By Daniel LeDuc and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 24, 2008
Nationals Park opens this weekend and appears nearly complete. But it's surrounded for blocks by a construction zone.
Fans arriving by Metro will emerge from a station housed in a building that is a still a maze of concrete and steel girders. From there, they will walk an unsightly path along a chain-link fence -- protecting a four-story-deep hole, soon to be a hotel basement -- en route to the glitz and game.
By car, it won't look any better. Motorists must navigate streets bounded by Jersey barriers, then find parking lots set among towering cranes and shells of office buildings and condominium high-rises.
Despite appearances, this is just the way District leaders hoped it would be: a ballpark set amid a vast Southeast Washington neighborhood in the middle of one of the biggest overhauls in city history. Some 500 acres are to be transformed, spreading south from Capitol Hill to the Anacostia River, sweeping away an accumulation of old auto body shops, sex clubs and debris-filled lots -- so dramatically that officials want to give the area a new name: Capitol Riverfront.
Roughly $6.1 billion worth of construction is underway, with planners estimating that it will eventually include more than 12 million square feet of office space, 9,000 residential units, 1,200 hotel rooms and 800,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues.
"It's really going to be the center of a lot of development," said former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who championed the ballpark's location in Southeast.
Change in the neighborhood began even before Williams and Major League Baseball selected the 21-acre site along South Capitol Street in 2004. Critics of the city's decision to spend more than $600 million in public money for a new home for the Nationals say that's just the point: The money wasn't needed for economic development since a makeover was already underway.
Supporters said the ballpark provided a welcome jolt. "All those things were already happening. . . . What the baseball stadium did was accelerate it," Williams said. "It's coming faster than I expected it to be."
Unnecessary boondoggle or healthy catalyst, there is no doubt the ballpark will spur the neighborhood's evolution. But as fans will see when they begin arriving next week, the evolution is still in its early stages.
Fans might grumble that there are plenty of cement mixers but virtually no restaurants or bars -- and only one Starbucks -- in the blocks immediately surrounding the ballpark.
Some of the choicest land is caught up in a legal battle over who should develop it, which will probably delay plans for the important block of Half Street between the Navy Yard Metro station and the ballpark. One of the neighborhood's most potentially scenic spots -- between the ballpark and the riverfront -- is still home to an operating concrete plant, marring the view of the Anacostia from the top decks for at least another year.
Construction of the ballpark was completed in 22 months, making it one of the fastest ever built. That pace was dictated, however, by the prolonged political debate between Williams and opponents on the D.C. Council over a financing plan. It took nearly two years to reach an agreement -- forcing the compressed construction schedule to get everything in place for the 2008 baseball season. Other projects need time to catch up, city and business leaders said.
One of the loudest voices in the stadium financing debate was Adrian M. Fenty's. As a council member, he questioned the wisdom of such a big investment. Now, as mayor, he must ensure that it pays off by riding herd on the blossoming development in hopes of boosting the city's tax base.
Fenty (D) said that he still thinks the city could have gotten a better deal to build the ballpark more cheaply but that what matters now is getting the project done.
"It's going to be a great boon for the city, both for civic pride and from a revitalization perspective. What the stadium has done is to help give a spark and an energy level to projects that were already going to happen and to those that wouldn't have happened," he said.
Putting the ballpark in Southeast was just as important to Williams as bringing baseball back to Washington after a three-decade absence. Three other locations were seriously considered, but none, he and other city leaders decided, would have had the ripple effect in the surrounding neighborhoods.
But the choice was not without risks -- and that's why a big payoff is no sure thing. Unlike Verizon Center, which opened in Gallery Place in 1997 and has become a nightlife hub, the baseball stadium location was removed from the downtown core, easily reachable by just one Metro station. As Nationals owners have found out, parking is hard to come by -- one reason many fans will be shuttling to the games via buses from the Nationals' old home, RFK Stadium.
The idea that a city that was nearly bankrupt in the mid-1990s would shell out the full cost of a stadium for rich Major League Baseball owners outraged residents in poorer neighborhoods. Even now, many of the project's loudest critics continue to argue that the massive public subsidy was misguided.
"Whether or not a stadium spurs development does not answer the question of whether a city investment of $650 million or $700 million is justified," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, who spearheaded the opposition. "It's not clear that the development we're getting relative to the cost is a great deal. The city could have spent $650 million lots of ways on lots of development."
Business leaders, asked to pay much of the stadium costs through a new "ballpark fee," were divided, with many smaller companies balking. Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said some members remain unhappy.
Lang has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. "We try to say if the city overall benefits from development near the stadium, that will lessen the tax burden on everyone, and that's a good thing," she said.
By comparison, developers eagerly backed Williams's ballpark proposal. And they saw reasons to get excited about the location. The neighborhood had already seen its first wave of growth after the Navy Yard's mission expanded in the late 1990s to include the Naval Sea Systems Command, attracting several new buildings along M Street to house military contractors.
The new headquarters of the U.S. Transportation Department came next. After that, in 2004, the federal government opened up the Southeast Federal Center for development. Forest City, a nationally known developer, now controls 44 acres just west of the Navy Yard, from M Street to the river, with plans for offices and condos and a waterfront park.
Other developers took note. Monument Realty, a company formed only in 1999, began to buy land just as talk of the ballpark possibly coming to the neighborhood began to filter out.
Monument is developing the building on M Street that houses the Metro station closest to the ballpark, as well as the land behind the building and other parcels. The company wants to develop offices, stores, a hotel and housing, and it had a plan for slower development if the ballpark didn't come. But baseball "puts a stamp of approval on the neighborhood," company Executive Vice President Russell Hines said.
Still, the blocks closest to the ballpark -- the place developers, city officials and Nationals executives hope will become the hub of pre- and postgame activity at bars and restaurants -- may face the biggest delays.
Only in recent weeks did Metro agree to move out of its bus garage just north of the ballpark. Monument is engaged in a legal battle with Metro over who will develop the site.
After nearly 10 years of development proposals, the Florida Rock cement factory just south of the ballpark, a gritty industrial site crowded with dump trucks, received preliminary approval from the Zoning Commission last week for new offices, residences and stores along the Anacostia. It is not expected to break ground until next year.
To the east sits the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority O Street pumping station, occupying four choice acres with no development plans.
Still, as the Verizon Center experience showed, it takes time for shops and restaurants and bars to spring up between office towers and condo buildings.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said it took about eight years for now-bustling Gallery Place to become built up. "You're looking at a decade before you really see the effects of the baseball stadium. But it will happen."
Staff writer Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.