Ballpark Is Ready, but the Neighborhood Isn't

Fans Must Dodge Cement Mixers as D.C.'s Grand Vision for SE Gradually Takes Form

By Daniel LeDuc and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 24, 2008; Page A01

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.

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