Verizon Center Marks 10th Anniversary

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.

Barry put consultant Bob Moore in charge of cutting through the bureaucracy. Along with Prince George's County lawyer Peter O'Malley, who represented Pollin, Moore bulled forward. On Dec. 2, 1997, the arena, then known as MCI Center, opened with the Wizards' 95-78 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics.

The development around the arena came slowly. Developer Douglas Jemal invested in offices and restaurants on the west side of Seventh Street, and builders Herb Miller and Chip Akridge brought in shops and condos on the east side.

Not everyone is completely thrilled with the feel of the place, however. Alexander Y. Chi, head of the Chinatown Revitalization Council, said he believes the Verizon Center deserves credit for making the area a regional attraction.

But Chi lamented the loss of some Chinese American-owned businesses that were replaced by chain stores and restaurants.

"The small businesses and the cultural attractions become diminished in the role they used to play," he said.

In the spring, Pollin persuaded the D.C. Council to give him $50 million in public funds -- raised by increasing the tax on tickets to the arena -- to refurbish the building. About $10 million has been spent on a new scoreboard and another $10 million to improve luxury suites, Pollin said, with additional upgrades on the way.

"I believe that it is the best building in the country," said Pollin, who will mark his 84th birthday tomorrow, "and I intend to keep it that way."

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