. It’s not exactly a FanTastic place to catch a game. When Brazilian star Felipe faced off against D.C.’s Marco Etcheverry that night in November, hundreds of the team’s fans were idling in a half-mile traffic jam outside the stadium because too few parking attendants were on hand to collect fees. Some angry ticket-holders missed as much as half the game waiting to park. Once fans left their cars, they dashed past closed-up ticket offices that still read “Washington Redskins.” Water dripping from the ceiling made visitors feel as if they were walking through an underground parking lot.
Throngs of spectators streamed past rows of mostly shuttered concession stands. Hungry fans enticed by Snickers sponsorship signs dotting the playing field were hard pressed to find the candy bars in the stadium. RFK doesn’t sell Snickersor much else in the way of snacks. Of course, it’s probably a good thing the food pickings were so slim. To stand in line for a lukewarm hot dog was to risk missing a game-winning goal. RFK’s sound system burps out a loud, indecipherable roar inside the concourse. Although TV screens are scattered around the stadium, they don’t actually show the gameonly still shots of team promotionals. And the stadium scoreboard, circa 1974, can barely keep scoremuch less show a replaywith so many bulbs burned out.
Many of those at the November game had hoped to get a good seat in one of RFK’s famous undulating first-level stands. No such luck: An entire section of the premium seats had been dismantled in order to reconfigure the stadium for
two exhibition baseball gamesgames that weren’t scheduled for another six months. But soccer fans are used to shabby treatment at RFK.
Though the sports facility is a major piece of District-owned capital, the people responsible for it are not the same surly municipal clock-punchers who get the blame for gaping potholes and oversee school roof fires. In fact, the people ultimately responsible for the sorry state of RFK are culled from the city’s private-sector elite. They are the lawyers from old-line downtown firms, real estate magnates, union bosses, and university vice presidents who lead the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. You know, people who really understand how to make a business run.
The little-known commission is charged with managing RFK and the D.C. Armory, marketing the District as a “sports town,” and developing new sports venues. Though it is swimming in money, the quasi-independent body has in its brief history invested so little in the city’s aging stadium that it’s amazing people come from Columbia Heights to watch games, let alone Columbia, Md. That’s partly because the people who can’t get snap into an RFK hot dog are busy trying to convince taxpayers that if D.C. really wants to be a major-league city, it needs a $330 million new baseball stadiumdowntown, far from the working-class black neighborhoods around East Capitol Street.
For the past three years, without so much as a single public hearing, the commission has been quietly negotiating with would-be team owners, angling to acquire land, changing city planning regulations, and continuing to stockpile cash$19 million at last countthat could help finance construction. All for a stadium in a neighborhood that’s shown no support for it and for a team that doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile, the stadium the commission is actually charged with running languishes on the sidelinesbarely fit for the Promise Keepers, much less major-league sports. Last year, the Sports Commission spent more money on baseball stadium consultants than it did on maintenance and repairs at RFK, according to commission financial statements. There’s a certain logic to the neglect: The worse the old stadium looks, the better a new one feels. The less money the commission spends maintaining a stadium for a bunch of low-budget soccer rowdies, the more it has to pitch a boutique ballpark to up-market baseball types who will sneak out of the office, take off the tie, and knock back a few at the old ball game.
D.C. United has gotten the message. Its lease is up this year, and the soccer team is looking to the suburbs for greener pasturesor at least better hot dogs. “There’s this Field of Dreams thing going on in D.C.,” says D.C. United general manager Kevin Payne. “It’s kind of frustrating.”
Officially Undecided, the Sports Commission Chose a Downtown Stadium Site Years Ago
A baseball cap on the wrong head can be an unfortunate sight. As TV cameras rolled and onlookers ordered hot dogs from RFK vendors imported to One Judiciary Square for a February press conference, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Sports Commission member William Hall, and D.C. Councilmembers Charlene Drew Jarvis, Jack Evans, and Linda Cropp all donned baseball caps and ground through an embarrassing, halfhearted rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
The event was scheduled to coincide with the March 6 deadline Major League Baseball had given the beleaguered Montreal Expos to stabilize their finances or be freed up for sale and possible relocation. (The deadline has since been moved to May 30.)
