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 MCI Center Package

  Fear Factors

By Linda Wheeler
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page W34
The Washington Post Magazine

Nancy Rogers is the kind of fan Abe Pollin had in mind when he decided to build a sports arena in downtown Washington. A Capitals season ticket holder who lives in Springfield, Rogers traveled downtown one day to look at the MCI Center while it was under construction, and chatted with the construction workers. "We asked them if we could go in, and they said, `There's the door,' " she recalls. "It was so exciting!" Then she drove around the neighborhood looking for restaurants and museums and grew even more excited. "Washington is beautiful," she says. "I anticipate having dinner downtown. I am not afraid."

But Mary Jo Fanning, of Fairfax, who also drove around the neighborhood one day, is the kind of fan Pollin had in mind as well. "It was pretty raunchy," is her recollection. "My friend said, `Are you kidding? You would come here?' " Her answer: After 11 years as a Caps season ticket holder, she will be home this year watching games on TV. "Someone will get murdered coming home from a Caps game just because they have a leather coat," she predicts.

And that's the subplot of the MCI Center -- not how people will feel about coming to a new, state-of-the-art arena, but how people will feel about coming to the city that surrounds it.

As new as the arena looks, some of the surrounding blocks are precisely the opposite. There are abandoned buildings. Empty lots. Dark streets. Overflowing garbage dumpsters. By Tuesday, however, arena and government officials are determined that such a foreboding landscape will have been transformed into a more welcoming one. And though there's only so much that can be done about the vacant lots and empty buildings, they say the steps they're taking to light the streets and police the area will help the arena's patrons feel more secure.

"Since day one, we have pledged a safe and bright and clean environment, one that will be comfortable and cheerful and friendly," says Barry Silberman, president of Centre Management, Pollin's operating company. "We have been concerned because we know what people think in suburbia about downtown."

Suburbanites long ago deserted Washington. For more than a century, downtown was the entertainment and shopping mecca for the area, but Washington's riots of 1968 and the advent of suburban malls undermined the city's commercial core.

More than a generation has passed since extravagant Christmas decorations on large department stores downtown marked the beginning of holiday shopping, or when downtown movie theaters got the big releases first. Gradually that robust image faded as major department stores closed and developers tore down whole blocks.

By the time Abe Pollin announced his plans for the arena, downtown, at least in the minds of many in the suburbs, had become a forlorn and dangerous place.

How damaging can such a perception be? Enough that everyone from Pollin to city officials to police officials is promising plenty of cops, clean streets and bright lights, the steps that experts on crime prevention say are essential to creating an environment that will make people feel comfortable.

"For bad guys, this will be one place they won't want to come," says D.C. police Capt. Michael Radzilowski, the Special Events Division commander in charge of making it that way. "We are not just sticking cops on corners. They will have specific assignments to suppress any crime. The bad guys will get locked up."

The bad that these guys do is mostly car break-ins, pocketbook snatches and aggressive panhandling. It is not the worst crime Washington has to offer but it's enough to spoil a pleasant night out. Radzilowski says that games and concerts at the arena will be given the same attention as major demonstrations and city festivals. Although he is reluctant to say what his staffing details will consist of, others working closely with him say about 30 of his officers will be assigned to arena events.

In addition, about 60 uniformed men and women employed by a specially created business improvement district will greet visitors, give directions, offer advice, pick up trash, even erase graffiti. Their salaries will be paid through funds collected from business owners who believe the extra attention will bring prosperity to the entire area. Restaurant and bar owners are counting on coaxing some of the 20,000 people expected to attend hockey and basketball games to come early for drinks and stay late for dinner. "It is our intention to convey, through these two teams, that downtown is safe and well maintained," says Richard Bradley, executive director of the BID. "Their most important function is to be helpful and put a personal face on downtown. They will be aggressively friendly."

They also will be easier to see than they would have been in the days before the arena was announced. The District is repairing 100 existing street lights and installing about 40 more around the arena, says Gary Burch, chief of the city's engineering and construction administration. His promise: "We are making sure all the lights in the area will be working when the arena opens. The brighter the light, the better."

Linda Wheeler is a Post Metro reporter.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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