New Venues for Basketball, Hockey, Football
By Stephen C. Fehr
As machines and nearly 1,000 workers dig dirt, move cement and lift steel, the future home of the Washington Redskins rises impressively out of a former cornfield in Prince George's County. The stadium builders, toiling 14 hours a day in Landover, have put up the basic oval-shaped framework for the 78,600-seat complex and are scurrying to complete construction in time for the 1997 football season.
Seven miles to the west, above the Gallery Place subway stop in downtown Washington, huge cranes tower over the steel and concrete skeleton of the 20,600-seat MCI Center. It, too, is going up on a "fast-track" schedule in hopes that the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards (the Bullets, to be renamed next season) can open their respective hockey and basketball seasons in the arena next fall.
The sports construction doesn't stop there. In Baltimore, next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, work has started on a 68,400-seat stadium for the Baltimore Ravens, scheduled to open in 1998.
The prospect of three new and glittery sports complexes in the Washington-Baltimore area has elated fans and could boost the region's image as a sports and entertainment capital. For the short term, it puts the District and Maryland in the forefront of the biggest national construction boom in modern sports history. In the long run, the shift in stadium and arena locations -- the Redskins are leaving their 35-year home at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, in the District, and the Capitals and Wizards are moving out of USAir Arena, in Landover -- will have a broad impact, affecting such things as economic development and traffic patterns.
Many people believe that the key to resuscitating the District's image and economy is to recast its old downtown area as the region's entertainment center.
The new arena and the planned relocation of the Washington Opera to the abandoned Woodward & Lothrop department store are considered linchpins in this transformation. Also, other highly visible projects are set to open in the area next year, including the new main terminal at National Airport and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center near the White House.
"We've not yet as a community begun to recognize how all these projects can fit together," said John R. Tydings, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the region's chamber of commerce. "The opportunity for people to move around to these facilities will break down geographic barriers that now exist in the region and will enhance entertainment and economic development."
The sports construction mania is not unique to the nation's capital. Since 1990, 24 stadiums and arenas have been built in U.S. cities, compared with 11 during the 1980s. Sports construction contracts exceed $1.5 billion this year, a record and three times what was being spent 10 years ago.
But only Atlanta, host of last summer's Olympic Games, is comparable in putting up sports palaces at the same pace as the Washington-Baltimore area.
"The whole country is flushing out stadiums that are either too old or ineffective economically," said John A. Moag Jr., chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "The good news is the new facilities coming on line are custom-made for their sport and are probably going to last a long, long time."
RFK Stadium, one of the District government's few moneymaking ventures, will stay open for soccer, college football and other events. USAir Arena, which opened in 1973 as the Capital Centre, will host horse shows, tractor pulls and other activities.
Neither complex, however, will have the same stature it once did, and the region's major concerts, ice shows and other big entertainment events will move downtown to the MCI Center.
The wave of sports construction has touched off debates within cities, including in the Washington-Baltimore area, about the value of professional sports compared with other community needs, because many of the stadiums are paid for with public money.
Maryland lawmakers have approved spending $271 million on sports-related construction -- $200 million for the Ravens stadium and $71 million for roads and ramps around the Redskins complex -- a combined cost that critics say should be channeled instead to education and social programs. Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke is financing construction of the team's $175 million stadium, just inside the Capital Beltway.
Likewise, even though owner Abe Pollin is picking up the $175 million tab for the new basketball and hockey arena, the District government is laying out more than $50 million to pay for land acquisition, subway station improvements, building demolition and utility line relocations at the Gallery Place site.
Yet even with assistance from taxpayers, team owners contend that in an era of $100 million player contracts, they cannot keep a professional sports franchise afloat without additional revenue. The new facilities promise increased income from luxury suites, ticket sales, concessions, entertainment features and sponsorships -- MCI is paying Pollin an undisclosed amount for the naming rights.
The Redskins, for instance, will increase annual revenue as much as $30 million by offering 284 executive suites, 15,000 club or luxury seats and 60,000 general seats with higher prices than at RFK. The Ravens are raking in $68 million before their stadium opens by charging fans a one-time license fee for season tickets, a practice Cooke said he opposes.