Reminiscing over photos of the Washington Senators, the assembled lamented the bygone days of going to a baseball game with Dad. It was one cozy sing-along, with everybody agreeing that America’s pastime should be played in the nation’s capital. All around the room, eyes glinted at the prospect of a D.C. team pulling in dollars and kicking up synergistic retail energy with a trendy stadium like the ones in Baltimore and Cleveland.
Civic synergy generally begins with a study, and the Sports Commission had produced a whopper, a $200,000 artifact that claimed to be an objective evaluation of eight possible sites for a D.C. baseball stadium. Though renovating RFK stadium and erecting new facilities in places like Anacostia and Buzzard Point were mentioned in passing, the winning site was on the east end of downtown, where a stadium would complete the triad of major developments near Mount Vernon Square, along with the MCI Center and the new D.C. convention center. Estimates place the cost of such a new stadium at $330 million.
No surprise there. The Sports Commission settled on the downtown site more than two years ago. In February 1997, commission member Paul Wolff told the commission that “the preferred site for the baseball stadium was the site near Mt. Vernon,” according to the board’s minutes. Wolff suggested that the commission meet with then-Mayor Marion Barry to recommend that “he urge the city that it would be in its best interest to build the stadium as close to the Mt. Vernon site as possible.” Even though the commission continued a public charade of being open-minded on the site of the stadium, it spent the next two years energetically laying the groundwork for a downtown stadium. All while RFK continued to deteriorate.
At that same meeting in 1997, the board voted to approve a consultant’s contract for a “feasibility study” of the downtown site. Only later did the commission expand the consulting contract to include seven other locations. One of the firms behind that studythe powerful land-use law firm Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick and Lanerepresents at least one of the major landowners at the proposed downtown site.
“This is supposed to be due process and thorough analysis? That’s a joke. I have students that could see that,” says Dorn McGrath, a professor of urban and regional planning at George Washington University.
Indeed, last summer, while its consultants were supposedly analyzing the merits of eight various locations, the Sports Commission was already lobbying Congress to help the city acquire downtown real estate with federal funds, according to board minutes. While consultants were supposedly weighing the advantages of a Union Station site over RFK, the Sports Commission had the D.C. Council amending the comprehensive plan to accommodate a stadium in Mount Vernon Square.
Activists who fought the downtown development community’s last big projectthe $800 million convention center, just blocks from the stadium sitesay using studies as a smokescreen is part of a familiar pattern. “By the time they do these studies, it’s just to justify the decision they’ve already made,” says Beth Solomon, a Shaw resident who fought the convention center and lives steps away from the proposed baseball site.
Sports Commission member Linda Greenan concedes that the commission has been pushing for a downtown stadium but says the debate is purely hypothetical. “There probably has been a bias toward the downtown location,” she says. “I don’t think we can argue against that. But it is not a done deal. We are a long way away from having a baseball-endorsed stadium. When it is a real thing, we’ll start to involve the whole community.”
Her colleague William Hall, baseball chair on the commission, says there were legitimate reasons for rejecting the other sites. “No one has come to me and said, ‘Based on this criteria, you made the wrong choice,’” he says. Besides, he adds, the studies were merely the beginning of a long dialogue about whether and where to build a stadium. “We don’t intend to do anything until there is a team and an ownership group that intends to bring baseball to D.C.,” he says. “I’m in favor of any site that will bring baseball back to the District.”
With barrister manners and a basketball player’s towering frame, Hallwho once played hoops at Bucknell University for legendary coach Jim Valvanocan be awfully convincing. But the facts suggest that the Sports Commission is determined to provide only one option: a brand-new stadium downtown. And it has taken a series of concrete steps to bring the deal to fruition. Last summer, the commission paid the Carmen Group, a political consulting firm, nearly $10,000 to study and pursue legislation that would allow the District to get at least $80 million in federal transportation funds to construct an intermodal transportation center (ITC).
