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  Pollin Shows Off Plans for Arena

By Stephen C. Fehr and Maryann Haggerty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 28, 1995; Page B01

Sports team owner Abe Pollin, declaring "there are no longer any doubts" about his plan to build a $175 million arena near Chinatown, showed off the final design yesterday for a regional entertainment center that he said would help bring people back to a dying downtown.

Pollin said the MCI Center will be open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. all year and will include shops, restaurants, a sports museum, pedestrian terraces and a five-level arena for basketball, hockey and concerts. It was designed so that light will spill out its windows at night like a beacon in downtown Washington.

"The long-term package is complete," said Pollin, who is financing the arena in a mostly vacant area in the 600 block of G Street NW. "I'm delighted to announce it is going to happen. There are no longer any doubts."

Pollin's self-confidence called to mind Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke's 1992 announcement: "We will build a stadium at Potomac Yard." That plan fizzled because of local opposition in Alexandria, and Cooke has spent the last three years trying to regroup in Maryland.

Pollin, too, has opponents, including historic preservationists and cable television entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson, who wants to build the arena himself. But so far, the proposal has been blessed by every panel considering it. In a report to be released today, the National Capital Planning Commission staff will recommend that the commission endorse the arena when it votes next week.

With the groundbreaking ceremonies scheduled for Oct. 18, Pollin wants the 20,300-seat arena to be finished for fall 1997 start of the professional hockey and basketball seasons. Pollin owns the hockey Capitals and basketball Bullets.

In the first detailed presentation on how the MCI Center will look inside and out, the architects gave an idea what it would be like for a fan or concertgoer attending an event there.

"It really will become an icon for the city, a force for cohesion," said Colden "Coke" Florance, of Florance Eichbaum Esocoff King, one of three architectural firms working on the building's design.

People will be able to enter from two main points: in the middle of F Street or the northwest corner of Seventh and G streets, near Chinatown. Around the perimeter of the rectangular building will be four levels of shops and restaurants. Some stores and restaurants will face the street. Windows on all four sides will allow light to permeate.

"Unlike many public buildings in Washington, this one will be alive and active to the street," Florance said.

Inside, the oval arena runs east to west. The entrance to the Gallery Place Metro station is at Seventh and F, moved from Seventh and G.

About 60 percent of the seats will be on the lower concourse, moving fans closer to the action than at USAir Arena in Landover. The floor level will be reserved for season ticket holders. On each side of the next level will be private suites. The third level will be the club section, followed by a level of corporate suites that goes around the building. The top or upper level will be the cheapest seats.

People will sit in wider, plusher seats than at USAir Arena, and all of them will be turned to face the action on the floor -- with no obstruction from supports holding up the roof. Some seat backs will be equipped with TV monitors that will allow fans to call up instant replays or participate in surveys. MCI officials said they are exploring other such technological innovations.

The architects said they tried to design a building that reflects the historical character of Washington while keeping a futuristic look to convey a sense of energy about the activities taking place inside.

For example, the canopy over the sidewalks closest to Chinatown will be in a curved, dragon wall style characteristic of the neighborhood. The MCI Center sign atop the entrance near Chinatown will be in Chinese characters.

All of the sidewalks around the building will use red pavers in a basket weave pattern, evoking Washington's past, and parts of the facade of three sides of the arena will be in the same brick color. In other places, the facade will be the same white limestone color of many of the federal museums and other buildings in Washington.

Critics said the design may have some appeal, but the building does not fit in the relatively compact site. MCI Center will rise 88 feet along the street, 115 feet at the highest point of the roof.

"This building just overwhelms everything in its vicinity," said Sally Berk, president of the D.C. Preservation League. "There's not a lot of opportunity to back up and see this building."

But at yesterday's news conference, Pollin predicted that the building will stand out in other ways.

The MCI Center, he said, will be "the finest sports facility in the world. When you see what we're going to produce . . . you'll realize what I said is not taken lightly."

Pollin said that Gund Arena, the year-old home of the National Basketball Association's Cleveland Cavaliers, is considered the league's best arena. "When MCI Center is finished, {Gund} will be the second-best building," Pollin said.

Brad Clark, who designed the Gund Arena as an architect at Ellerbe Becket, a Kansas City, Mo., firm, also is working on the plan for the inside of MCI Center.

"As proud as I am of Gund, the whole package of MCI Center is something we haven't seen yet," in arenas around the country, Clark said.

As Pollin's groundbreaking date nears, the arena project still has to go through an almost daily schedule of regulatory reviews before construction can actually start.

Today, the D.C. Council is scheduled to decide where to move 720 city employees who work in buildings that will be demolished to make way for the arena.

Despite the planning commission staff endorsement yesterday, another anticipated approval -- the completion of a "memorandum of agreement" on how to protect the historic resources near the site -- didn't come through.

In both cases, the major issue is how the closing of the 600 block of G Street to build the arena would disrupt the L'Enfant plan for Washington's streets.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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