Most Prince George's County Council members say they won't stand in the way of a developer's proposal to tear down the US Airways Arena for a new shopping center.
In separate interviews last week, council members expressed surprise that Baltimore-based developer David Cordish wanted to raze the 25-year-old complex.
Seven of the nine members, however, had no strong objections to his plans--which still have to be approved by the council, County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Cordish teamed with arena owner Abe Pollin 13 months ago to propose a $60 million makeover of the saddle-roofed sports dome into a sports facility ringed by movie theaters, restaurants and shops.
He told The Washington Post last week that the arena almost certainly would have to be razed because of the design problems arising from the earlier plan.
"It sounds good to me," said council member Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington) in offering his support to Cordish.
But some council members said they would need more information before they could agree. Curry and Planning Board Chairman Elizabeth M. Hewlett have said they are undecided.
As with the Washington Redskins deal to build Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, the council has ultimate authority over any lease that Curry and Hewlett negotiate with Pollin. Negotiations are ongoing.
Among the undecided is Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), who called the plan "an interesting idea that raises many questions. . . . I hope it does give us an added opportunity for more oversight, so I can take a look at whether it is something we want," he said.
Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro) also expressed caution. "My first reaction is that I'm very apprehensive about the arena being torn down," Estepp said, adding that he was surprised no one had briefed the council about the proposal.
Cordish and Pollin have been negotiating with county officials for months on the terms of a new lease. Pollin signed a deal with the county in 1971 that enabled him to build the arena--the former home to Washington's professional basketball and hockey teams--on 60 acres of land owned by the parks commission.
Pollin made an annual payment to the commission--roughly half a million dollars--and borrowed $2 million from the county for roads and infrastructure. He borrowed an additional $5 million in 1988 for enhancements to the arena and to build an office building to serve as a headquarters for his teams, which he moved out of Prince George's County into a new arena in the District in December 1997.
The current lease is to expire when the county assumes ownership of the arena and the adjacent office complex in 2013. In the meantime, Pollin is required under the lease to get approval from the county to make changes on the land.
Council member Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville), who was county attorney when the original lease was negotiated, had criticized the deal at the time as being a giveaway to Pollin. He said that how he feels about the arena being torn down now is "irrelevant."
"I thought it was a crock then, and what's happening is that it's coming full circle," he said. "It's something that should never have been placed there."
Both Maloney and council member Audrey E. Scott (R-Bowie) said they were worried about any new development plan for the site that does not include a sports facility.
Cordish and Pollin originally had proposed early last year to leave the arena floor and some seating in place for commercial sports and concert activities, but to convert the upper concourse into a mall that would overlook the arena and connect to a theater outside.
Scott said she is concerned that a shopping center without the sports complex would compete with nearby Landover Mall.
"If we are going to put in a shopping mall, why not update Landover Mall," owned by the Lerner Corp., Scott said. "That is a mall that needs upgrading and attention."
But Council Vice Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills) said she is merely "disappointed" that the original plans may not materialize. She said she does not sense that residents have a strong attachment to the arena itself.
"It was the teams more than the building," she said. She expects residents to be supportive "as long as there is something there of quality and substance."
Council member Marvin F. Wilson (D-Glenarden) said he trusts Cordish--whose firm redeveloped the Power Plant complex at the Baltimore Inner Harbor--to deliver a unique and successful product whether or not the arena is there.
"I think it's going to be another anchor for Prince George's County," he said. "The arena was a lot to rehabilitate. This is good news."