How the Sports Commission Got Into the Underground Garage Business
Just why a sports commission would spend money pursuing a big underground parking lot is no mystery: The lot would serve as the deck for a downtown stadium. Much of the stadium financing plan hinges on getting the federal ITC funds. According to board minutes from a July 1998 commission meetingwhile the body was still officially researching a variety of sitesthe Carmen Group sent out letters to Congress, signed by the mayor, expressing interest in acquiring downtown land for the ITC .
Hall says the commission is not lobbying for the ITC, a distinctly nonsports enterprise. Yet at its April 8 meeting, which Hall missed, the commission not only agreed to press Congress on the ITC funds, but also expressed its willingness to hire outside consultants to defray the city’s lobbying costs. Vice Chair Joseph Gildenhorn heartily endorsed the idea, noting that the ITC “can make or break the project.”
Considering that the commission was pushing the proposed ITC fully nine months before it completed its site-selection study, it’s a little hard to keep a straight face when Hall insists that the study reflects input from a wide swath of city residents. “We sat down with various interested parties and several councilmembers,” he says.
But, although the consultants did meet with the Interactive Downtown Task Force, a group of the city’s biggest downtown real estate developers and landholders, they never met with interest groups outside of downtown. Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, whose ward contains two of the study’s other potential sites, says she was never interviewed by the commission or its consultants until shortly before they released the study.
The commission and consultants did, however, pay a visit to Lawrence Thomas, chair of the advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) that would vote on the zoning for the downtown stadium. Thomas, on the record as a stadium opponent, extracted a goodwill gesture from the commissiona $1,500 donation to his nonprofit Shaw Food Committee to help pay for its annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. The Sports Commission considered the expenditure a baseball expense, according to board minutes.
Contributing to Thomas’ pet causes is a well-established tradition for people looking for community compliance on their lucrative real estate developments. Between 1995 and 1997, Thomas’ ANC improperly took $1,600 in donations from Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick and Lane, while his ANC was votingfavorablyon issues affecting the firm’s clients. The ANC distributed the donations to individual commissioners, who claimed, without any documentation, that the money went to charity, according to a recent D.C. Auditor’s report. (Thomas did not respond to a call for comment.)
Hall says the donation to Thomas was merely a charitable gesture, not walking-around money. But when asked if the commission gave out turkeys anywhere else, he replies, “No one asked!”
And Hall says the commission has gone out of its way to get input from the public on the stadium. As evidence, he cites a March 11 public meeting on baseball, sponsored by Ward 2 Councilmember Evans. But that event wasn’t exactly a forum for gathering public input. Rather, it was a sales pitch that the commission paid a public relations firm nearly $10,000 to orchestrate, according to Sports Commission records. “Our purpose was not to make a decision of where the game will be played,” Hall reiterates. “The team owners and the city will make that decision.”
But the Sports Commission and the city give every indication that they have already decided. A piece of land inside the proposed baseball site that the city bought specifically for housing development has been pulled off the market. In December, the D.C. Council quickly and quietly passed legislation to change the city’s comprehensive plan, which outlines city zoning policy. The legislation allows the construction of a sports facility in the area, which had previously been designated for housing and mixed-use commercial development. There was no public hearing on the bill.
“Naive citizens who think they’re going to have a role in [the stadium location] are completely bamboozled,” says McGrath.
A Group Used to Getting Its Way
The Sports Commission was conceived in 1993, amid threats by Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke to move his football team to the suburbs unless the District ponied up millions of dollars for a new stadium. City officials realized that they needed a plan. After examining sports authorities in other cities in 1994, then-Councilmember William Lightfoot and his colleagues created the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, consolidating the D.C. Baseball Commission, part of the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling commission, and the D.C. Armory Board, which had previously run RFK.
