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  An Opener to Behold at MCI Center

By David Montgomery and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 03, 1997; Page A1

President Clinton/AP President Clinton munches on a sandwich at the beginning of Tuesday's Wizards-SuperSonics game at the MCI Center. (Nick Wass/AP)

Last night, downtown Washington was a place to be, not to flee.

Amid pomp, prayers and a presidential visit, MCI Center officially opened its doors. Thousands of people made their way to F Street NW to watch the National Basketball Association's Washington Wizards take on the Seattle SuperSonics in the arena's maiden contest.

But, in so many words, the people said they also came to celebrate the return of night life and daytime recreation on a large scale to a neighborhood that for decades has been virtually empty but for some intrepid restaurants.

"Coming downtown is as much excitement as the game itself," said John T. Stewart, of Alexandria, who brought a business client to the game.

"I've been very excited about this for a week," said lawyer Rick Fischer, 54, of Northwest Washington, who said he arrived two hours before game time just so he could walk around the area. "This event is at least as important as opening the Kennedy Center in reversing the decay of the city."

A crowd of almost 20,000 fans had to pass through metal detectors at the entrances because President Clinton was in attendance, a guest in the box of Abe Pollin, the arena's builder and owner of the Wizards and the Capitals hockey team.

Clinton arrived more than an hour before the 8:10 p.m. start of the nationally televised game and toured the interactive National Sports Gallery, a section of the arena that, along with restaurants and theme stores, will be open 365 days a year.

The president pitched a baseball at an interactive image of a big league batter but lost the basketball-shooting contest with a video-generated virtual Chris Webber, of the Wizards, according to a Barry Silberman, an executive of the Pollin organization who escorted Clinton.

Throngs in business suits and overcoats or jeans and windbreakers swarmed over the sidewalks and streets around the arena. Many were from the suburbs, experimenting with new routes to reach what was an unfamiliar destination for many: downtown Washington, after dark. Others were downtown office workers unused to staying in town on most nights.

Large crowds rode Metro to the Gallery Place-Chinatown station a few feet from the arena, heeding the advice of traffic planners who hoped at least half the fans would take public transportation. A half-hour before game time, the backup at the turnstiles was about 30 seconds. Metro officials said about 10,000 people went through the turnstiles at the Seventh and F streets exit between 5:30 and 8 p.m — about five times the usual number for a weeknight.

Others parked, but at game time, only one lot within a short walk of the arena was filled.

Metro officials said they would not have a count of total riders to the game until today.

The late starting time because of the national broadcast — most games will begin at 7 p.m. — eased the traffic crunch since commuters already were out of the area, police said

The hopes riding on the evening seemed to crystalize at one point before the game, outside the arena. F Street NW in front of MCI Center was blocked off, and it filled with thousands of people. A rock band performed on one side of the block, while on the other, dignitaries prepared to cut a huge red ribbon. A spray of lights cast huge images of stylized hockey and basketball players on the blank face of a nearby building.

And Irene Pollin, the team owner's wife, stepped to a microphone and recalled downtown Washington in the glory days, when she was a teenager, and a pleasant day could be spent starting at the old Hecht's at F and Seventh and window-shopping down to the old Garfinkel's at F and 14th streets.

"Maybe some day soon, we'll all be strolling up F Street again," she said. "Beautiful F Street."

Shortly before Brandford Marsalis performed an instrumental version of the National Anthem, an emotional Abe Pollin, who turns 74 today, addressed the crowd.

"This is a night I will never forget," he said. "This building exceeds my dreams."

The Place to Be
From outside, the arena's glass-and-steel structure with big windows glowed like a giant lantern in the neighborhood. The steps of the National Portrait Gallery, once a shadowy place in the evenings, became a rendezvous spot for game-goers.

"I've been waiting and waiting for this; I can't stand the excitement," said Joseph James, 42, a consultant at Howard University who said his family didn't come downtown for recreation from their home near Woodbridge. "I know we're going to be coming downtown a lot more."

Stewart and his client, Robert R. Pipkin Jr., a public relations executive, strolled down Sixth Street before the game, considering which restaurant to visit. From a business perspective, Stewart said MCI Center was a big improvement over the US Airways Arena in Landover, where the then-Bullets played the first game in 1973, also against the SuperSonics.

