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Stadiums Don't Drive Economic Development
RFK Stadium. Photo by angela n.

RFK Stadium. Photo by angela n.

Jonathan O’Connell of the Washington Business Journal is reporting that in addition to Poplar Point, D.C. United is looking at building a stadium at Buzzard Point, a site in Southwest that is mostly trying to sell itself as a good site for a federal office campus. For O’Connell, one of the advantages of this site would be that “it’s near the Nationals Park, which would give D.C. its own mini stadium district. Maybe there are shared parking possibilities with the Nationals.”

While it’s good to see the Journal’s real estate blog thinking about neighborhoods rather than just individual sites, this is a common misunderstanding of how stadiums work. They aren’t vibrant providers of economic development; rather, they sit empty most of the time. The D.C. United schedule calls for 30 games a year, only 15 of which will be at the United’s stadium (not including playoffs, exhibition games and the like). That’s not enough to really spark development. While a built-in market of absolutely packed crowds at your sports bar is great for those 15 nights, the rest of the time you’ve got an enormous empty structure that will inevitably be surrounded by at least some large parking lots. That’s not a draw for street life.

But, you might protest, look at the Navy Yard! And indeed, the Navy Yard is looking like it will be a vibrant area. But there’s a big difference between 15 home games a year and 81 home games (66 games, to be specific). Baseball stadiums are much more likely to not rot out the entire area around them, for this reason. Even then, though, most ballparks don’t center really great neighborhoods; some academics believe that no stadium has ever produced good economic outcomes. Where they do, I’d hypothesize that a signaling effect is the important change. The investment of millions of dollars in a struggling neighborhood is an implicit promise that this neighborhood is targeted for significant other investments, in real estate or in city services like policing and transit.

With regards to D.C. United, it seems like building at Buzzards Point would only compound the negative effects of stadiums on the urban environment by putting in more large-scale facilities that are almost never used without really bringing anything to the table. The urbanist answer is to keep stadiums multi-sport, of course, though that’s not the sports-friendly thing to do.