The D.C. Council believed a single city entity would do better competing for big-name sporting events. “We thought we needed to free it up from government,” says Lightfoot. In doing so, councilmembers vested the commission with tremendous powers and permissions. It is not obliged to comply with city personnel rules or other bureaucratic strictures; it has the authority to issue bonds without council or voter approval; and it gives none of the revenue generated from events at RFK or the Armory back to D.C.’s general fund. “That was deliberate,” says Lightfoot. “It was set up as an entrepreneurial enterprise.”
The council wanted the new commission to find a way to fund RFK after the Redskins left and to make bids on major sporting events without placing a burden on the taxpayers. After getting an initial $5 million endowment from the city, the commission was supposed to be self-supporting. The setup has worked far better than expected. Lightfoot, for one, was surprised to learn that the contents of the commission’s coffers had swelled from $5 million to $19 million.
Big numbers are nothing new to many on the Sports Commission. While the requisite agency heads, a municipal employees union leader, and a token athlete all sit on the panel, its leading membersparticularly those most outspoken about baseballcome straight from the city’s business elite. For instance, Baseball Chair Hall is a partner at Winston & Strawn, a high-powered downtown law firm. Finance Chair Wolff is a partner at swank Williams & Connolly, whose late partner Edward Bennett Williams once owned the Baltimore Orioles.
Vice Chair Gildenhorn is president of JBG, a company whose vast D.C. real estate holdings once included the Watergate Hotel and the old Touchdown Club. And Greenan, an assistant vice president at Georgetown University, lobbies local government to look after her tax-exempt institution and once served as chief of staff to Ward 2 Councilmember Evans, the legislative water carrier for Washington’s commercial real estate industry.
Greenan, Gildenhorn, Hall, and Wolff drive the Sports Commission’s agendawhich reflects their ties to a powerful group of Washington insiders called the Federal City Council (FCC). With members chosen from the top of Fortune 500 companies, the cabinet, and major law firms, the FCC served as D.C.’s ad hoc planning office for 20 years before home rule. Since then, the FCC has continued to use its federal influence to spur huge civic projects, including the billion-dollar Ronald Reagan Building, the $800 million convention center, and the $200 million MCI Center.
In the past, FCC types have stayed out of local government, preferring to wield their formidable power from behind boardroom doors. But the Sports Commission is not your average public agency. It’s a hybrid, quasi-governmental body vested with millions of dollars and tremendous power to shape the city’s imageand with none of the usual governmental strings attached. As a result, some board members are able to treat their public service posts as extensions of careers devoted to stoking D.C.’s development economy. And some of the Sports Commission’s efforts seem to reflect the downtown business community’s champagne tastes.
According to Sports Commission minutes, the commission spent its first year-and-a-half in business conspiring to lease a luxury box at the MCI Center. D.C.’s financial control board nixed the idea early on, in the fall of 1996. Not used to sitting in the cheap seats, Gildenhorn, Hall, and Wolff were dispatched on diplomatic missions to the control board’s One Thomas Circle offices to revisit the issue. In late 1997, the board relented and approved a $625,000 five-year lease of a luxury suite at the arena.
When word leaked out, though, it was Barry who took the blame for this extravagance amidst financial crisis. Lurid media accounts suggested that Barry and his cronies would watch the Wizards from climate-controlled, theater-style seats, dine on catered food, and avoid the rabble by using private johns, all on the city’s dime. The control board quickly withdrew approval for the lease, and the deal died.
Rather than an excuse to bash Barry, the flap over the luxury boxes should have been a sign that the Sports Commission was getting little public scrutiny. With millions of dollars at its disposal, the potential for abuses by the commission was readily apparent from its inception. The law contained some protections to prevent commission members from cashing in on their positions, but one of the commission’s early moves was to amend its enabling legislation so that it could move millions of dollars into a bank to which two of its members had close ties.
In March 1996, the Sports Commission passed a resolution to move its money into Franklin National Bank, where Wolff served as outside counsel and Gildenhorn was a board member. The Sports Commission Act states that “no monies of the Sports Commission be deposited in any financial institution in which a member or employee of the Sports Commission is an officer, director or holder of a substantial proprietary interest.” According to board minutes, the commission got Evans to introduce temporary emergency legislation that would modify this conflict-of-interest provision, making the deposit kosher so long as Wolff and Gildenhorn disclosed their relationships and didn’t vote on the contract.
