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A Stadium Grows, a City Will Blossom

September 26, 2004|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Take a walk down 7th Street NW, from Massachusetts Avenue to D Street. Stop on any block, look in any direction and very likely you're going to see a crane within a couple of blocks, probably scaffolding, moving vans heading toward brand new luxury apartment buildings on 5th Street, or perhaps on Mass. Ave.

Public buildings are being renovated. New businesses seem to be opening every week. Imagine hi-tech movie theaters in downtown D.C. where people would actually want to go to after work on a Friday.

None of this was taking place in the summer of 1997. Many of the buildings that are occupied now were empty then and had been for years. The same 7th Street corridor was like a ghost town.

And then Abe Pollin built MCI Center. The phrase "If you build it, they will come" refers to a ballpark built in a cornfield. But it also fits the home of the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics. We can trace the renaissance of the eastern part of downtown Washington to the building of a fancy basketball arena. Nobody was looking to live on 5th Street before it was there, or eat on 7th and D, or go to nightspots five minutes away after dinner. Nobody said, meet me at the new bar behind MCI Center after work because there was no MCI Center, and the whole area was urban blight.

And that brings me to the proposed $400 million Anacostia waterfront baseball stadium that would be home to the Expos should Major League Baseball move the team here and should the D.C. Council approve financing for the deal. The South Capitol Street location in Southeast isn't downtown, but it's not bad. It's in the city. It's accessible by Metro, and if you think that's not a big deal then spend nine hours on a football Sunday trying to attend a Redskin game. An estimated 40 percent of the site is vacant. And the existence of baseball means a minimum of 81 nights of attracting 25,000 hungry, thirsty people, the great majority of them with means.

I love the economists whose primary arguments against new arenas and stadiums is that such construction doesn't bring permanent and full-time jobs. Of course the construction doesn't bring that, nor do the stadiums themselves. But try to tell the folks in Detroit that the new Ford Field, home to the NFL Lions, hasn't been the centerpiece of radical economic development taking place in downtown Detroit. Stadiums for the Browns and Indians, plus the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, revitalized Cleveland's center city financially, culturally and psychologically. All those restaurants and bars and nightspots don't employ people permanently? Please. For anybody who has lived here 10 years or more, it's impossible not to walk through the area near MCI, particularly on an event night, and not see the wisdom of bringing 15,000 people or more to a central gathering place.

We've been hearing for several weeks now about plans to commercially develop the Anacostia waterfront, and maybe that development was coming with or without baseball. I have a very smart friend who develops commercial projects here who argues very skillfully that D.C.'s commercial real estate market, with its single-digit office vacancy rate and no more land available west of 14th Street, was going east, toward 7th Street, regardless of MCI's presence.

My response to him was that we can speculate they would have, but the fact is they didn't move east in 1985, or in 1990, or even in 1995. They could have, but they didn't. They waited until Pollin constructed the building (with his own funds, mind you) that has served indisputably as the Big Magnet. And while there are already projects on the board for the waterfront area, a new baseball stadium, with Metro access, no less, is an even bigger magnet -- maybe the biggest magnet.

My friend argues much more persuasively that the District, should it put together a financing deal for $440 million, ought to be putting the same resources into its decaying schools, crime prevention, an inadequate library system, recreation centers.

And with that, there's simply no arguing with him. Nor with his assertion that it's totally disingenuous to try to push approval through a council that has three key members recently thrown out by the local electorate in a primary. But if the District or any other jurisdiction was going to spend $400 million on new schools, they would have done it already.

Would it be better for any school to spend $400 million on public schools and libraries than on stadiums? Yes, absolutely. Is that a viable option? Apparently not, since city after city has done just the opposite. My friend argues that half of D.C. finds it is not benefiting from the economic boon we're seeing along the 7th Street corridor, and again he's right.

I'm not about to argue that any stadium built for a professional sports franchise is going to benefit working class and poor people. Primarily, it's going to benefit folks who own the franchise, and people who entertain in luxury boxes that lease for $200,000 or more per season. But it can greatly benefit businesses that attach themselves to sporting palaces.

And that, in today's culture of sports as entertainment, is done downtown, not 20 miles from the central city, which is why Capital Centre became obsolete and why FedEx Field, which never should have been built there in the first place, sits alone and is now the single most resented building in the entire region. Getting there is dreadful, getting out is dreadful.

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