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  Pollin's Building, D.C.'s Future

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 1, 1995; Page D01

The words could not have been stronger.

"I will build this building and it will open here," declared Abe Pollin, standing alongside Mayor-elect Marion Barry at Wednesday's news conference at which the sports entrepreneur announced that he would construct an arena in downtown Washington for his basketball Bullets and hockey Capitals. Pollin's "state-of-the-art" vision, as he described it, would be just as much a dream come true for the District in terms of redevelopment and revitalization.

But can Pollin overcome the kinds of bureaucratic obstacles that have thwarted Jack Kent Cooke in his efforts to build a new stadium at three different locations and doomed any number of stadiums and arenas promised around the country and never built? Or can Pollin back up his words and come up with the $180 million needed to build the arena by parlaying his own finances, his financial track record and a plan that would document revenue-production through such means as income from executive suites and concessions? Did Pollin know more than he let on when he said he didn't know where the money would come from?

And why has the 71-year-old Pollin stepped up to make the biggest play of his life when the majority of people his age are content, if not eager, to kick back?

"It's very exciting and it's going to be very exciting when it's done," Pollin said this week in an interview. While his precise sources of funding remained unclear — Pollin said it was "premature" to discuss them — Pollin made a strong case in explaining his interest in maintaining ownership of his teams and relocating them in a building that would be an adornment to the city when it opens in 1997 and, more importantly, a significant potential source of economic improvement.

Pollin's self-portrait is that of a man who loves what he's doing and thus would never retire from it. Speaking of the Bullets in particular, Pollin, a longtime figure in the National Basketball Association, said: "I've had opportunities to sell the team, but the team has become an important part of my life. I don't want to part with the team."

He's also had opportunities to dispose of the Capitals, he said. "I've had many offers to sell the teams — for big bucks," Pollin said. But money, without the teams, would not satisfy him, as he told it. But one important thing apparently has been missing for him — an up-to-date arena, and in the past two years he has focused on potential sites. Downtown Washington, he said, has long been his first choice, and the city has been pursuing Pollin since the summer of 1993.

"Washington has been very good to me," Pollin said this week. "I came here at the age of 8 and grew up here, attended public schools." Born in Philadelphia, he arrived in Washington with his family. He graduated from George Washington University in 1945. His early experience in the construction business came as a member of a family partnership, headed by his father. In 1957 Pollin launched his own construction firm, which built several large apartment houses and other buildings in the area. He's lived in the same home in Bethesda for some 35 years, and during that time has become involved in numerous philanthropic projects in the city.

Now he said: "I see the city suffering, getting a bad reputation locally, nationally and internationally. It may sound a little corny — it is a little corny — but I was in a unique position to do something about it. I believe in the future of the nation's capital. It deserves to be enlivened."

'An Intelligent Businessman'
David Osnos, a Pollin attorney and a board member of both the Capitals and Bullets, said when asked if Pollin already might know how he is going to swing his deal: "I wouldn't be that optimistic. But I would say that Abe is an intelligent businessman, an effective, can-do sort of person. He believes this is a project so worthwhile and economically viable, there are a number of potential sources and he will make one of them work."

Pollin reiterated what he said in his news conference, that he wished he could have built his arena in the District when he built Capital Centre in Prince George's County in the '70s: "Twenty years ago when I decided to move the Bullets to Washington and applied for a National Hockey League franchise, it was my dream that both of these professional teams would play in a new facility in downtown Washington. In 1974 time constraints regarding the conditions of an expansion franchise and financing requirement forced me to move more quickly than the District was able to.

"At the time," Pollin elaborated, "I had many meetings with then-Mayor {Walter} Washington. We were looking at various locations. We tried everything. We were talking about building over the tracks at Union Station. But it was clear to me that I had to have a hockey team playing somewhere by 1974. There was no possible way at that time to get the building built in Washington. I regretfully told the mayor that I was going to build the building at Largo."

Pollin was proud of Capital Centre's innovations, such as the giant Telscreen, sky suites and computer ticketing. But he had to live with complaints about the arena's "darkness" and the Beltway driving time encountered by thousands in getting there. Pollin said that originally he had expected Metro to build a line close to the arena. "There were these dotted lines that would bring it out there," he said.

As a result of that frustration, public transportation became crucial in his thinking on the new arena. And while he considered a number of sites in the area, he said that Laurel, in conjunction with the race track there and Cooke's proposed stadium, was "not viable" for him.