While Evans’ bill languished before the control boardthe board eventually rejected the legislationthe commission went ahead and moved millions of dollars to Franklin. By 1999, the Sports Commission had $14 million deposited in the bank, which was recently taken over by BB&T. Wolff doesn’t see a problem with the banking arrangement. He says Franklin offered the best deal of the banks that responded to a request for proposals. As for his role in the bank’s selection, he says, “I have abstained from any discussion about Franklin. I don’t want to have anything to say that has to do with clients of my law firm.” Gildenhorn also recused himself from the votes, according to board minutes.
Ellen Opper-Weiner, a local lawyer, has been monitoring the Sports Commission and sees the bank issue as a serious ethical lapseespecially given how much money the commission has at its disposal. “I have grave concerns about conflicts of interest of the Sports Commission, especially regarding the management of financial issues,” she says.
The bank contract wasn’t the only time the commission funded projects in which members had an interest. When Hall and Greenan joined the Sports Commission, they were also serving on the board of the National Capital Development Corp. (NCDC), an entity created by the FCC to negotiate with Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Abe Pollin to build the MCI Center. While Hall and Greenan were serving on both bodies, the Sports Commission voted to advance the NCDC $500,000 for development costs associated with the arena. The pair resigned from NCDC soon afterward to avoid conflicts.
Wolff, an FCC trustee whose law firm represented Pollin in part of the deal, sat on the Sports Commission when it voted in 1995 to provide an additional $1 million for soil remediation, moving expenses, and telecommunication installation associated with the arena’s construction. Wolff recused himself from the vote.
Hall says the commission is not operating out of self-interest. He notes that the board members all serve on a volunteer basis and receive no compensation for their timewhich for him amounted to 300 hours last year. “I think the commission is sensitive to conflicts,” says Hall. “Certainly our finances are an open book and matter of public record. I believe we have been very responsible to the public trust.”
Ignoring a Workable Ballparkand a Municipal Treasure Trove
On April 2, Mayor Williams threw out the first ball for an exhibition baseball game at RFK featuring the Montreal Expos and the St. Louis Cardinals. Hoping to lure the financially struggling Expos to D.C., the Sports Commission put on D.C.’s prettiest face for the game. When Mark McGwire looked out over the pitcher’s mound, he saw more fresh paint than the stadium had seen in a decade, along with a resplendent grass field reflecting the $100,000 the commission had spent sprucing it up. RFK was a fine place to watch a baseball gameas it should have been. It was conceived and built as a major-league ballpark. And, until recently, the Sports Commission recognized it as such.
In 1993, Sports Commission Executive Director Jim Dalrymple, then running RFK in his capacity as executive director of the Armory Board, testified before the D.C. Council that the stadium was ideal for professional baseballa site that “continues to offer the ideal blend of desirable sight lines and seating capacity. In fact, in 1991, an evaluation of RFK by the Major League Baseball Expansion Committee concluded that no major modifications to RFK would be necessary to accommodate a professional baseball team.”
But that was all B.C.Y.before Camden Yards. Stadiums no longer are just places to watch games, but are viewed as broader civic assets that pull up the value of the real estate around themusually at a very dear price. In late February, when the commission unveiled its newest baseball study, the idea of renovating RFK was roundly dismissed. Commission consultants concluded that baseball could thrive best downtown, in a stadium built at three times the cost of renovating RFK.
Without undertaking any independent market research in Washington, the consultants concluded that 7,000 fewer people would attend games at a renovated RFK than at a new downtown stadium. As a result, the study suggested, a team owner would make twice as much money downtown. Those figures were then used to suggest that the stadium would subsequently generate twice as many new jobs for the city.
The study seemed a bit more credible before 50,000 people came out to an unrenovated RFK for exhibition games, no-contest contests that usually draw just 9,000 fans, according to Sports Commission Marketing Director Neville Waters. “I don’t think it refutes the study,” says Wolff. “I think that it refutes the notion that Washington won’t support baseball.”