"Frankly, I've had tickets to give out to Landover games," Stewart said. "They just didn't have the pizazz. It was just going to a basketball game. Here you can go out, a restaurant, do something else."

After office hours, such throngs on city blocks in Washington's history have been more typically the byproduct of demonstrations or certain national holidays, such as Fourth of July or the quadrennial presidential inauguration. The section of town never recovered from the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

If MCI Center fulfills the admittedly expansive hopes of its boosters in city government and business, then they say a new pattern of recreation and tourism may begin to establish itself in the once-bustling commercial center of the city.

At least last night, several of the restaurants around the arena were packed.

"This is our first night serving dinner," said Nina Spicer, co-owner of the Arena Cafe, which formerly served just lunch because the neighborhood shut down after dark. Now, there two dozen diners and more flowing in the door. "It feels great."

But one of the diners, Christine Levonian, 24, of Silver Spring, had grown fond of US Airways. "I wonder if it will be as warm a place as Landover," she said. "We knew the ushers. Will the same be true here? I'm sure it will be over time."

Abe Pollin's Day
The day started early and ended late.

From the dedication of the National Sports Gallery yesterday morning to a parade on a blustery afternoon, it was Pollin's day as Washingtonians from various walks of life came to see his $200 million investment — and an additional $79 million from the city and Metro — in downtown.

"So many people have stayed away from here for so long that anything that brings people downtown is a good thing," said engineer Walter Birch, 49, who works downtown and who was one of many drawn by curiosity to check out the arena.

John Schroeder, 50, pressed his face close to the arena's glass doors to get a look inside as the Secret Service "cleaned" the building for Clinton's visit. "This is a great addition to downtown," said Schroeder, who works for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and lives in Alexandria. "I'm looking forward to staying downtown after work for a game."

Schroeder's colleague, native New Englander Mike Sheehan, said MCI Center reminds him of Boston Garden. "It's easy to get to; it's downtown; it's in the middle of everything," Sheehan said.

Federal workers strolled to MCI Center on their lunch hour for their first close-up view of the building.

The festivities included unveiling 20-by-25-foot replicas of Wizards' and Capitals team jerseys outside the Modell's Sporting Goods store in the arena. Fans were invited to sign the jerseys, and each signature was worth 25 cents that Modell's promised to contribute to a charity established by Pollin and the teams to feed homeless people in the city.

Across F Street from the arena's main entrance, Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press" program and a big Wizards' fan, emceed a stage celebration, where he said Pollin's decision to bring his teams downtown "is the most important affirmation this city has had in decades."

"I have traveled the country, and I can assure you what this will mean to this city," Russert said. "At the turn of the century, people will look at the MCI Center and refer to it as America's Arena. This is the capital of the United States. The most important country in the world. And we will now have, in the center of our city, the MCI Center. All of America will adopt the Wizards and the Capitals as America's teams."

Pollin spent part of the morning playing with boyish glee on some of the interactive exhibits at the National Sports Gallery in the arena. "I got a couple goals in soccer. I got a single in the batting cage!" he said. But he failed to score a goal in the hockey slap-shot game, and the goalie on a movie screen sneered, "C'mon rookie!"

The Secret Service slammed the doors shut at 11:30 a.m. sharp so they could sweep the building and seal it for Clinton's arrival. Metal detectors similar to the ones used at airports were lined up at the building's two big entrances, and explosives-sniffing dogs patrolled the arena. Elevators, the lower parking garage and Pollin's double suite were sealed off earlier in the day. Pollin's security people were familiar with the drill because Clinton and Vice President Gore have both visited US Airways Arena for games.

Already, new restaurants are opening and some nearby buildings are being renovated, their owners eager to feed off the arena's economic energy. The construction itself created more than 1,000 temporary construction jobs and about 900 full- and part-time positions inside. But some surrounding blocks also contain rows of blighted structures, silently raising the question, Can one building do so much?

"I hope this makes it safer in this area," said Cynthia Taylor, a GAO employee who strolled over during yesterday's lunch hour.

Religious leaders had more immediate results in mind, however.

The Rev. H. Lionel Edmonds, of the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in the District, asked the Lord to "Bless [Washington Wizard guard] Rod Strickland and help him find new ways to penetrate" to the basket. "Bless Calbert Cheaney's marksmanship. And bless Chris Webber and Juwan Howard so they get more triple-doubles," which is basketball slang for more than 10 steals, rebounds and points in one game.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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