"I talked with Jack Kent Cooke and he envisioned a Meadowlands South," said Pollin, referring to the stadium-arena-race track complex in northern New Jersey. "But public transportation was a necessity."

In contrast, Pollin emphasized the advantages of a centrally located arena that people could reach easily by Metro. "It would be one of the major buildings downtown. Metro exits would come out into the building, like Madison Square Garden. It's a fabulous possibility that attracted me. People have told me, 'Build it, Abe, and we'll walk there in five minutes or we'll take the Metro there. You'll sell out every game.' Now I say to them, we'll see if you're right."

"He believes that downtown and the city is ultimately the right place for a new arena," Osnos said. "A state-of-the-art arena in downtown Washington is a matter of local and regional pride and national pride and he wants to bend all his energy and determination to get the job done. While he is a person with an enormous regional focus, he thinks the arena really does belong in the heart of downtown. I don't think it's complex. I think his views have been always this."

Pollin said that an impetus to thinking strongly about downtown came from Gordon Gund, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and a member of the Kellogg Co. board of directors. In July 1993, Gund mentioned what he thought Pollin should do and his own experiences to Ann McLaughlin, president of the Federal City Council, a group of District business and civic leaders, and also a Kellogg board member.

"It started out with Ann and Gund going to a board meeting and {talking}," Pollin said. Gund moved his team into downtown Cleveland from suburban Richfield, into what became known as Gund Arena, part of Cleveland's downtown redevelopment that also includes a new baseball park. Pollin said that McLaughlin contacted Peter O'Malley, a Pollin legal representative who is also on the Federal City Council, and O'Malley told Pollin of Gund's ideas. Eventually, Pollin focused on the Cleveland arena as his "model."

Pollin said that his original thinking was that he should get a better deal from Washington than Gund got from Cleveland because he would be bringing two teams to the city. But he changed his mind, saying he'd put up the money himself, "because of the financial position of the District ... to get this going. The delays would be long and arduous. ... I decided to take a risk. I have no idea where the money's coming from right now, but I'll get it somewhere, somehow."

Pollin denied that his actions were in any way prompted by Bob Johnson, president of cable's Black Entertainment Television. Johnson said two weeks ago that a deal between Pollin and District business leaders for the city to issue $92 million in bonds to help pay for the project favored Pollin too much. Johnson offered to finance the arena in exchange for minority ownership in the two teams with an option to buy them, but Pollin rejected that.

Pollin described his actions as "stepping up to the plate" to help the District. It also would give Pollin the rare chance to build a second arena. He opened Capital Centre, today known as USAir Arena, on Dec. 2, 1973, for a Bullets home opener after he put on a rush to complete the structure. "We got the final okay to open on December 2 at 10:30 a.m.," Pollin said. He envisions a 26-month schedule this time, with groundbreaking in August.

In an interview a year ago Pollin said that he would have made the suites at USAir Arena lower if he had it to do over again. The new arena's "executive suites" — Pollin said, "We don't call them sky boxes anymore" — will be "low and terrific." He said there would be 110 of them, plus 4,000 club seats. Both of these are projected money-makers from corporations that Pollin can use as part of his bargaining to gain financing.

Making His Moves
The big trade this fall that brought 1993 rookie of the year Chris Webber from Golden State combined with the signing of Juwan Howard, then this week's arena announcement, could be interpreted as steps by Pollin to improve his lasting image in the community. Webber has missed the Bullets' past four games with a dislocated shoulder and will not be able to return until February. The Bullets have struggled since signing both former University of Michigan stars, but the team has sold out every home game since Webber's arrival.

The Bullets won the NBA title in 1978, but the Webber-Howard investment was Pollin's biggest step in years to upgrade a perennial also-ran, which has been a disappointment to him as well as fans. This week, Pollin's description of the new building's amenities made it sound a certainty to appeal to the community.

Pollin mentioned, among other things, "a restaurant with a view of the National Portrait Gallery," and other restaurants "higher up, with views of the Capitol and the Washington Monument. There's no city with views like this." Pollin said the main entrance would be at 7th and F streets and that it would be "fabulously beautiful."

Such dreams seem to sustain him at an age when others would trim their schedules. Susan O'Malley, the Bullets' president, said he's as vibrant as ever in the 22 years she's known him. "Still in at 8:30 in the mornings. Still coming to the games."

Still wanting another championship. Still wanting the best arena, in his home city.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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