Wizards owner searches for practice site in DC

WASHINGTON (AP) - Ted Leonsis, former AOL executive and majority owner of the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics basketball teams, said recently that he would like to build a new practice facility for the teams near to the arena where they play, the Verizon Center.

Shortly thereafter Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray said he would “love” to have such a facility in the District of Columbia, particularly if it were sometimes open to the community.

Leonsis hasn’t said a lot about what type of complex he envisions, other than that he would like it to be near the Verizon Center, accessible to public transit and potentially similar to the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston, where the Washington Capitals (another Leonsis team) practice.

But finding space for such a facility, in an ever more expensive downtown, may not be so easy.

In 1997, the year the Verizon Center opened (as the MCI Center), there were around 100 surface parking lots available for development. Today there are less than 15, and they are mostly accounted for as places to build.

Rich Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, said he doesn’t see a major basketball complex getting built downtown because of how valuable real estate has become for offices, housing or retail.

“The values downtown are just too big,” Bradley said.

Even in NoMa, behind Union Station, retail space sometimes rents for more than $50 per square foot, according to Robin-Eve Jasper of the NoMa Business Improvement District. She said it generally wasn’t worth it for developers to design buildings with 40,000- or 50,000-square-foot floor plates that could fit a basketball court, even if part of the practice space was underground.

“At ground level, if you’re trading off retail versus a facility like this, you’d be giving up a lot of value,” she said.

The existing practice court couldn’t be more convenient, since it’s part of the Verizon Center, but it is dated and cramped compared to courts built by competing teams.

Brett Fuller, director of business development at the engineering and architecture firm AECOM, worked on the Verizon Center when it was built. He said upgraded practice facilities have become increasingly common among NBA teams.

“Regardless of the scenarios, as part of the building or as a stand-alone separate facility, they need to attract free agents, they need to have this be an experience - it’s almost like recruiting a student athlete to college,” Fuller said.

“If you’re a free agent, and you’re going to sign a contract for millions of dollars of a year, and you feel like that team is going to take care of you in all aspects of mind, body and convenience - you might choose that team,” he added.

Some of the practice facilities are built as part of playing arenas, Fuller said, while others are in suburbs closer to where players live.

AECOM designed the practice facility for the Cleveland Cavaliers and one of the location variables considered, Fuller said, was where LeBron James lived, in order to keep the star happy. This only worked temporarily, as James later left Cleveland.

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