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 MCI Arena Package

  The Reasons Why

By Maryann Haggerty
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page W18
The Washington Post Magazine

What's in an arena? More than concrete and steel, it turns out. There are constituencies to please. Compromises to make. Lawsuits to settle. Traditions to honor. Technologies to conquer. Money to be made. And resulting idiosyncrasies in need of explanation. Here, then, an insider's guide to why some things about the MCI Center are the way they are:

  • The 3,000 club seats ($7,500 each per year) were originally envisioned as "smart seats," with their own interactive video screens. Technological problems sank that idea -- the seats couldn't be constructed in a way that would hold up to the wear and tear of 200 events a year. At the new Jack Kent Cooke football stadium, waiter service to the 15,000 club seats was canned after the first game as impractical. Center officials plan waiter service for their new club seats, saying they have had no problems with such service in the VIP seats at US Airways Arena.

  • The Paralyzed Veterans of America sued to force owner Abe Pollin to increase the number of seats for wheelchair-bound patrons. The PVA successfully insisted that these seats be positioned so wheelchair users would have a clear view of the floor even when people around them are standing. A court-approved plan calls for 160 wheelchair locations in a basketball configuration, 152 in a hockey configuration and from 127 to 159 in a concert configuration, depending on how the stage is set up.

  • The highest point on the roof is 110 feet up, the same as nearby office buildings. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's not the height of the Capitol or the Washington Monument that determines building heights in the city; instead, it's a formula based on the widths of various streets. But the result is much the same -- from the steps on the west front of the Capitol, it's impossible to pick out the new arena from the rest of the flat skyline.

  • There are about 500 parking spots inside the building; don't count on getting one, because they will be assigned to players and luxury seat holders. (When there's no game going on, spots will be open for retail patrons.) The owners of the 109 suites, who are paying $100,000 to $175,000 per year for a 12-seat box, each get two parking passes, in addition to use of a business center, membership in a club restaurant and full catering services. The view of the games is pretty good, too.

  • The grayish-white color of the building's pre-cast concrete south front is meant to echo the limestone of the neighborhood's monumental 19th-century buildings, while the columns are meant to evoke the Corinthian columns of the nearby National Building Museum.

  • Metro riders have a choice of several exits, including a new one that brings them right outside the main entrance on F Street. At one point, the entrance was going to be inside the building -- not a favored idea among local merchants, who want as many people on the street as possible. Three subway lines meet under the building. To avoid damaging the tunnels, the hole for the foundation could go no more than 55 feet deep. That still leaves the event floor just 15 feet above the Red Line.

  • To make the Gallery Place site big enough for the arena, the city closed down a block of G Street. Preservationists objected, saying the closing disrupted the historic L'Enfant plan for the District's street layout. The compromise is this wall of windows, which is supposed to serve as a visual reminder of the street that once was.

  • The building's north side abuts Chinatown. In homage to the neighborhood, the wavy canopy is supposed to be an abstract rendition of a Chinese New Year's dragon. The design on the northwest corner of the building is a stylized Chinese pictograph meaning "good health."

    Maryann Haggerty is a Post Financial reporter.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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