Saturday, March 15, 2014

Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium located near the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.

RFK was one of the stadiums specifically built as a multi-sport facility for both football and baseball. Architect George L. Dahl, and the firms of Osborn Engineering and Ewin Engineering Associates (now Volkert), designed the stadium. The design was not ideal for either sport, and led to major complaints. It cost $45,000 to switch it from one type of play to another. When set for football, the first 10 rows of seating were nearly at field level, making it difficult to see. When set for baseball, it had no lower-deck seats in the outfield.

The stadium opened in October 1961 under the name District of Columbia Stadium. It was built on land owned by the National Park Service, and was jointly financed by the D.C. Armory Board and the Dept. of the Interior. The stadium was renamed in January 1969 for slain U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

Because of cost overuns and other issues, the access roads and on-ramps for the Whitney Young Memorial Bridge (which carries East Capitol Street across the Anacostia River) run right through RFK Stadium's parking lots. For years, the roads were indistinguishable from the parking lots, and were identified only by a horde of orange traffic cones. (Years later, actual roads were built and grass boulevards placed alongside them to differentiate the parking lot from the roadways.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of urban planners were trying to get away from the top-down, alienating type of mega-structure that typified the East Mall or National Galleries of History and Art plans that D.C. architects were so fond of. These architects didn't think much about what people wanted or needed. They merely decided that "this would be best for the unwashed masses," and designed accordingly. Actual human behavior rarely concerned them.

Joseph Miller believed differently.

The Jewish Miller attended Catholic University of America (CUA), where he graduated with a degree in architecture and design. After many years working for the War Department and in private practice, he returned to CUA and began teaching in the architecture program. Miller had seen enough bad solutions from competent architects to understand that much of architecture's role had to be not merely the design of personally interesting and expressive buildings but structures that would help solve a city's urban problems. Miller established CUA's avant-garde Urban Design Studio, and started mentoring young, socially responsible architects.

In 1961, they came up with this design for RFK Stadium.

D.C.'s civic boosters had been trying to build a major athletic stadium since the 1920s. They had attempted to build an Olympic-sized complex in the 1920s, but no suitable space could be found. They tried to build a stadium on Kingman Island in the 1930s, but failed. Finally, in 1956, Congress agreed to turn over a vast section of Anacostia Park at the eastern end of East Capitol Street to the city for the construction of a stadium.

The new stadium was a "cookie-cutter design," meant to be utilized by football, baseball, soccer, and all sorts of sports teams. Instead of parking garages, the city opted to turn vast tracts of land into parking lots. The stadium was never really a good one. The lines-of-sight were poor, the baseball seating was expensive to maneuver into position, and it had no skyboxes or VIP suites.

It's not like the city did a good job with RFK Stadium. Miller thought it could do better.

One thing plaguing Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s was housing. The city had plenty of poor people, but little low-income housing. The Martin Luther King, Jr. riots of 1968 had destroyed vast tracts of the city, including most of its middle-class black housing. Couldn't this be remedied somehow??

In 1971, a team of students supervised by Miller attempted to solve both problems. What they envisioned was nothing short of astonishing. First, they decided to frame the north side of RFK Stadium with a second indoor athletic arena to compliment the D.C. Armory. The city had always lacked good public athletic facilities, and the addition of the new arena would complete plans first laid out in the 1940s and 1950s for a second structure. Second, they decided that RFK Stadium itself needed framing from the south. The stadium is on a slight hill, with exceptional sight-lines directly down East Capitol Street to the Capitol and the Washington Monument beyond. The design team decided that RFK Stadium itself was too much of a mere lump to serve as the back end of the city. Framing RFK might help in that regard. The students designed two thin, curving buildings on the north and northeast, and the southeast. These buildings would be tall enough to provide backdrops to RFK Stadium, not taller than the stadium itself. Unlike modern stadiums, which promise lots of development, RFK's vast parking lots left it isolated and alienated from the surrounding low-income community. What that community needed was shops, restaurants, and public services. These two thin, curving buildings would not only serve as a backdrop to RFK but also house the very amenities which the local community desperately needed.

