As bulldozers rumbled outside, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser took a seat in the second row of the Washington Mystics’ new arena and noted the enviable proximity. Then she stood near the center of the court, as electronic dance music was cranked up over the public-address system, and imagined the concerts to come once the 4,200-seat arena in Southeast Washington opens.
Three years after the project was launched, Washington’s Entertainment and Sports Arena is on track for its Sept. 22 ribbon-cutting, with an Oct. 6 performance by Mary J. Blige on tap to celebrate its opening.
The venue is just one part of a $65 million remaking of the east campus of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital in Ward 8, which, when finished, will include a practice facility for the Washington Wizards, as well as retail, residential and office space.
The vision behind the project — a collaboration among Events DC, the city’s convention center and sports agency; the city; and Monumental Sports & Entertainment ownership group — is twofold:
● Serve as a catalyst for development in historically underserved Ward 8, in similar fashion that Nationals Park and Capital One Arena did in their respective neighborhoods over the decade that followed their openings.
● Represent one more credential in what has been a decade-long quest to establish Washington, both nationally and globally, as a “sports city.” Not only home to the Mystics, the arena will also host a new NBA G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, as well as esports events. A practice facility for the Wizards is being built next door, with locker rooms and training rooms for each basketball team connecting the two.
“We hold ourselves up against any major city in the world,” Bowser explained during a walk-through of the arena earlier this week. “That’s why we have invested in the arts. We’ve invested in our food scene, cultural scene, nightlife scene, music and entertainment. Sport is part of that; we know it can help our bottom line by attracting people to our city, but it also has a big impact when we’re winning on our collective psyche.”
The tour was led by Gregory A. O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC, which contributed $37 million toward the project’s cost. The city kicked in $23 million, and Monumental, which owns the Wizards and Mystics, $5 million.
Also on hand were Brian Kenner, deputy mayor for planning and economic development; Max Brown, chairman of the Events DC board; and John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff.
As each fielded questions about the project, it became clear, on another level, that it represents a blueprint for how Washington might work with the Redskins on developing their next NFL stadium. The team is weighing possible sites in Northern Virginia, Prince George’s County’s National Harbor area and on the former RFK Stadium site for what’s expected to be a 60,000-seat venue.
In public remarks at a Redskins luncheon Aug. 29, Bowser made clear her wish that the Redskins choose D.C., calling on the team to “bring it home” to the place the team played from 1961 to 1996. Her vision — and that anticipated by one of three long-range plans for the RFK site — is that a Redskins stadium would anchor a $489 million, sports-and-recreation-oriented redevelopment project underway at the location.
According to those with insight into the Redskins’ private deliberations, the team envisions its next stadium not simply as a stand-alone, billion-dollar edifice but as the hub of a multiuse ecosystem flanked by restaurants, retail and entertainment options that would serve as year-round destinations.
On a considerably smaller scale, that’s the premise behind the Ward 8 Entertainment and Sports Arena, which includes a street-facing retail that will operate year-round, and will ultimately be flanked by apartments fashioned from St. Elizabeths’ historic red brick buildings, new condos, and commercial space.
Noted Brown: NFL stadiums “of 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago were just these huge, eight-days-a-year things that were plopped down. It’s not like that anymore. In many respects, [NFL stadiums of today] are like this arena, with ancillary development such as retail, entertainment and office space.
“ . . . Also, 30, 40, 50 years ago, everyone drove their cars to a football game and parked. Many people don’t even own cars anymore. This [St. Elizabeths’] site is on a Metro [a five-minute walk to the Congress Heights stop on the Green Line]; there is now Uber and Lyft and bikes. I think the stadium of the past is not necessarily what would be envisioned in the future.”
Part of Redskins fans’ dissatisfaction with FedEx Field, which opened in 1997, is both its relative inaccessibility (poorly served by public transport) and its isolation, with no pre-or postgame entertainment options in walking distance.
Kenner, the deputy mayor for economic development, described the Ward 8 project as a good example of forward-looking venue-planning. “It was designed as a building and an arena of the future, as much as it is an arena of today,” Kenner said. “We wanted a multipurpose use, set in a context of people living and going to work.”
While Bowser offered no updates on stadium talks with Redskins officials, whether formal or informal, she did point out that the city has successfully demonstrated its ability to collaborate with Events DC and professional team owners on major construction projects.
“We have now a couple of different models that show how we as a city can support a good partnership with a team,” Bowser said. “We think it’s important for our city, and this [Ward 8 project] is an example. Greg [O’Dell] was also involved in building Nationals stadium; Brian [Kenner] and his team were very focused on getting D.C. United’s home built — so we know how to do our part.”