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  D.C. Hopes Arena Is Just a Warm-Up

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 1997; Page A01

With much of the District's government and economy in turmoil, the scheduled opening of the MCI Center in less than eight weeks offers the city a rare chance to try something positive: transform downtown Washington into a regional entertainment center where people live, work, shop and have fun.

That's the vision of many D.C. business and political leaders, who compare sports team owner Abe Pollin's decision to build the $200 million arena at Gallery Place to James Rouse's Inner Harbor project, which revived downtown Baltimore. Rouse, a Columbia developer who died last year, is often credited with rescuing the American downtown by building waterfront marketplaces with trendy shops and restaurants.

"It's an exciting time, a huge opportunity for the city," said John Fondersmith, the District government's chief downtown planner. "The MCI Center can cause people to start thinking of this city in a different way. Instead of `I won't go into that part of town,' people will see it as an exciting place to go."

However, success isn't guaranteed. There is no single plan for recasting downtown, an essential first step in the turnarounds taking place in many U.S. cities. Three organizations have put together plans addressing downtown's future, but they don't speak with one voice. Despite a couple of efforts, no city official has successfully brought them together yet.

Washington is one of the latest big cities to try a downtown makeover centered on entertainment. The American League Championship Series is showcasing two cities, Baltimore and Cleveland, that have downtowns combining professional sports facilities with museums, convention centers, shops and restaurants that bring millions of visitors and tax dollars. Pollin was influenced heavily by Cleveland, which bills itself as "the new American city."

In addition to the MCI Center, which opens Dec. 2, at least three other buildings could give downtown D.C. what Stephen Fuller, a regional economist, called "a constellation of activities that just might work." They are the planned convention center at Mount Vernon Place, the existing convention center near Chinatown and the Ronald Reagan federal building and International Trade Center at Federal Triangle.

Together with Union Station, the downtown theaters, the Smithsonian Institution museums, Chinatown and the Pavilion at the Old Post Office, the nucleus of a downtown entertainment district is set, business leaders said. The relocation of the Washington Opera to the old Woodward & Lothrop department store would be a significant boost if the $200 million it would cost can be raised.

The idea is to attract big crowds -- tourists and local residents -- through movie theaters, a live entertainment stage, an arts district, professional sports, theme restaurants such as Planet Hollywood, specialty shops such as the Discovery Channel store at MCI, thrill rides and simulators. When the capital's museums and other attractions close, there are few places for tourists to go. More than 20 million people a year visit the Washington area, a tourist base most cities would love to have.

"That's why retailers like Washington: lots of people with nothing to do," said Michael Swinney, head of Sony Development. "They have money, too. And you don't spend a lot of money going to a museum."

Yet the financial incentives needed to lure entertainment retailers to Washington aren't in place. Many suburban residents and tourists are jittery about going downtown, and they have other options, especially now that the suburbs have entertainment-based centers of their own such as Dave & Busters at White Flint Mall and theme restaurants such as the Rainforest Cafe at Tysons Corner.

"I don't go downtown if I can help it," said Ron Dean, 27, of Woodbridge, expressing a popular perception about downtown crime not supported by statistics. "The main reason for me is the crime. I don't want to be another statistic." Dean was at Fair Oaks Mall in western Fairfax County, one of about 20 centers where suburban residents hang out.

"The big obstacle to overcome in Washington is that the region's population base and orientation is in the suburbs, which have their own [shopping and entertainment] centers," said Michael S. Rubin, a Philadelphia entertainment retail consultant involved in the Washington market.

Geoffrey Dawson, 36, has heard such skepticism before. He grew up in Northwest Washington but rarely found much to do downtown, which he said was "gasping" in the 1960s and 1970s. "You could sense that new things weren't coming."

Today, Dawson is risking millions of dollars on downtown's future, reflecting the new optimism among business leaders that the MCI Center can be a magnet for entertainment-oriented development that will draw people downtown. He and two partners are building the Velocity Grill, the main restaurant at the MCI Center, which offers a glimpse of entertainment development.

Built on three levels, the Velocity Grill isn't just about food and drink. Dawson is trying to sell an experience, too. Through a glass floor, patrons will be able to watch the Washington Wizards on their warm-up basketball court. The walls will be decked with Washington sports memorabilia and video archives showing highlights of the city's sports history. Dozens of other TV screens throughout the restaurant will be tuned to games, and patrons celebrating special events there can be put on screen.

"The ante has really been upped by consumers, whose demand for an unusual experience away from home has gotten higher and higher" as leisure time is scarcer, Rubin said.

The Walt Disney Co. recently announced plans to enter the game center business with as many as 30 establishments around the world where virtual reality technology will allow children to "duel" with Captain Hook, avoid dinosaurs while rafting on a prehistoric river or walk on the moon.

