- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2006

I was among the skeptics who questioned the long-term wisdom of plopping a sports arena in Chinatown, a largely forgotten and run-down section of the District that had an unwelcoming air about it in the mid-‘90s.

It was a gamble. Abe Pollin knew that. When the MCI Center opened its doors Dec. 2, 1997, Chinatown was hardly the beacon of commerce and activity that it is today. There were only hints of what was to come — a newly opened Starbucks and an Irish pub.

Mostly, though, the area around the new arena was an uninviting mixture of abandoned buildings, empty lots, run-down row houses and petty criminals. It took time to reclaim the neighborhood. It took an active police presence. It took the vision of developers and retailers. It took the support of Chinatown’s community leaders, who recognized that change was necessary, even if the neighborhood ended up losing a piece of its soul.

Some would argue it did just that. Some would suggest that the Chinatown of today has all the genuineness of Disneyland, as more and more franchises join the wave of entrepreneurs and adorn their establishments with Chinese lettering. That is the deal, hokey as it is, whether CVS or Clyde’s restaurant. Upscale condominiums have risen out of what were formerly trash-strewn lots. There is a bowling alley now, movie theaters, high-end retailers and a sense that Chinatown is not done remaking itself.

Chinatown has become a destination place, and not just on game night. At night, long after the downtown bureaucracy has cleared out, Seventh Street is alive with diners, moviegoers, club hoppers, curbside musicians and a group that claims they want to start a revolution. This remarkable transformation has occurred in nine years, and it has exceeded nearly everyone’s most optimistic pronouncements in the beginning.

And no wonder. Mr. Pollin embraced Chinatown before developer-friendly Anthony A. Williams became mayor. Neither man could predict the real estate boom of the late ‘90s that would facilitate the rebirth of many neighborhoods across the city.

So here we are again, in 2006, with another sports facility being built in another foreboding part of the city, only this time with all kinds of breathless proclamations of what it eventually will mean to the Southeast neighborhood around the Navy Yard.

To some, it almost is an article of faith that the ballpark will do for the Anacostia River waterfront what the arena, now named the Verizon Center, did for Chinatown. That could be, and that is the hope, given the publicly financed nature of the ballpark.

But the new ballpark is being built amid several pronounced disadvantages. Mr. Williams is on his way out of office, and the generally unknown D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Mr. Williams’ likely successor, may be obligated to complete the project.

Mr. Fenty was no ardent supporter of the ballpark deal, and that sentiment is liable to intrude on the ballpark project the rest of the way. The real estate boom, of course, is so yesteryear. The notion of building overpriced condominiums by the ballpark is at odds with a real-estate market that is glutted with them.

The previously fashionable condominium market is in the midst of a serious correction after being overwhelmed with investors looking to “flip” properties.

All the elements of the marketplace, most beyond the control of local lawmakers, will play out in the years ahead. In a less-robust economic climate, Chinatown would not be the playground that it is today. And whatever the tipping point of a neighborhood is, genuine change does not merely happen because of a sports palace and one cool eatery or one slick building. If revitalizing a neighborhood were that easy, countless neighborhoods in cities across the nation would not be virtual ghost towns 30 minutes after the conclusion of an athletic contest.

It is an arduous, complex process, as we’ve seen in Chinatown, which is still evolving nearly nine years after the arena opened its doors for the first time.

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