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Ballparks in West Offer D.C. Divergent Lessons

Denver's plan for development around its stadium called for housing. Seattle's zoning for the area near its ballpark, on the other hand, did not permit housing because city officials were convinced by port-related industries that their operations might be hampered by homeowners' complaints of noise and traffic.

Maybe the most important distinction, leaders of each city said, is that Denver's Lower Downtown was emerging from years of neglect before the stadium site was announced. Several new businesses had opened there and prospered from the attention the new ballpark focused on them; their success prompted others to invest in the neighborhood.

When Seattle chose a new ballpark site, John Kazdal planned to remodel his nearby warehouse into a brew pub, but his plans have not materialized. (Patrick Hagerty For The Washington Post)

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Seattle's ballpark neighborhood was undergoing no such resurgence, and many planners believe that a baseball park alone, drawing people to an area for a few hours only 81 days a year, is unlikely to generate the kind of commercial activity that will lure visitors on other days and at other times.

"Ballparks bring lots of people to a neighborhood," Hickenlooper said. "But if people come and see there's nothing worth staying for, a good part of the potential has been wasted."

Several economists and planners contend that a ballpark can detract from a neighborhood because the facility is often ringed with parking lots, making the area seem even more deserted and forlorn in the off-season.

"Sports facilities make war on cities," said Robert Baade, a noted sports economist from Lake Forest College in Illinois. "It might be fine on game day. But there is a lot of dead time around stadiums."

It is hard to gauge the potential of the District's proposed stadium site relative to the two other cities. Near Southeast Washington, the neighborhood where the 41,000-seat park would be built, does not have a supply of attractive historic buildings, such as those that Denver entrepreneurs renovated into lofts, hotels and restaurants. And the D.C. site is even farther from an established commercial area -- in this case, Capitol Hill -- than is Seattle's stadium.

On the other hand, some signs point to a broader redevelopment in the area. A flurry of building activity is occurring on M Street one block north of the proposed ballpark site, including construction of a Department of Transportation headquarters that is scheduled to open in 2006 and house 5,000 employees. Near that project, a developer is planning to build 2,500 apartments and townhouses over the next 15 years, along with offices, shops, restaurants and a waterfront park.

Washington's riverfront location also stands as an advantage for the project, with a possibility of attracting fans by virtue of the Anacostia River scenery.

"We think we have a kind of commonality with Denver," said Stephen M. Green, the mayor's special assistant for economic development and one of several D.C. stadium proponents who often point to Denver's experience as a model.

That project began in earnest in 1991, when officials announced that the city would build a stadium next to Lower Downtown, or "LoDo." At the time, Hickenlooper's brew pub, an upscale hotel and several other businesses had opened in some of the neighborhood's historic brick buildings.

But much of the area was known for its abandoned buildings, bars that opened at 7 a.m. and homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk. And the area east of the ballpark was the worst.

"This was crack central," said Josie Koontz, owner of Josie's Pawn, a few blocks east of the stadium.

"It was the last remnants of Skid Row," said Seydel, the planner. "You had to step over people on the sidewalk."

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