With the financial stakes so high, the Redskins stadium and MCI Arena are being built on a tight, accelerated schedule. The Redskins hope to complete in 18 months what normally takes 24 months.
"We'll be ready for the Redskins' opening day next year," predicts Walter Lynch, the stadium's project manager.
MCI Center officials said they, too, will open on time, although no one can predict the effect that a harsh winter could have on either project. A lawsuit filed by a group of paralyzed veterans also could delay completion if a judge agrees with their claim that the arena isn't wheelchair accessible.
The sports construction has helped the region's economy rebound from a recession. The Redskins stadium and MCI Center construction could generate about 8,000 direct and indirect jobs between them, according to George Mason University economist Stephen Fuller.
"It keeps the recovery going," he said. "This is not the salvation [for the construction industry], but these are important jobs that cut across all sectors -- professionals, manufacturing, concrete -- and have lots of effect on payroll."
So many construction jobs are filled now through sports and commercial construction that the costs of other projects in the region are rising as contractors, no longer desperate for work, submit higher bids. One immediate fallout: Montgomery County school officials worry whether they'll be able to maintain their schedule for building new schools and renovating others because they can't cover the unexpected increase in construction costs.
Despite the excitement about the new venues, many people will have a hard time getting tickets to football, basketball and hockey games.
The Redskins have been sold out since 1969 and have a season ticket waiting list of 49,000. Although the new stadium will have 22,146 more seats than RFK, only 4,000 on the waiting list actually will get seats -- and half of those will Prince George's County residents as part of the agreement permitting Cooke to build in Landover.
The scarcity is because the core 16,000 season ticket holders who control most of the 56,454 seats at RFK renewed the same number at the new place, leaving only 4,000 of the 60,000 general seats for newcomers. The remaining roughly 20,000 seats are club seats and suites.
And then there is the matter of price.
Club seats at the Redskins stadium will average $1,585 each season, about $158 a game. The Wizards and Capitals will raise their ticket prices, too; a two-hour basketball game for a family of four could easily exceed $150.
In Baltimore, despite the up-front cash the Ravens are requiring for season tickets, it will be slightly easier for the general public to attend games. At the start of each season, the team will sell several thousand individual game tickets as a gesture to people unable or unwilling to buy seats for the whole year.
Another problem dampening enthusiasm in some quarters is traffic.
Cooke, in a letter to fans, boasts that the new Redskins stadium "is so easy to get to, and there is so much available parking [23,000 spaces], you'll wish there was a home game every day of the week."
Tell that to Harold Levy, a longtime resident of the Centennial Village town house development near the Landover stadium site.
"We have given up all this land and our sanity for nothing," said Levy, who worries about declining home values and increased crime. "The residents don't benefit at all."
Redskins traffic consultant Martin J. Wells agrees that there will be some disruption in neighborhoods on the 10 or so Sundays a year that games are scheduled. But he said football crowds will not be allowed to cut through residential areas or park in them.
Among ardent fans, however, a pressing concern is how they will feel about watching the games in new surroundings. Stadiums and the teams that play in them often become so linked in the public's mind that it's hard to think of the team playing anywhere else.
That was certainly true at RFK, where the Redskins fielded five Super Bowl teams in the NFL's smallest stadium. Their first win there, on the last day of the 1961 season, was against the Dallas Cowboys, the same team the Redskins will face Dec. 22, when they play their last regular-season game at the venerable stadium.
"There's 35 years of memories here," said season ticket holder Jack Kuhn, 43, of Sterling, rattling off the names of famous Redskins players in a reverent tone. "It's like moving into a new house in a new neighborhood. It doesn't have the same creaks and sounds. It doesn't have that same comfortable chair that was yours. There's going to be a transition, that's for sure."
Cooke had planned to be the first team owner in the area with a new stadium, even before Oriole Park opened in 1992. But he couldn't reach an agreement with the District and later struck out with Northern Virginia after miscalculating the depth of opposition by Alexandria residents to a site at Potomac Yard.
The crusty billionaire wound up hunting for sites in Maryland, stumbling in Laurel before scoring in Landover. The deal was sealed in part because Cooke agreed to provide additional season tickets, scholarships and a recreation center for Prince George's County residents.
Cooke has been actively involved in planning the stadium, telling architects to contour the structure close to the field to give better sight lines than those at RFK, whose circular baseball design obstructs some views.
