Dec 19, 2023 - Energy & Environment

New sports complex outside D.C. has a big flaw: flood risk

Vision for new arena in Potomac Yard. Image: JBG SMITH

The new stadium slated for Potomac Yard, Virginia, faces a unique obstacle in addition to backlash from the D.C. government and fans who are loyal to the Wizards' and Capitals' current home in nearby downtown Washington, D.C.

The big picture: The planned location of the new stadium complex is surrounded by low-lying transportation arteries and buildings that will be at increasing flood risk due in large part to human-caused climate change, experts tell Axios.

  • The stadium site itself will not be immediately vulnerable to frequent or severe flooding, since it sits on a relatively high spot within a low-elevation area, according to experts at the First Street Foundation and Climate Central.
  • Both organizations are nonprofits that analyze flood risks from climate change-related factors, such as sea level rise and heavy downpours.
  • According to a Climate Central analysis, the annual flood risk by 2050 would encompass the Potomac Yard Metro Station, a major asset for the sports project, along with roadways along the Potomac River that fans may take to get to the stadium.

Why it matters: The flood risk component may not sink the deal, but it illustrates how major infrastructure projects are now bumping up against climate risks.

  • One consideration project backers may face is who will be responsible for providing the funding needed to prevent the subway station, parking lots, and nearby roadways from flooding.

Zoom in: "Property is only as valuable as the neighborhood it is a part of," said Matthew Eby, founder and CEO of First Street Foundation.

  • According to Jeremy Porter, head of climate change implications for First Street, the stadium's surrounding area "has tremendous risk."
  • He pointed out that the construction of the stadium could alter its flood protection, potentially making it more vulnerable than initial analyses show.
  • Porter said the stadium would be built in an area with "major" flood risk. He noted that more than half of the road surface in the area has severe flood risk.
  • At the same time, 28% of residential properties would be at risk of flooding, 48% of road surface miles, 63% of commercial properties, and 63% of social infrastructure, such as schools and museums.

Between the lines: "Moving it from D.C. which has relatively low flood risk to the Virginia side of the river, which has a ton of flood risk (and growing flood risk), is questionable from a climate sustainability perspective," Porter said.  

  • According to Climate Central, the risk of a moderate flood (10% chance in any given year) shows that coastal flood risk near the site "may need to be accounted for in plans."
  • The Potomac Yard Metro station goes from outside the 100-year flood risk zone (1% chance of occurring in a given year) in 2030 to inside the 10-year floodplain by 2050, according to Climate Central research.
  • Barring flood mitigation actions, the station would be at risk of flooding each year by 2100, Climate Central data shows.

Note: Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Wizards and Capitals, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bottom line: Many objections have been raised to the deal, which was brokered by Monumental founder and owner Ted Leonsis, along with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). However, the climate dimension to the plans has yet to be raised and is worth considering given that it could add to the cost of the project.

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