MCI Center to Open Doors on Dec. 2
By Thomas Heath
The 20,000-seat MCI Center, the new home of the Washington Wizards and Capitals, will open on Dec. 2, the 24th anniversary of US Airways Arena, the teams' current home, and the birthday of owner Abe Pollin, who spearheaded the building of the new facility.
Pollin had hoped to open the arena in time for the start of hockey season, in early October, or even basketball season, in late October, but both the Wizards and Capitals will play the first home games of their 1997-98 schedules at US Airways Arena. Pollin said yesterday that fans will be compensated for those games.
The first event at MCI Center will be an 8 p.m. game between the Wizards and the Seattle SuperSonics. At a news conference yesterday to announce the Wizards' 1997-98 schedule, Pollin said he nudged the NBA schedule-makers about making the SuperSonics the first MCI visitors, just as they helped to christen US Airways Arena -- then Capital Centre -- in 1973.
"I can't hold it any longer," Pollin said. "On December 2 of this year we will be playing our first-ever game at the MCI Center, 24 years to the day that the Capital Centre opened. We will be playing the same team that we played at the opening of the Capital Centre."
". . . This is a special day for all of us."
The Wizards will open their NBA season on Oct. 31 in Auburn Hills, Mich., against the Detroit Pistons, and will play five home games at US Airways Arena in November while the arena is finished. The NHL season opens even earlier, and while the Capitals' schedule has not yet been released, Pollin said the team will play nine games at its home in Landover before moving downtown.
"The leagues have been very cooperative with us to schedule more home games later in the season," said Pollin, who is building the $175 million facility with private funds.
MCI Center -- located between Sixth and Seventh streets north of F Street in Northwest Washington -- originally was to open in October, but Pollin said yesterday that workers never fully recovered from a soil contamination problem that delayed the project by six months. He said the delays in the project, which broke ground on Oct. 18, 1995, made it impossible to open in time.
"We made up most of it," he said. "It cost us millions and millions."
The opening game will start at 8 p.m. to allow pregame festivities, but most games at MCI Center will begin at 7, rather than the 7:30 p.m. start commonly used at US Airways Arena.
The new arena is located on the edge of Chinatown at the Gallery Place Metro stop (Red, Green, Yellow lines) and within easy walking distance of Metro Center (Red, Orange and Blue) and Navy Memorial-Archives (Yellow and Green) stops, making it easily accessible to all five Metro lines.
Pollin and the District government -- which provided more than $50 million to prepare the site for construction -- are counting on mass transit to make the facility a success, because there is limited parking available in the area. If fans use Metro, MCI Center will be among a select few arenas with a high number of fans who visit by mass transit, according to Pollin's traffic consultants.
MCI Center is expected to be the third leg of a downtown triangle that includes the Reagan Building and a new convention center at Mount Vernon Square. The old Garfinckel's building is being renovated, a business improvement district has been created and several new restaurants have opened. MCI Center will generate new business traffic at night and help spur investments by retailers, according to local business leaders and the Federal City Council, which promotes business development in Washington.
The arena already has spurred some development in the area. Market Street North, a residential and office complex under construction on Ninth Street NW, will have a parking garage for center patrons. Developer Douglas Jemal hopes to convert a row of town houses along Seventh Street NW into a retail and restaurant complex. The General Services Administration wants to revive the historic but vacant Tariff Building, which is south of the arena.
The location -- five acres that were torched during the 1968 riots and leveled later by urban renewal -- is central to many of the nearby businesses from which Pollin hopes to draw a fan base for both teams. Area restaurants, particularly those in Chinatown, are hoping the same.
Meanwhile, the team is trying to accommodate the fans it already has. Pollin said people who purchased MCI suites and tickets under the belief that they were buying a full season at the new facility will be compensated for the late start.
"We will be working out something with the fans," he said. "We will be very fair."
Season ticket holders for both teams, who faced price increases of 50 percent for next year, will receive a 10 percent credit on each game played at US Airways Arena, with the rebate to go toward credit on next year's playoff tickets, according to mailings sent out earlier this year. There are several thousand more seats in the new arena than in US Airways Arena.
One of the arena's top sponsors, Arlington-based US Airways, which has a multiyear marketing investment at MCI Center that is worth millions, said late starts are usually addressed in contracts.
"There's a strong spirit of cooperation between us and the people who run the MCI Arena, and we're very much pleased to be part of the sponsorship," said David Castelveter, spokesman for US Airways.
Following Pollin's news conference -- at which he introduced singer/songwriter Barry Manilow, who will perform in the arena's first concert on Dec. 10 -- there were tours of MCI Center.
The Wizards' practice facility, which is still a giant concrete hall, will be fronted by glass on one side to allow visitors to the arena to watch the team practice, although a curtain will be installed in case Coach Bernie Bickerstaff wants to keep his workouts private.
Pollin's lower-level luxury suite, which is twice the size of the other suites, is far from finished and the walls are smeared with red paint.
The building's roof has been sealed and workers inside were installing the ice-making equipment for the hockey rink where the Capitals will play. None of the building's 20,000 seats has been installed, and restaurants such as the Velocity Grill are still empty concrete spaces.
But construction manager John Stranix said everything will be ready for Dec. 2 except for the sprawling Discovery Channel space, which will house a three-level store with high-tech exhibits evoking the land, sea and air.
More than 80 percent of the arena's 110 luxury suites, which run between $100,000 to $175,000, have been sold, according to Pollin. About half of the 3,000 club seats, which cost $7,500 each and include both teams, have been scooped up. Season ticket sales were "doing very well," he said. The team has not announced when single-game tickets will be sold.
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