The third goal was to provide housing -- lots and lots of housing! From above, the geometric forms that were created (the oval RFK, the square armories, the arcs of the retail buildings) gave the students the idea to add even more geometrical structures. The students decided that RFK's parking lots should be removed and parking garages built instead. This would permit about half of the existing parking lots to be converted to parkland, improving the stadium's appearance. The parking garages would be covered over with stepped pyramids open to the sky. The pyramids would help get rid of the boxy shape, protect vehicles inside, and yet be cheap enough so as not to break the bank.

Beyond the parking garages would be more stepped pyramids, linked by long rectangular structures which would also be stepped on the sides. These would be the housing complexes. No more than seven stories high, these apartment buildings would be stepped to allow each apartment balcony space or communal gardens at each story. Because each building would be fairly small (containing about 100 apartments or less), they would lack the impersonal feel of most public housing.

The apartment buildings took up a lot of space. More buildings were needed. The student design team resurrected the Army Corps of Engineers' old idea of damming the Anacostia River, but instead of a dam they built a bridge -- an apartment building, set right over the river but not obstructing it in any way. This not only gave even more space to the housing project, but it also gave local citizens a way of linking the Anacostia side of the river to the main part of the city without the use of yet more bridges, more cars, and more roads. You could just walk through the apartment building!

The students also embraced -- literally! -- the Corps' old concept of a lake. Instead of a real lake, why not create the illusion of one? The student design team proposed building up Kingman and Heritage Islands so that more housing could be built on them. (In fact, they pushed the housing right up to Benning Bridge!) This not only gave the city a lot more housing, but gave residents in those apartment buildings footpath access to the parks and recreational facilities on the islands (as city planners had long desired). To create the sense of a lake, the design team decided to build more pyramidal apartment buildings on Anacostia Park as a way of "embracing" the "lake".

It was a fascinating, wonderful, human, economical, magnificent design.

Sadly, it was nothing more than an academic exercise. No one was asking for this, no one was planning for this, and no one had any money to build this.

Today, RFK Stadium is practically abandoned. DC United (the losing local soccer team) plays there, but the stadium sits empty 300 days a year. Its parking lots are cracked and full of trees and weeds. When it rains, there is so much untreated runoff from them that the Anacostia River turns blackish nearby. Kingman Island remains an undeveloped trash dump. Heritage Island is reachable by a wooden footbridge which local vandals seem to burn down every few years. There is still no retail, no low-income housing, no services, no shops, and no restaurants over in that neighborhood.

No one can decide to tear RFK down, or keep it, or what. It just rots.

In 2002, a non-binding design competition was held to see what possibly could be done to renovate or refurbish RFK Stadium. This is the winning proposal. The winning design essentially opened up the stadium by eliminating upper-deck seating all around it and removing the eaves. The, massive upper decks would be built on the north and south sides, leaning out over the roadways. Instead of the wavy, looks-like-its-collapsing pedestrian walkways all around the stadium, new corner "pedestal towers" would be created. The east and west sides of the stadium would be rebuilt to contain vast numbers of skyboxes and VIP suites, restaurants, and bars. The stadium's profile would be raised slightly, to provide a more fitting "end" to East Capitol Street.

It went nowhere. The city tried to tie its redesign to winning the 2012 Summer Olympics, which failed.

In 2013, the city proposed building a new soccer-only stadium on land currently set aside for park space on Greenleaf Point, near the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge (which carries South Capitol Street over the Anacostia River).

There seems little momentum behind the project. City council members are still burned by the massive cost overruns on Nationals Stadium, the shitty leasing deal the city got with the Nats (the city cannot use the stadium without MLB's permission), and the almost nonexistent pace of redevelopment around the stadium (which they were warned about).

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