Debate surrounding the District government's controversial plan to build a new baseball stadium at South Capitol and M streets SE focuses primarily on public pocketbook issues: stadium costs and methods of financing; city funding of baseball while other city needs go unmet, and the economic impact of alternative locations.
But too often the debate overlooks a crucial, non-economic consideration: the potential of a well-designed, strategically located baseball stadium to transform the aesthetic and cultural character of a city's core, to profoundly enhance the central city's look, feel and spirit.
At the beginning of this month, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) proposed building the baseball stadium on publicly owned land next to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. She argued, perhaps correctly, that this would save money because the District would have to buy privately owned real estate at the South Capitol Street site.
However, that site could never be transformative, while the proposed South Capitol Street site promises such transformation and city enhancement, independent of economic considerations. And in measuring so-called economic impact, how do you calculate the value of transformation and revitalization?
It often makes sense to spend more than the minimum to achieve goals. We justify such choices when we purchase a home or car, a business-class airline ticket or a pricey restaurant meal.
When we opt to invest more than necessity dictates, it's because we think we are getting added quality and value. Moreover, quality and value may be intangible and economically immeasurable.
In the world of real estate, such options pervade every project. Property owners and developers, investors, lenders and designers continually weigh costs against benefits, financial and otherwise. Budgetary judgments about building size, location and function, as well as quantity and quality of materials, and aesthetic richness and complexity frequently entail extra expense that's "worth it."
For investment real estate, choosing to exceed the minimum typically is driven by market expectations and market competition. For significant civic projects, prime location, memorable visual imagery, durability and aura of permanence are also "worth it."
Perhaps D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and his staff recognize the intangible, non-economic benefits of building a baseball stadium on underused but strategically located industrial land adjacent to the District's Anacostia River waterfront. They clearly think it's worth it.
Perhaps they also recognize that the stadium's biggest payoff would be the urban synergy it helps create and amplify in this rapidly changing area. The baseball stadium would be only one of many critical elements, part of a network of interrelated, economically stimulating activities and destinations that make up the District's wisely conceived Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.
The initiative calls for developing millions of square feet of new commercial, institutional, cultural and recreational facilities, along with thousands of residential units and acres of parkland on both sides of the Anacostia.
Implementing these plans will result in billions of dollars of real estate investment and tens of thousands of new jobs. Equally important, it will profoundly transform underused, unattractive parts of the District that have long been neglected.
How do you put a price tag on revitalizing portions of America's capital?
A baseball stadium enriches the mix by adding new layers of activity and interaction. It would be a win-win proposition for almost everyone, even those of us who rarely attend baseball games.
Finally, addressing skeptics who cite studies showing that downtown stadiums do not necessarily yield public financial benefits offsetting public costs, I would ask how applicable these studies are to the District. After all, the economic impact of a downtown baseball stadium inevitably depends on the specifics of the site and its urban context. Do these stadium analyses take into account indirect, long-term impacts, including the value of transformation and revitalization?
There is little doubt that building an architecturally distinctive baseball stadium due south of the Capitol, adjacent to the expanding Southeast Federal Center and the mixed-use neighborhoods of Southwest and Southeast, would be an asset. While it will directly generate economic activity -- stadium construction jobs, ticket and concession sales taxes, jobs related to stadium operations, parking and Metro revenues, increased spending by baseball fans in local restaurants -- its more significant contributions would transcend the immediate flow of dollars.
Washington's baseball team should play in a well-located, well-designed new stadium. With luck, the team will win lots of games, attract enthusiastic fans and help produce D.C. revenue sufficient to pay for its real estate, and then some. But the real home run will be realization of the goals and aspirations of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.