Verizon Center Marks 10th Anniversary

The scene at Gallery Place, anchored by the 10-year-old Verizon Center, is dramatically different than when Abe Pollin was planning to build the arena.
The scene at Gallery Place, anchored by the 10-year-old Verizon Center, is dramatically different than when Abe Pollin was planning to build the arena. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

The first time Abe Pollin visited Gallery Place, where he was considering building a sports arena more than a decade ago, he was told not to get out of the car. The desolate downtown Washington neighborhood was infested with crime and drugs, no place for one of the city's wealthiest men.

Pollin protested. "I said, 'I'm here in the daytime,' " he recalled last week. "They said, 'Mr. Pollin, it doesn't make a difference.' "

As the Verizon Center, the home Pollin built for the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, turns 10 today, the scene along Seventh and F streets could not be more different.

As the Wizards prepared to play the Toronto Raptors last night, people strolled past clothing stores, restaurants, a movie theater and a bowling alley. Merlyne Nougues of the District and Romaine Campbell of Alexandria had watched the Georgetown basketball game at the arena earlier and were going to dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant. "The sports arena is a big draw," Campbell said. "After the game, you can hang out."

"It's one-stop shopping," Nougues added.

Since opening its doors, the 20,000-seat Verizon Center has drawn 24 million patrons for sporting events and concerts, according to Pollin's Washington Sports and Entertainment. Perhaps more importantly, the arena is credited with sparking a massive redevelopment that led downtown's rebirth as a vibrant entertainment center.

These days, Pollin's decision to move his teams from the Capital Center in Landover to the heart of downtown Washington seems like a no-brainer. Across the country, and in the District, the trend has been to build sports stadiums within cities, such as the Nationals' new $611 million ballpark near the Navy Yard.

But as Pollin celebrates the milestone anniversary with a reception tomorrow featuring comedian Bill Cosby, the people who helped make the Verizon Center a reality are reflecting on a project that no one was certain would succeed.

"There was enormous skepticism at the time," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue whose ward includes Gallery Place. "When we sat down with the leadership, everyone balked at the idea of building an arena in downtown Washington at that spot."

In addition to the dicey location, there was the matter of who would pay for the construction. At first, the District offered to foot two-thirds of the bill, but then the city's financial crisis hit, and the coffers dried up.

"Six weeks before we were ready to break grown, I got a call from Marion Barry," Pollin said of the District's then-mayor. "He said, 'The city is broke . . . unfortunately, the deal is off.' I had to decide what I was going to do."

Pollin was further pressured by the fact that entrepreneur Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, was offering to pay for an arena if he got a stake in the teams. To Pollin, that was a non-starter. He agreed to put up $200 million to cover construction if the city would pay for infrastructure. The deal was back on.

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