The sign on 13th Street, just across from the Congress Heights Metro station, is an indication of the problems gripping this crime-racked Southeast Washington neighborhood: “Warning persons coming into this area to buy drugs are subject to arrest and seizure of their vehicle.”
Congress Heights has long been plagued by poverty, unemployment and a sense of neglect. So residents ought to be thrilled by the news of a $55 million sports-and-entertainment venue coming to their doorstep. But it depends whom you ask.
A week after the city announced plans to build the pro basketball facility at the former St. Elizabeths Hospital site, the reaction in Congress Heights was decidedly mixed. And a good number of people had not even heard about it.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the Wizards and the Mystics, unveiled their tentative agreement at a Sept. 16 news conference at St. Elizabeths, across from the Metro station. The proposed venue, which would mostly be paid for and owned by the city, would host home games for the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Mystics and would double as a practice facility for the National Basketball Association’s Wizards. It would seat 5,000 spectators and is projected to attract an estimated 380,000 people annually. Bowser and Leonsis said the project would serve as not only a basketball palace, but also a way to boost the local economy and create hundreds of jobs.
But in interviews with dozens of residents of this Ward 8 neighborhood, where the unemployment rate is far higher than the national average of 5.5 percent, people were as likely to express optimism about the project’s effect on their community as to suggest that the city should be investing its money instead in affordable housing and better schools.
At the IHOP restaurant on Alabama Avenue SE, just up the street from the proposed facility, waitresses Rose Patterson and Ieshia Johnson had a spirited debate about the project’s merits.
“You want people coming to Southeast,” Patterson said. “Everyone’s scared of Southeast. This will bring people here, bring jobs. Southeast needs this.”
“I’m not saying it’s a bad idea,” Johnson said. “But why don’t they do more for people who need it? Take a couple of the buildings and make a homeless shelter. D.C. has the money, but they just take it and put it into the wrong places. I mean, it’s fine and good, but all this money, put it into something that we can use.”
The IHOP is one of the few sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood. It is part of the Shops at Park Village, which also includes a Giant supermarket that opened in 2007 as part of an earlier effort to revitalize the area.
Mike Johnson, 25, was waiting at the restaurant for a takeout order. He said the new facility could be “a game changer” for the neighborhood, but he worries, too, that bigger problems will continue to be overlooked.
“It’s a great idea. There’s not much in this area,” he said. “Most of the crime going on in the city, it’s happening right here. We need to make a change. People are even afraid to look at each other around here. It can get real dangerous and bad any minute. If they can do this, it’s a start. It’s a small start.”
The neighborhood has seen seven slayings this year, up from two at the same time last year, helping to fuel the District’s spike in homicides. Assaults with deadly weapons have increased, as has overall property crime.
The neighborhood is still mourning the death of Wesley West, 25, a former member of Peaceoholics, the now-disbanded organization that was created to help resolve disputes between young people in the District. In July, West was fatally shot on 13th Place SE in Congress Heights.
Longtime resident William Riley, 42, is dubious about whether the Wizards-Mystics facility is the right fit for Congress Heights.
“I don’t think the neighborhood is ready for this,” Riley said. “Why would they do that? There’s too much going on around here that they need to clean up. Right across the street is the worst neighborhood in the city for shootings. And it’s only going to get worse. They need something that’s going to bring real jobs here, not a special-events center.”
Rick Smith, 53, agreed that the project is not what the neighborhood needs right now. “The city is constantly trying to bring more people in, but they need to focus now on how to address their homeless problem instead of building a Mystics stadium,” he said.
Danette Robinson, 24, has two young children. She worries for their safety in the area. Although she said she is fine with the idea of the training facility, she wishes there were better day-care centers and better schools.
“There’s not a lot for kids around here,” she said. “A lot of kids around here, they get in the wrong place at the wrong time and get a bullet in them. These kids need a safe environment.”
Stephen Wright, 80, shrugged off the doubters. He lives just blocks from the proposed sports complex and likes what he has heard.
“I think it’ll do wonders for our community,” Wright said. “And it could do wonders for our wallets, as well. It’ll bring employment. It’ll bring a different attitude.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.