Fans who now sit behind the players at RFK often have to stand during the game to see over the bench. Their seats are only 18 inches off the ground and 40 feet from the field; at the new stadium, the first row is six feet off the ground and only 25 feet from the field.
But unlike at RFK, the new stadium won't have direct subway access. About a third of Redskins fans currently ride Metro to games; next year, if they continue to use public transportation, they will have to catch shuttle buses from one of the four Metro stations near the new stadium.
The Redskins estimate that about 18 percent of the 78,600 fans will use the subway. The rest will drive, probably causing game-day jams near the stadium and possibly slowing traffic in Prince George's. Three Beltway interchanges will serve the stadium, including a new one the state is rushing to complete by next fall, the fastest highway interchange ever built in this area.
Assuming an average of three fans per car, the Redskins are building about 23,000 parking spaces, none more than 10 minutes walking distance from the stadium. The number is in line with other NFL stadiums of similar size.
"People will come to know the stadium as they came to know RFK," said Wells, the Redskins traffic consultant. "People who RFK game after game have established travel habits long ago. Fans will have to establish new patterns at the new place based on a full array of choices."
Prince George's officials are developing a strategy for using the Redskins stadium, with its new road system, to speed the addition of restaurants, movie theaters, shops and offices in the Landover area. The stadium is near USAir Arena, the planned Larwn Center and Landover Mall.
Pollin, a District native who originally wanted to build the Capital Centre in downtown Washington, was the force behind putting the new arena at Gallery Place between Sixth and Seventh streets NW, north of F Street. Through the Federal City Council, a group of 200 top business leaders, he engineered a deal with the District for the land and tax breaks in exchange for approval to build there.
Although other sites were available, Pollin was particularly attracted to the parcel near Chinatown because it is on top of a subway station and close to two others serving all five Metro lines. This is critical because MCI Center will not provide parking for most fans, although lots and garages are nearby.
Half the seats at the center will be below street level. This will help views, and fans in the highest rows won't have to walk up a lot of stairs. MCI officials say they want to make the center a showcase of technology with interactive sports exhibits -- a simulated "one-on-one" with basketball star Chris Webber, for instance. It remains to seen whether they'll pull this off; the company already has scrapped an initial plan to put TV screens on the backs of seats.
One of the selling points for MCI Center was that it would spur private development around the long-vacant site. The Discovery Channel has announced plans to build a three-level store in the arena complex, with high-tech exhibits evoking the land, sea and air. Developer Kingdon Gould III broke ground this month on Market Street North, a residential and office complex on Ninth Street NW that will have a parking garage for center patrons. Developer Douglas Jemal hopes to convert a row of town houses along Seventh Street NW into a retail and restaurant complex.
To the south, the General Services Administration wants to revive the historic but vacant Tariff Building. And at Sixth and G streets NW, amid construction dust and buildings that have seen better days, sits the aptly named Arena Cafe, poised to welcome new clientele.
The proximity of Oriole Park next door puts pressure on the architects of the Ravens stadium to duplicate or exceed the success of that facility. The Redskins stadium, only 30 miles away, also invites comparisons.
"We like to say the Ravens stadium will be a cousin to Oriole Park," said Steve Evans, a project manager at HOK Sport, the Kansas City, Mo., firm designing the Ravens and Redskins stadiums. "It's not intended to replicate what happened at Oriole Park. That would defeat the integrity of Oriole Park."
The Ravens stadium will borrow some of the same materials from the Orioles: lots of brick, with structural steel exposed and painted. But its oval shape sets it apart from Oriole Park because of the sport played there. And the upper level of the bowl will not be a continuous circle, but will have wedges cut out in a sculpted way.
"When the blimp is giving a camera angle from above, the stadium will definitely be unique to Baltimore just as the view of the Redskins stadium will be recognizable to sports fans," Evans said.
The growth in stadiums may not be over. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke (D) wants to build a 20,000-seat arena just north of Camden Yards for basketball and hockey. No other U.S. city has such a row of three sports complexes. One hitch: Baltimore doesn't have a major league basketball or hockey team.
Staff writers Dan Beyers, Maryann Haggerty, Thomas Heath and Wendy Mellilo contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company