Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

MCI Center and Abe Pollin: let's accurately report all the history

Yes, Abe Pollin was great for moving the professional sports teams, the Washington Wizards basketball team, and the Washington Capitols hockey team, from Prince George's County to 7th Street NW in Downtown DC, which did reanchor 7th Street and the East End of the central business district.

See for example, the pieces by Washington Post sports columnists Michael Wilbon, "A man who reached out to others: Pollin built a franchise, an arena and friendships" and Mike Wise, "Long-standing loyalty" and two op-eds, "The endless gifts of Abe Pollin" by Colbert King, and "What a dreamer built in D.C." by John Feinstein.
Abe Pollin put $220 million of his own money into building Verizon Center
Photo and caption from the Washington Post: Abe Pollin put $220 million of his own money into building Verizon Center. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post).

And he did this while Marion Barry was still mayor, when most developers and key businesses did not want to invest in DC, because despite the presence of the federal government, things felt iffy. The final agreement was hammered out in 1995, and it wasn't until 2003 that reinvestment in DC, especially in Downtown was happening in earnest.

Remember that in 1988 the region went into a real estate recession which hit DC harder and longer than most of the rest of the region (which is different from what is happening today, in part because of the investments of people like Abe Pollin into strengthening the "amenities" and quality of life infrastructure in the center city). The real estate recession started ending around 2000, after Anthony Williams became DC's Mayor after the 1998 election.

So Abe Pollin's investment in DC in the mid-1990s, at the time was particularly significant. And this should be acknowledged and praised.

From the King piece:

Pollin is the man who almost single-handedly brought Washington, D.C., back to life.

And he did it with his own money and at great risk. His decision to move the Wizards from Largo to Gallery Place in 1997 was a big gamble, made even more dicey because he also decided to build a state-of-the art arena where the pro basketball team would play its games. That decision to invest so much in a ghost town began the renaissance of downtown Washington.

HOWEVER, what none of these stories is mentioning is that if Robert Johnson, the then owner of District Cablevision and Black Entertainment Television, hadn't publicly challenged Abe Pollin, and offered to both buy the team and fully pay the cost of building a new arena in downtown DC with his own financing, probably Abe Pollin would have received a fair amount of public money to build the arena, not just the infrastructure. So it would have been built not just with his own money, but with $90 million in public monies, just as the city was careening towards bankruptcy.

Plus, in the last couple years the Wizards have received TIF funding for further upgrades, and that money could have been used for other priorities. See "Wizards Owner's $50 Million Request Gets Initial Approval" from the Post.


-- "The D.C. Arena Deal; Pollin Says He'll Pay for Sports Complex; Team Owner's Offer Would Relieve City Of $90 Million Share, 12/29/1994 from the Post.

-- "Cable TV Head Offers D.C. New Game Plan for Arena; Johnson Would Back Bonds for Chance at Bullets" from the Post, 11/4/1994.

Competition is a good thing.

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