John Kazdal and other property owners thought their ramshackle industrial neighborhood was about to be reborn when it was selected as the site for a new major league ballpark. County leaders said the stadium would trigger commercial investment, just as supporters of a new D.C. ballpark say their plan will transform the Anacostia waterfront.
But five years after the opening of Safeco Field here, Kazdal's plan to remodel his old, brick warehouse into a fancy three-level brew pub has gone nowhere. He still is selling used restaurant equipment from his building. And the streets around the ballpark remain marked by empty buildings, covered windows and "For Lease" signs.
"This would be the perfect place to loosen your tie and have a couple of brewskis before a game, you know?" he said last week, looking out from his rooftop, less than a block from the stadium. "I thought this area would take off."
Some 1,300 miles away, merchants and property owners near Denver's Coors Field have a markedly different perspective on what a stadium can do for a city.
They believe that their nine-year-old ballpark has contributed to the revival of the surrounding neighborhood, a community of restaurants, loft apartments, offices, hotels and tony shops that has become one of the city's most popular sections.
"A ballpark can be a giant marketing engine," said Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper, who closely watched the effects of Coors Field as the owner of a brew pub two blocks away.
"The ballpark was the perfect project, at the perfect place, at the perfect time," said Karle Seydel, a Denver area planner, in an interview at his office a few blocks from the ballpark, where the Colorado Rockies play. "It helped turn this area around."
As Mayor Anthony A. Williams lobbies for D.C. Council approval of a publicly financed stadium, one of his primary arguments is that the project would stimulate billions of dollars in development around the site.
Yet the experiences of Seattle and Denver show just how difficult it is to predict a stadium's role as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization.
The ballpark projects in Seattle and Denver are roughly similar to the one that Washington's leaders are considering. Both stadiums relied largely on public funding, both were built in run-down areas near downtown and both inspired hopes that they would spur the turnaround of those neighborhoods.
Now, the Denver and Seattle ballparks symbolize the two extremes in a national debate over the economic benefits of building stadiums. Boosters of stadium projects cite Denver and a few other cities as success stories, while skeptics list a group of cities that includes Seattle.
A closer look at what happened in those two cities suggests that to some extent, the widely differing results involve factors that city planners and politicians could not have foreseen. Seattle officials note, for example, that Safeco Field opened as the dot-com recession was hitting.
Some reasons for the different outcomes, however, now seem obvious.
Coors Field was built in 1995 at the edge of Lower Downtown, a historic neighborhood where blocks of turn-of-the-century brick buildings had obvious potential for commercial and residential renovation. Safeco Field, two blocks from the waterfront, is near less-attractive industrial port buildings; the closest commercial center, historic Pioneer Square, is six blocks away.
Denver's plan for development around its stadium called for housing. Seattle's zoning for the area near its ballpark, on the other hand, did not permit housing because city officials were convinced by port-related industries that their operations might be hampered by homeowners' complaints of noise and traffic.
Maybe the most important distinction, leaders of each city said, is that Denver's Lower Downtown was emerging from years of neglect before the stadium site was announced. Several new businesses had opened there and prospered from the attention the new ballpark focused on them; their success prompted others to invest in the neighborhood.
Seattle's ballpark neighborhood was undergoing no such resurgence, and many planners believe that a baseball park alone, drawing people to an area for a few hours only 81 days a year, is unlikely to generate the kind of commercial activity that will lure visitors on other days and at other times.
"Ballparks bring lots of people to a neighborhood," Hickenlooper said. "But if people come and see there's nothing worth staying for, a good part of the potential has been wasted."
Several economists and planners contend that a ballpark can detract from a neighborhood because the facility is often ringed with parking lots, making the area seem even more deserted and forlorn in the off-season.
"Sports facilities make war on cities," said Robert Baade, a noted sports economist from Lake Forest College in Illinois. "It might be fine on game day. But there is a lot of dead time around stadiums."
It is hard to gauge the potential of the District's proposed stadium site relative to the two other cities. Near Southeast Washington, the neighborhood where the 41,000-seat park would be built, does not have a supply of attractive historic buildings, such as those that Denver entrepreneurs renovated into lofts, hotels and restaurants. And the D.C. site is even farther from an established commercial area -- in this case, Capitol Hill -- than is Seattle's stadium.
