With season near, RFK in need of spring cleaning
D.C. United's home opener is still 3 1/2 weeks away -- an eternity! -- so by the time you've ironed your red-and-black scarf, stocked the cooler, cleaned the grill and gotten your tickets in order, everything should be almost back to normal at RFK Stadium.
At the moment, however, the old ballyard is not looking well. The brutal winter weather is to blame for much of it.
The access road off the Southeast Freeway that slithers along the mighty Anacostia and empties into Lot 8 has enough ruts, trenches and canyons to disable a convoy of Hummers. I drove it last week; it has since been closed. Before proceeding, I should have checked my auto insurance policy for axle damage, my dental coverage for splintered teeth and medical plan for concussions.
The big lot, which welcomes tailgating parties and the club's pregame festivities, looks as though Disney tried to re-create the Alps for a new theme park. When the city needed a place to dump truckloads of snow after the winter storms, it selected this spot, creating 15-to-20-foot peaks spread over an estimated 20 acres. Warming weather has helped shrink the glaciers, but only to, say, Appalachian proportions.
Inside the rusty bowl, the field is still covered with football marks and logos left from the EagleBank Bowl in December. At least the goal posts have been removed.
Now before you reach for your pitchforks and torches and storm the mayor's office, you should know that:
The access road is being repaired, and although it will never be as flawless as a NASCAR track (well, actually, Daytona showed blemishes this year), it will be "passable, so there aren't car-swallowing potholes," said Troy Scott, director of event operations for Washington Convention and Sports Authority, which manages the 110-acre stadium campus.
The reason for the Lot 8 mountain range? There was simply no other place to dump the tons of snow that trucks hauled from paralyzed neighborhoods and major arteries. How about sliding it into the Anacostia and Potomac -- frozen water mixed with flowing water makes sense, right? Not an option because, besides the snow, many other materials were scooped up in the operation and would further pollute the waterways.
The sports authority's plan is to clear as many spaces as possible by consolidating the piles. The priority is the area closest to the access road and toward the pedestrian tunnel under East Capitol Street, which, to the relief of the supporters' groups, includes the tailgating plots. The other parking areas are in fine condition, so if Lot 8 gets tight, drivers will be directed to lots 4, 6 and 7.
Who knows, maybe a spring heat wave will dissolve the snow piles before the opener? And of course the thousands of fans who take Metro to RFK are unaffected.
Complicating matters in Lot 8 is possible damage to the pavement. "That's our major concern right now," Scott said. "We are not sure how deep down the damage really is. ... It's a challenge, but nothing we are not prepared for."
As for the field, tarps protecting the turf during the winter were recently removed, exposing the football scars. Last winter, those lines changed the pigmentation of the grass and were faintly visible throughout the 2009 MLS season -- an embarrassing blemish in what is still considered a premier soccer setting in this country. This time, stadium officials used a paint that wouldn't cause long-term damage.
Crews have begun pressure-washing the field to loosen the paint. Once the grass begins to grow, regular mowing will clip away the marks. "The first game, you will probably be able to see some of it, but we are hoping by May it is a clean field," said Scott. "It's more of an aesthetic thing -- the playing surface is fine -- and it's just how it looks to the fans."
Why not just remove the paint after the bowl game? "You don't want to put any water or solution on it when the temperature is below freezing; you are creating more of a problem," Scott said. Unlike many stadiums, RFK does not have a heating system under the field.
United officials say they believe the sports authority has "done everything they could to this point to make arrangements ahead of our opener and accommodate the fans," club spokesman Doug Hicks said. "We have been working very closely with them since the storms. They were faced with extraordinary circumstances."
"We will definitely be ready for the start of the season," WCSA director of communications Teri Washington said. "Did the weather affect things? Yes, like many things in the city, but we have a plan in place and are doing everything to be ready."
So relax, RFK just needs a little spit shine. While they are still there, take a peek at the Lot 8 peaks on your way to the National ShamrockFest this Saturday in Lot 7. And fear not, for the home opener will be here before you know it.
Unless, the players go on strike, of course.
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