Don’t Buy Dan Snyder’s Stadium Snake Oil

EspañolThe allure of a downtown football stadium may well be too much for the Washington, DC, political class. Recently, Redskins owner Dan Snyder once again revved the hype engine in hopes of earning a massive taxpayer handout towards that end.

DC 2024
(DC 2024 Facebook)

Although Snyder’s hopes for a new stadium have been heard before, this time the billionaire has a new angle: the new stadium would not only fulfill Snyder’s wish to return the team to the District, it would fit perfectly into DC’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.

And all of it is a horrible idea. A new downtown stadium makes absolutely no sense to anyone who cares about the people who actually live in the nation’s capital, not to mention the fiscal squeeze the games could bring to make the city’s Olympic dream to come true.

The case against the stadium is threefold.

First, megaprojects are rarely fiscal winners for cities. Even if Snyder were to buy the land and build his own stadium out-of-pocket on the site where the publicly owned Robert F. Kennedy stadium now sits, the city would still have to forgo the benefits of other development at the site.

More realistically, however, if we take the recent precedent of DC United’s new soccer stadium as a model, it is unlikely that the problems would be so minimal. To outcompete other sites in Maryland and Virginia, DC would need to offer some combination of direct subsidies, tax incentives, and other perks. The likelihood that the Redskins would come to DC out of the kindness of their hearts is not only minimal, but laughable.

Second, the idea of an Olympic bid based around such a stadium is not only unwise but a risky gamble. What happens if, as voters in nearly every non-authoritarian country have recently done, citizens reject the necessary spending to make the city a suitable host for the Olympic Games (which studies have shown lack economic benefits)?

The possibility of Snyder simply using the idea of the Olympics as a bargaining chip is not only real, but likely. This says nothing of the direct burden that winning a bid for the games would have. Both bad ideas support each other, and make the other more likely to succeed.

Third, consider the implications for residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the future construction site. RFK Stadium and its surrounding surface parking lots are two of the largest city-owned properties left undeveloped near Metro stations, and certainly the largest downtown. The site sits adjacent to Capitol Hill, amid quickly gentrifying neighborhoods on all sides. A massive stadium, put in use a mere eight times per year for football games and for a smattering of concerts and other events, is simply a poor use of valuable land.

This says nothing of the sprawling surface parking lots to the East of the stadium site. With land values in the capital soaring, it only makes sense to sell the land to the highest bidder. One would be hard pressed to think that such a bidder would choose to build a stadium, rather than apartments or office space, as the most valuable use of the land. In all likelihood, some combination of residential, office, and retail space would be developed, not unlike other recent projects on formerly government-owned land.

The current site of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
The current site of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. (Google Maps)

Two such examples are the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the McMillan Sand Filtration Plant. In the case of the former, the scandal-plagued medical center will be reborn with more than 2,000 residences, 250,000 square feet of retail space, and a hotel. The latter will house a combination of residences, retail, and medical space, along with a grocery store.

Both sites are far smaller than the RFK Stadium site and its parking lots and less accessible to major thoroughfares. It would not be hard to envision a new neighborhood, housing thousands of residents and home to volumes of retail and office space to spring up where a wasteland of parking lots now sit.

No matter what Dan Snyder wishes, the worst thing DC could do would be to get into a bidding war to be the jurisdiction that subsidizes the ninth most valuable sports team in the world. DC does not need him nor the football team that he owns. It’s time to let the dream of a downtown football stadium die for good for the sake of taxpayers, neighbors, and citizens at large.

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