When pressed, commission members blame Major League Baseball for forcing them to choose the downtown site. They insist that, all things being equal, they would gladly recommend the huge chunk of already configured D.C. real estate on East Capitol Street for which they are responsible. All the commission wants is a baseball team for D.C., or so members say.
“If an ownership group was willing to spend the money to come to Washington and was willing to accept a renovated RFK, that would be great. End of discussion,” says Hall. But, he says, places like Camden Yards and Jacobs Field in Clevelandwhich are entertainment and retail destinations as well as places to watch gamesare showing that downtown stadiums are the most profitable, at least for the teams. “Again, if an ownership group and Major League Baseball were supportive of playing at a renovated RFK, I would be supportive of that.”
Of course, Camden Yards and Jacobs Field are usually compared to stadiums that have been erected in far-flung suburbs. East Capitol Street is no suburb. History has shown that RFK is so easy to reach that lots of people will go even when the area has little to offer except, well, a ball game. Architect George Dove notes that D.C.’s biggest local competition for a baseball team is from Northern Virginiathe ‘burbs. Dove asks, if people won’t come to games at RFK, in the heart of the city, with access to easy public transportation, “what’s going to bring them out to Loudoun County?”
Dove has seen this debate before. He did his master’s thesis on RFK in 1971, around the time the Senators skipped town. And he did a pro bono study of RFK in the late ’80s showing that RFK could easily be renovated for the Redskins. “The other studies were so biased in favor of the new stadium that no one was giving it a chance,” he says. “When the Redskins were demanding a new stadium, the city lost a great opportunity for development there. Now, you’ve got another opportunity.” Unfortunately, Dove says, “The euphoria off the MCI Center has got everybody seeing dollar signs.”
The dollar signs are big ones, too. There’s nothing like the prospect of a $330 million capital investment in downtown to spur real estate speculation to record levels. You can already imagine the partners and colleagues of the Sports Commission’s lawyer and developer members salivating over the huge fees that stem from such construction.
The mayor says a baseball stadium would be a catalyst for economic development. But does downtown really need another catalyst? With the MCI Center finished and a new convention center on the way, downtown is already growing at a fast clip, and vacancy rates are incredibly low. Yet the Sports Commission is proposing to take 18 acres of what will soon be prime downtown real estate off the property tax rolls completely in order to build a tax-exempt stadium that would get used all of 300 hours a year.
And there’s little evidence that a baseball stadium would be the huge job engine the Sports Commission says it would be. A recent study of Camden Yards by economists at Johns Hopkins University determined that that stadium, Washington’s model, has generated only 550 new jobs. Sports Commission consultants project that a $330 million new stadium will produce 2,100 jobs. That means spending $115,000 per job, most of them part-time and low-paying. Anybody who thinks that a baseball stadium will help rebuild middle-class D.C. might want to spend time with the folks who sell pretzels at the MCI Center.
Over the long haul, a downtown stadium looks like an even worse investment, considering that it’s really designed not as a sports venue but as a tourist attraction. People who don’t care about baseball may initially go to see the new stadium. But the novelty eventually wears off, as the Orioles are discovering. “The stadium experience is the product. Then after that, the product is a well-performing team,” Wolff admits. If you have a bad teamlike, say, the Montreal Expospeople will stop coming no matter where they play. Meanwhile, the interest on $330 million will continue to grow.
By contrast, for just $100 million, Sports Commission consultants estimate D.C. could renovate that beautiful stadium where McGwire played in April, the park Dalrymple touted in 1993, the field originally built for baseball. The investment would bring RFK up to current standardscomplete with luxury boxes, club seats, and a monumental view of the city’s landmarks.
Hall says a renovated RFK might be a decent stadium, but the possibility for spinoff development around it is limited. Perhaps that’s why the commission’s own consultants noted that if the citywith a team ownerdid decide to renovate RFK, it should invest at least $5 million in the East Capitol neighborhood to make sure the Shrimp Boat wouldn’t remain the only restaurant on the stadium perimeter. That might be a catalyst in a neighborhood that could use the cash.