Sony Corp. is building a four-story entertainment center in downtown San Francisco, part of a district there that includes a convention center and three art museums. The entertainment center has a 15-screen movie theater with stadium-style seating, an IMAX theater with an 80-foot-high screen, a Sony and Discovery Channel store and a "Where the Wild Things Are" interactive playground that brings to life the characters in the book by Maurice Sendak.

"These are the new downtown department stores," said Herbert Miller, a Washington developer. He headed a D.C. task force that recommended the addition of interactive music, sports and children's museums and a 20-screen movie theater complex in the old convention center.

The old downtown department stores used to be the place to shop, especially for the District's black middle class, but they lost out in their competition with suburban shopping malls.

"Downtown was the place you went for that very special thing," said Lorna Green, 44, who rode the bus to Woodies with her mother on Saturdays.

Now, Green lives in Landover, shops in the suburbs and rarely finds any reason to take her two boys downtown. To win her back, business leaders recognize that it's going to take a different form of retailing, blending entertainment with technology.

"What we're really doing is revitalizing downtown retailing," said Robert Gladstone, a downtown developer, who said such activities as video arcades draw people to spend money nearby on food and other items. "When you think about it, Disney World is a massive shopping mall."

A retail renaissance also would strengthen downtown's office market, which is recovering from the overbuilding of the 1980s that led to excess space in many buildings.

But what's missing downtown, according to many civic and political leaders, is more housing. Some officials fear the arena and new convention center will create a demand for parking garages instead of residential buildings that help support the shops and restaurants.

"The most critical element of downtown success is a lively residential area," said D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4).

Witold Rybczynski, who has written extensively about the condition of U.S. cities, said that "neighborhoods are the lifeblood of any city" and that many are dysfunctional because of chronic unemployment and welfare dependency. The downtown entertainment revolution is "a redefinition of how downtowns function," Rybczynski said, but it probably won't lift the rest of the city.

"It takes employment on a big scale, not just hotels and entertainment zones" to bring people back to the city, said Rybczynski, of Philadelphia.

Added Richard H. Bradley, former president of the International Downtown Association, "The real issue for Washington is, how do you regenerate downtown and use that to help rejuvenate the city?"

Bradley is heading an effort to make downtown cleaner and safer, a necessary step before anyone can talk seriously about a comeback. Downtown property owners are taxing themselves to pay for crews of street cleaners and unarmed security personnel who will patrol a 120-block area of downtown, bordered by 16th Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Third Street and Constitution Avenue. They'll begin before the scheduled opening of the MCI Center.

The downtown dreams also depend on the city and federal governments approving a special taxing district that would allow the city to sell bonds, supported by property and sales taxes, as incentives to entice the retail entertainment industry. Legislation setting up the tax district hasn't been introduced.

A half-dozen entertainment retailers reportedly are considering building movie theaters, video arcades, shops and restaurants downtown, but without financial help, "they won't play the game," said Miller, who developed the Potomac Mills and Georgetown Park shopping centers. "Everything's pretty in the picture [of downtown], but you've got to make it happen."

Critics question the staying power of entertainment retailers.

"This is a fad," said Dorn McGrath, a George Washington University professor, noting earlier versions of entertainment districts that came and went in U.S. downtowns 20 years ago. "It's like collecting Boy Scout merit badges. First you had to have your convention center. Then you had to have an aquarium. Now it's an arena or stadium. An arts district may be a good idea, too, but hockey fans coming downtown aren't the kind to sip chardonnay in galleries."


With the planned opening of the MCI Center on Dec. 2, many civic and business leaders believe downtown Washington could make a comeback. Mirroring efforts in other cities, the leaders are trying to remake downtown as a regional center of entertainment, arts, sports and dining. Here are some of the major plans:

1. MCI Center: The new 20,600-seat arena could draw thousands of visitors downtown every day, with professional and collegiate basketball, hockey, figure skating, concerts and other events. The center will include a three-level Discovery Channel store, a sports and sportscasters museum and restaurant featuring Washington sports memorabilia.

2. New convention center: Located at Mount Vernon Place, the 2 million-square-foot building is scheduled to open by 2000, attracting national conventions, trade shows and other events that will bring thousands of visitors to downtown.

3. Old convention center: Once the new convention center is built, there's talk of turning the existing center into an entertainment/retail complex with movie theaters, restaurants, shops and arcades.

4. Washington Opera House: Though financing is uncertain, Washington Opera leaders want to convert the old Woodward & Lothrop store into a $200 million opera house, which would be another cultural attraction.

5. Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center: Opened in June, the Reagan building and international trade center at Federal Triangle is the second-largest federal office building after the Pentagon. The building includes shops and a food court and eventually will be home to about 7,000 employees.

6. The Mall: About 20 million people visit Washington each year, but after the Smithsonian museums close, there's hardly anything for them to do downtown at night. Business and political leaders want to create enough attractions north of the Mall so people will stay downtown and spend money.

Also on the drawing board:

A "music dome" for live performances; a national music museum; moving the National Capital Children's Museum from Anacostia to downtown; and a national sports museum.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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