City Paper is not for tourists
The first thing to know about last night’s meeting with Mayor Vince Gray and the Hill East community on the future of Reservation 13 is that there is no news.
The Redskins haven’t indicated their willingness to move their training center from Ashburn, Va., to the area around RFK Stadium. Gray said he hasn’t even talked to the team much since going to explore a similar facility down in Tampa Bay, Fla., which he did because Maryland and Virginia had already made their own pitches for the team’s relocation. And in fact, Gray thinks it’s “unfortunate” that news of the trip came out at all.
“Nobody wants to bring out anything that is half baked to a community. I think the worst that you could ever do is bring out a proposal to somebody, and there are more questions than there are answers,” he told several hundred residents in the vast, echoing D.C. Armory space. “That’s one of the reasons why there was no community meeting around this, because there was nothing to present, and there still is nothing to present.”
What’s more, he said, even if there were solid interest from the Redskins, the 2003 master plan would have to be updated and the site would have to be rezoned in order for anything to actually get built.
Here’s what Gray has done: Told the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to ask the two developers that had responded to a request for proposals for their best and final offers on the site. But that doesn’t mean anything will happen, since the project needs something big to get it rolling. “We need a catalyst for development in Hill East,” Gray said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s a training facility or what.”
That’s the inconvenient truth of this whole business: Reservation 13 currently houses uses that are very difficult to relocate, including the largest family shelter in the city, a meth clinic, and a jail. What’s more, out of the big six projects on D.C.’s to-do list, all of them—-the Southwest Waterfront, McMillan, Walter Reed, and St. Elizabeths—-are ahead of Hill East in the pipeline, with the exception of Poplar Point. Even with the interest of private developers, the site would likely need significant public investment for infrastructure, which the city isn’t ready to offer up right now. That’s why, as Gray put it, there is “little interest in moving forward with the entire site.” So as long as the city has other projects to work on, might as well keep the Redskins on the table for Hill East.
But there seems to be a fundamental disjuncture in Gray’s pitch. He and the three councilmembers on the stage with him—-Jack Evans, Yvette Alexander, and Michael Brown—-take as an article of faith that anybody else cares about bringing the Redskins to Washington (the councilmember who used to represent the site before redistricting, Ward 6’s Tommy Wells, couldn’t make the meeting after it was rescheduled). Over and over again, they professed their Skins fandom, and expressed indignation that the “Washington” Redskins never set foot in the District. “Nothing hurt me more than when the Washington Redskins moved to Landover, Maryland,” said Alexander. Gray appealed for unity: “If we banded together and said that we want our team back, and worked together I honestly believe that that would happen, rather than battling over a non-existent plan at this stage.”
Those lines fell flat.
Evans, who has been the most vocal in his desire to lure the franchise, tried to make a more substantive case for the scheme. He outlined his theory of the four things that make a successful city: Neighborhoods, arts, retail, and sports facilities (no mention of education, as Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7A chair Villareal Johnson noted later). He talked about the transit benefits of having a stadium on a Metro stop, rather than in a place only accessible by car. And he recalled opposition to the Verizon Center and Nationals Park, which he said have both generated tremendous returns.
But those arguments really only apply to a stadium that would draw crowds, which isn’t even in play at the moment, and wouldn’t be until 2027, when the Redskins’ lease expires at FedEx field.
So, what’s the benefit of a training facility? Brown, who had visited the one in Tampa, said it meshed really well with the surrounding neighborhood, and generated needed jobs. Gray even tried to argue that since professional athletes tend to live near where they practice, rather than where they play, the District might even recapture some income taxes from their multi-million-dollar salaries. (I’m pretty sure that building several hundred homes there has a more reliable return on investment).
Moreover, everybody said, bringing a training facility wouldn’t mean that other elements of the plans envisioned for Reservation 13—-housing, retail, offices, a hospital—-couldn’t happen. But as Mike DeBonis has outlined, there would sure be a lot less space for all that stuff.
Hill Easters may have been reassured that no deals had been made without their consent. But it’s safe to say that the folks who’ve organized around Reservation 13 for years were not reassured by the language coming out of the Councilmember who now has jurisdiction over the site. Even as Gray talked about avoiding a turf battle over the future of the site, Ward 7’s Alexander wasted no time in bringing up the still-raw memory of redistricting, noting that Ward 7 residents hadn’t cared much about gaining a piece of land that only had prison inmates for population.
“Oh, how the tables turn,” she gloated. “Now Reservation 13 is being pulled and tugged among both Ward 6 and Ward 7, because everyone realizes now what a great opportunity it is….So I’m very pleased to see Ward 6 and Ward 7 together. But let me be perfectly clear, that now that Reservation 13 is in Ward 7, I will wholeheartedly listen, first and foremost, to the residents of Ward 7.”
“You can clap for that, Ward 7,” Alexander said, to almost inaudible applause. That kind of pandering is to be expected from someone in a fight to keep her job, I suppose.
All in all, a frustrating evening for Hill East. A couple of times, Gray tried to throw them a bone by talking about revitalizing the Eastern Branch Boys and Girls Club, which has sat vacant for three years. It may be all that he’s able to offer.