On the other hand, some signs point to a broader redevelopment in the area. A flurry of building activity is occurring on M Street one block north of the proposed ballpark site, including construction of a Department of Transportation headquarters that is scheduled to open in 2006 and house 5,000 employees. Near that project, a developer is planning to build 2,500 apartments and townhouses over the next 15 years, along with offices, shops, restaurants and a waterfront park.
Washington's riverfront location also stands as an advantage for the project, with a possibility of attracting fans by virtue of the Anacostia River scenery.
"We think we have a kind of commonality with Denver," said Stephen M. Green, the mayor's special assistant for economic development and one of several D.C. stadium proponents who often point to Denver's experience as a model.
That project began in earnest in 1991, when officials announced that the city would build a stadium next to Lower Downtown, or "LoDo." At the time, Hickenlooper's brew pub, an upscale hotel and several other businesses had opened in some of the neighborhood's historic brick buildings.
But much of the area was known for its abandoned buildings, bars that opened at 7 a.m. and homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk. And the area east of the ballpark was the worst.
"This was crack central," said Josie Koontz, owner of Josie's Pawn, a few blocks east of the stadium.
"It was the last remnants of Skid Row," said Seydel, the planner. "You had to step over people on the sidewalk."
Since then, dozens of historic buildings in the surrounding blocks have been rehabilitated. And between 1991 and 1999, 59 buildings were renovated or built new, and 12 others were under construction or planned, according to data compiled by Seydel.
There are still vacant and shuttered buildings in the area, but it has become one of Denver's most fashionable places, a neighborhood that bears resemblance to Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria. Lofts can sell for more than $1 million, and the construction continues.
Planners and property owners say the ballpark was a key to that success.
"Lower Downtown was an area that had been unfamiliar to a lot of suburbanites," said Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore, which she opened in 1994 a few blocks from the park. "It looked like a war zone. It was seedy." Once the ballpark began drawing millions of fans, she said, the area "lost its scariness."
Koontz, the pawnshop owner, says the baseball field caused government leaders to focus on the neighborhood. "They didn't care about us down here before that," she said. "Then they began the sweeps and clearing people out. They chased out the riffraff."
Yet even the stadium's most fervent proponents concede that it is not clear how much of LoDo's resurgence came from the ballpark and how much from the development momentum that predated the stadium.
"Coors Field didn't make LoDo -- it was already happening," Hickenlooper said. "But it accelerated it."
Denver and its stadium soon became a popular destination for officials from other cities entertaining ballpark projects. Seattle's leaders made that trip when they were considering building a new home for the Seattle Mariners in the mid-1990s.
For their stadium site, Seattle officials selected a parcel of land south of the Kingdome, where the Mariners were playing.
"The experience of new baseball parks elsewhere shows that they have served as a stimulus for new commercial activity and redevelopment of neighboring areas," a report of King County's Stadium Alternatives Task Force said. "There is an opportunity for the new stadium to anchor the area south of downtown."
City leaders developed a separate zoning plan to encourage stores and restaurants in the neighborhood.
Today, five years after completion of the ballpark, not much has happened. Some old warehouses nearby are empty; other businesses include a carpet store, a construction supply depot and a junkyard -- nothing like the revitalized neighborhood that some envisioned.
Even the Mariners, who hold a permit to build a commercial property on an empty lot across the street from the stadium, haven't exercised that permit and don't plan to anytime soon. "Times have just not been right for project development," team spokeswoman Rebecca Hale said.
City officials and others offer various reasons why the building boom never occurred. Some point to the dot-com recession. Others say the lack of housing stalled the area's development.
Some argue that the ballpark is too far from Seattle's established downtown area. Moreover, most of the six blocks between Safeco Field and downtown is taken up by a new football stadium that replaced the Kingdome, making the baseball facility seem even more isolated.
"Seattle totally blew it," said John Pastier, a design critic and ballpark consultant who worked on that city's ballpark. "It was basically too far away from the downtown."
And some in Seattle are simply skeptical that a ballpark can by itself attract development.
"For landowners, the perspective is that you can't make enough money on events that happen on one in four days of the year," Seattle city planner Steve Pearce said.