“It’s easy to look at RFK and say, ‘It’s old; there’s nothing around,’” Dove says. “But the stadium authority has controlled that site and not encouraged other uses in that part of town.” He believes that the stadium has enough land around it to accommodate hotels, stores, and particularly waterfront development along the Anacostia that would all complement a renovated RFK. It’s a fantasy world, of course, but not any more of a fantasy than when Wolff suggests that the site might be a good place to put an aquarium.
Aside from Dove, though, RFK has few advocates. If baseball came to the stadium, the people who would most benefit would be D.C.’s taxpayersthe very folks the Sports Commission is supposed to serve. The renovation debt would be manageable. The investment would prevent the stadium from being an unused municipal liability, provide development in an underdeveloped part of town, and offer the city a new source of incomeand not just tax money. RFK and its vast parking lots are publicly owned, so some of the revenue could go directly back into city cofferswhere the Sports Commission could use it for anything from little league baseball helmets to researching better hot dog recipes.
But taxpayers’ voices get lost in the roar of enthusiasm from the downtown business community and their colleagues on the Sports Commission. Oddly enough, the only commission member to have raised the issue of renovating RFK with any seriousness is Barry, who appointed himself to a four-year term shortly before leaving office. And the new mayor is kicking him off.
Fiddling While RFK Crumbles
On opening night for D.C. United’s 1999 season, fans started tailgating in the RFK parking lot at 1 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. Twenty-two thousand fans had bought advance tickets in anticipation of the appearance of Raul Diaz Arce, the famous Salvadoran whom D.C. had traded to the San Jose Clash before last season. Twelve thousand more showed up on opening nightonly to discover that half the ticket windows were closed. Rowdy fans found little resistance from noticeably skimpy security. Season-ticket-holders were shunted off to temporary assignments because the seats that had been removed for baseball were still missing in action. A three-mile traffic jam waited outside the stadium because of a lack of parking attendants.
The scene was so bad it prompted Major League Soccer Commissioner Doug Logan to call and complain, only to read that Dalrymple
had told the Washington Post that Logan should “get a life.”
Despite its dismal treatment of its major tenant, Sports Commission members assure that D.C. United will not leave RFK. Their reasoning? Well, Wolff says, soccer fansmeaning Latinosrely on Metro to get to games, and there’s no Metro stop at suburban Maryland’s Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, one of the team’s primary suitors. Wolff promises that once D.C. United signs a long-term lease, RFK will see improvementsnew seats, new luxury boxes, and a new scoreboardfrom a $1 million investment the commission won’t make without a guarantee that D.C. United, which is up for sale, will stick around.
The commission is also in the process of hiring still more consultants to create a $350,000 long-range strategic plan to improve the vitality of RFK, among other things. Wolff says the commission is committed to RFK. He thinks the site might be a good spot for a tourist attraction like Seattle’s Pike Street Market. Or maybe a mall. “RFK needs to be thought about as part of the revitalization of this city,” says Wolff.
But it’s hard to believe that the Sports Commission will pursue Wal-Mart with the same vigor with which it has pursued major-league baseball. The commission hasn’t bothered to ask the residents around East Capitol Street what they think. Maybe, as Councilmember Ambrose suggests, neighbors don’t even like RFK and would rather have a riverfront park and swimming pool.
What they’ll probably get, though, is something far grander. That’s because the commissioners who brought you RFK’s traffic jams now think they’re ready for the world. What the Sports Commission would really like to do, members say, is make RFK part of a bid for the 2012 Olympicsanother huge speculative venture that promises a building bonanza and a steady stream of revenue for downtown business interests.
The intervening 13 years are rather more of a mystery. In the meantime, for those soccer fans stranded in traffic, the commission is offering free parking for the next few games.
Not for good, though. That’s just to get by until the commission constructs the new $20 million soccer stadium it’s been kicking around. The new stadium would be built on the parking lot, right next to RFK. CP