3 Reasons Not to Build a New NFL Stadium in D.C.

The District needs more housing, not a home for an incompetent NFL franchise.

Since it’s Thanksgiving week, let’s talk football. Or football stadiums, anyway.

RFK Stadium in southeast D.C., which was home to Washington’s football team for years before being ceded to D.C. United and, for a few seasons, the Washington Nationals, is going to be demolished. With the Nats now ensconced in Nationals Park, United playing at Audi Field, and the football team with the bad name having moved out to the Maryland suburbs decades ago, the consensus is that RFK needs to go, bouncing stands and all.

But that’s where the consensus ends. The owner of D.C.’s football team, Dan Snyder, wants a new stadium in the city, as does Mayor Muriel Bowser. But most of the city council seems uninterested in that idea. The debate is complicated by the fact that D.C. doesn’t actually own the land on which RFK sits; the federal government does, and currently requires that it be used for sporting purposes.

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A Washington Post poll last week showed that a majority of D.C. residents would like Washington’s NFL team to come back into the city, but they have no interest in taxpayers footing the bill for the move. While, of course, I’m glad to see that Washingtonians don’t want to get fleeced on another stadium, there are three very good reasons to leave Snyder’s team out in the ‘burbs where it currently resides.

1) D.C. has a housing crunch and sporting field shortage.

Washington is going to need some 375,000 new housing units by 2030, with the vast bulk of them designated as affordable housing, an uptick on what the city has been anticipating just a few years ago. The incoming Amazon HQ2 in northern Virginia is also accelerating the District’s housing problem.

RFK currently sits on a large, undeveloped parcel of land that could fit huge swathes of housing, right by a metro station. To use it for a football stadium removes one major option for expanding living space within the city, in an area where dense housing makes a ton of sense.

At the same time, D.C. is also short recreational sports facilities; clashes between private and public schools, and between folks who want to play pickup games and those playing for established, pay-to-play rec leagues, are constant. If the land needs to be used for sports, then let it be used for sports — just the kind played by people who live and work within the city and who are desperately scraping for a few minutes of field time wherever they can find it. (To be fair, there are already a bunch of new fields in the vicinity of RFK; but there can always be more.)

This would perhaps be different if the city didn’t have to be intimately involved in securing the land; but since it does, it might as well decide what use would be most beneficial to the city’s residents. An NFL stadium isn’t that.

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2) Stadiums don’t drive development, NFL stadiums doubly so.

Part of Bowser’s case for building a new NFL stadium is that it will drive economic development in the neighborhood. But that case is extremely flawed: There’s no good evidence that sports stadiums actually boost local economies. They mostly end up shuffling around entertainment dollars, not encouraging people to spend any more than they would have otherwise. D.C. actually proves this point quite well.

An NFL stadium makes the equation even worse. At least with an arena, such as downtown D.C.’s Capital One Arena, several sports teams, as well as loads of concerts and other shows, can take place there, putting it to use most nights. There isn’t similar demand for 75,000 seat stadium. It will host 10 NFL games per season, the odd concert, and maybe an international soccer game or two per year; it’ll sit empty the rest of the time, probably surrounded by acres of parking that also severely dampen economic activity. Few land uses in a city are as economically unproductive as a parking space.

There’s already a lot of development money sloshing around D.C., and many young and relatively wealthy people are moving in. What the city needs is a focus on inclusive development that grapples with gentrification and displacement, not another sports stadium that won’t be worth the cost.

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3) Don’t make Dan Snyder richer.

Snyder, when he’s not busy suing journalists or destroying environmentally protected land, is running his franchise into the ground and staunchly refusing to reconsider its racist name. A new stadium in the District will make him even wealthier, more unaccountable, and harder to get rid of. Even if he wanted to fund the whole thing privately, I’d be loathe to let him trade on the District’s good name any more than he already has.

D.C. has serious issues that can be addressed in real ways if the RFK land is used wisely; it’d be a shame to let it go toward simply making a rich dude richer.


FYI: I had a piece in the Washington Post on Sunday looking at three ways D.C. could try to get rid of Snyder. Check it out here.


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— Pat Garofalo