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Only Parking Lot Operators Disappointed With Debut

By David Montgomery and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 4, 1997; Page B3

The reviews are in.

If you were a traffic engineer, a police officer or a restaurant owner, the Tuesday night debut of MCI Center was near perfect.

If you were a fan, you were pretty overjoyed, too, with some exceptions.

If you were a parking garage operator, you were a little disappointed that half your spaces were empty.

From team owner and arena builder Abe Pollin on down, the folks in charge of putting on Washington's first downtown arena experience were pleased. They had avoided a repetition of the region's last big sports opening, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in Landover on Sept. 14, when thousands of fans spent hours stuck in traffic trying to get to the first Washington Redskins game there.

"We knew there were going to be comparisons drawn between Jack Kent Cooke traffic management and MCI Center traffic management," said Linda Grant, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works.

The day after the Washington Wizards defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in the arena's first contest, center officials met to see what needed adjusting. At the top of the list was traffic inside the $200 million building, not outside.

Choke points developed at a few corners, hallways and concession stands. Hundreds of hungry fans waited as much as 30 minutes for Papa John's pizza, which sold 4,000 of its 10-inch pies. To shorten the lines, Papa John's installed heating ovens yesterday where it can store just-baked pizzas for a few minutes.

Other fans reached places they weren't supposed to, such as the carpeted club level, which has the best food but is restricted to individuals and companies with the seats, which lease for $7,500 per season, or luxury suite holders. Workers were adding locks on doors yesterday afternoon to restrict entry.

A derisive chant of "Nineteen dollars, nineteen dollars" went up from some fans in the least expensive seats during the game. They said they felt underappreciated.

"The Wizard [team mascot] doesn't even come up here," said Thomas Griffin, 52, from Northeast. "And we're the ones cheering and keeping everything going."

Heavy use of Metro and new rush-hour parking regulations made getting to and from the arena easy.

Metro reported that 10,200 people took the subway. That appeared to be a near bull's-eye on Metro's and Pollin's target of ferrying at least half the fans to the game by Metro. The game was a sellout of 20,674 tickets.

Parking operators said parking was available. "There were fewer parkers than I thought," said Martin Janis, vice president of Atlantic Garage, which had no sold-out lots or garages in the area.

Tonight's Wizards basketball game and tomorrow's Capitals hockey game begin at 7 p.m., closer to rush hour, rather than the unusual 8:10 p.m. start of Tuesday's game, which was shown on national television. Georgetown played Villanova in college basketball last night.

Pollin will hold back about 2,000 general seats for walk-up sales at ticket windows for each Wizards and Capitals game, said spokesman Matt Williams.

John Payne, chief of traffic operations for the Department of Public Works, said the detailed traffic plan should hold up even for the earlier games. He spent several hours walking the streets Tuesday night and observed that after Metro ridership, the key to the relatively moderate traffic volume was the extension of the rush hour street parking ban from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Sixth, Seventh and H Streets NW around the arena. That added one lane in each direction to clear out commuters and pull in arena patrons.

Capt. Michael Radzilowski, commander of the D.C. police special events branch, had officers on almost every corner from Third to 13th streets and Massachusetts to Pennsylvania avenues, directing traffic, giving directions and deterring crime. "This is the first event I can ever recall that went perfect," he said.

The only crime reported downtown from 3 p.m. to midnight was the 5:30 p.m. robbery of a parking attendant in the 1200 block of I Street, he said. There were no car break-ins, compared with a handful on some evenings. There were extra police officers in the area because President Clinton attended the game, but Radzilowski said that for all arena events, he will have enough officers for foot patrols every few blocks from Third to 11th streets, plus car patrols over a wider area.

For restaurateurs near the arena, dreams of a business surge came true. "We were packed for an hour and a half," said Yeni Wong, owner of the Golden Palace restaurant across the street from the arena. Business doubled for the Chinatown Starbucks, and the District Chophouse & Brewery a block away reported more than 700 patrons, compared with 350 on a typical weeknight.

Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Athelia Knight contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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