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Nationals Park still surrounded only by potential

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Washington Nationals fans clinging to the promise of watching a home game in their modern riverfront stadium, then perhaps spilling into the neighborhood for dinner, drinks or shopping, will have to wait for at least one more season.

Upon arriving Thursday for the fourth Opening Day in the new stadium, they will find the surrounding Southeast neighborhood much like they did during the first three seasons.

Properties along Half Street Southeast — from the Navy Yard Metro station to the gates of the publicly financed, $611 million stadium — largely remain empty and shielded by fences and billboards with artists' renderings of an upscale hotel and condos that developers and D.C. officials had hoped would be built and occupied by now.

Executives for Monument Realty, the primary developer along Half Street, the heart of the so-called baseball district, say progress has been slowed largely because of the recession, which forced their major lender, Lehman Brothers, into bankruptcy and made borrowing nearly impossible for three years.

They also suggested that city lawmakers who voted in favor of issuing $534.8 million in bonds in 2006 to finance the stadium may have set their expectations too high.

"The District invested in the baseball stadium [and] said this would generate economic development in this area," said company President Russell Hines. "It may not have happened as quickly as they thought it would."

Company executives also say the Half Street project is just "a very small piece" of the overall 34-million-square-foot Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District that continues to take shape.

Monument has completed the first of three major projects in its original plan, a nine-story office building above the Metro station that is now at 85 percent capacity. But a 196-room upscale hotel and a 331-unit, glass-and-steel residential project remain just a rendering on a company brochure.

Company executives say development should quicken now that lending requirements have loosened and the economy is slowly recovering. They hope to get their Half Street residential project started before year's end and think developers involved in the Capitol Riverfront area will have substantial amount of projects completed by 2025.

'It takes a long time'

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals, recalls how the Verizon Center, built by Abe Pollin, sparked the revitalization of surrounding neighborhoods after it opened in 1997 and said he is "very hopeful" the same will happen around Nationals Park.

"I can tell you that the benefits of that are enormous to taxpayers, to the city itself," he said. "And I hope it happens, but it takes a long time. The first couple of years at Verizon Center were not great, but now I think it's really become like the recentering of Washington, D.C. That's where all the action is. It's only happened because Verizon Center came out of the ground and Abe and I believed when other people didn't."

Michael Stevens, executive director for the Capitol Riverfront BID, a public-private partnership effort to revitalize the Anacostia riverfront community, says people shouldn't use Half Street to judge the overall success of the area.

"I have no doubt the project will be built," said Mr. Stevens, adding that a lawsuit with District-based developer Akridge and the recession created a "perfect storm" to slow progress.

One sign of progress is the new Courtyard Marriott Capitol Riverfront/Navy Yard hotel on L Street Southeast.

City Council member Jack Evans, a Ward 2 Democrat who championed the bond sale and surrounding development, said people assumed the area would be developed "magically overnight."

"They were wrong," he said. "There's a whole lot more there today than was there was five years ago. And there will be a whole lot more five years from now."

Erik A. Moses, a senior vice president and managing director for the Washington Conventions and Sports Authority, said riverfront development was a concept before the ballpark.

"We're largely very pleased," he said. "Nobody can make a reasonable argument that the ballpark was not a catalyst for change. … And where it is now is not where it will be in five years."

Still, area residents and longtime critics are at best cautiously optimistic.

"People don't want to live around a stadium that's empty for half of the year," said Chris Otten, of the D.C. Statehood Green Party, which opposed the city's public-financing plan for the stadium. "We're now facing a serious gap in our budget and we can't borrow much because we've put so much in the building of the stadium and convention centers," he said.

Costs and benefits

The District said it spent roughly $639 million for the ballpark project total - including $300 million in direct construction costs, $141 million to buy land and $4.3 million for legal fees.

Mr. Evans said the stadium has not cost taxpayers a cent because the debt service for the bonds is paid through rent from the team, taxes on tickets, stadium parking, concessions and merchandise, and a special tax on large businesses in the city.

"If you are a resident and if you don't go to a baseball game, you don't pay anything toward the stadium," he said.

Mr. Evans dismissed the idea that the Nationals' losing record and declining attendance over the past three years have made merchants wary of opening businesses in the area.

Virginia couple Richard and Carol Bennis are empty-nesters who are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We've always been used to city living and we'd like to get back to that," said Mrs. Bennis, who was at the ballpark with her husband recently to buy tickets as they have done every year. "The area interests me, but it's not getting developed enough. If we were younger, a just-married couple, I'd have a little more courage. I'd probably move here in a heartbeat with a little more development."

Said Mr. Bennis: "I'm still on the fence. The issue seems to be I'm not quite sure the amenities are there yet. Is there enough to do? … Can you go get a cup of coffee?"

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