- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2008

In about two months, construction of the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark in Southeast will be complete. The cranes, blowtorches and bulldozers will be put away after 22 months of constant activity.

But construction will continue for years to come in the neighborhood surrounding the stadium, fulfilling a promise that the ballpark would hasten redevelopment of the once-downtrodden area.

Inside a 10-block radius to the north, east and south of the stadium, developers have drawn plans for more than 50 projects.

Residential developers such as JPI and the Cohen Companies are building condo and apartment projects that will add nearly 9,000 housing units over the next 15 years.

Office developers such as Lerner Enterprises, JBG Cos. and Donohoe are constructing buildings that eventually will bring thousands of new workers to the neighborhood. And companies such as Monument Realty, Forest City and Florida Rock have plans to transform nearly 100 acres of underused land into massive, mixed-use destinations.

Many projects are under way and will be complete sometime during the upcoming baseball season, but most will rise from the ground over the course of the next decade, making the ballpark neighborhood an ever-evolving destination.

Private investment in the area is projected to be in the billions, and the city will chip in more than $150 million toward infrastructure improvements and offer tens of millions of dollars in special tax programs to build parks and housing for low-income residents.

“This is going to be a very intense commercial, urban neighborhood and retail and entertainment district — anchored by a ballpark,” said Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, which is charged with making the area safer and cleaner for visitors.

The promise

When city officials agreed to pay $611 million for the construction of the new stadium, they envisioned fans dining at a restaurant, paying their bill and strolling just a few blocks along Half Street Southeast to watch their team play.

They pictured a fan stepping out of his apartment building on South Capitol Street, meeting friends for a beer, then taking in the ballgame with the sun setting to the left over the Washington Monument.

Indeed, perhaps the only reason that the ballpark gained approval was a promise from Mayor Anthony A. Williams that the project would trigger billions of dollars in economic development and more than $400 million toward a special community benefits fund.

“The vision of putting the ballpark there was to give a big oomph to the revitalization of that area,” said Gregory McCarthy, a former top aide to Mr. Williams and now the Nationals’ liaison to the city for ballpark matters. “You can’t look at it and say it hasn’t hastened greatly.”

The actual impact of the ballpark is difficult to gauge.

Some economists argue that the stadium’s impact is minimal. Others suggest that the ballpark will hasten neighborhood development by as much as five years.

But to understand how the area around the ballpark is being transformed, one must look back to a time when the Nationals still were known as the Montreal Expos and the land where the ballpark now sits was home to a hodgepodge of nightclubs and industrial plants.

The idea of redeveloping land along the Anacostia River first arose in the late 1990s, when Mr. Williams and his deputies formed the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, a broad plan for new mixed-use development, parks, trails and road improvements on both sides of the river stretching from the District’s northern border down to Virginia.

City officials began negotiating for the use of more than 50 acres of underutilized federal land near the waterfront, and the federal government announced that it would move thousands of jobs to the Navy Yard and to a new headquarters for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Developers began eyeing the area as the next big place for office buildings, retail outlets and housing.

“Even before the ballpark was conceived of, a lot of people were bullish,” said Neil Albert, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

With the site for a new ballpark already agreed upon, the announcement in the fall of 2004 of the Expos’ move to the District spurred developers to begin buying land and breaking ground on projects.

“We were already gearing up to look down there, but with that announcement, we made a more concerted effort to look for development sites,” said Russell Hines, executive vice president of Monument Realty, which is developing thousands of square feet of land on Half Street Southeast, right next to the ballpark. “It was competitive, but we were aggressive.”

The rare find

About two years before the Nationals moved to the District, city officials announced something that made developers salivate: The District planned to acquire land at the old Southeast Federal Center and identify a partner that would turn it into a vast expanse of new office and retail space and homes. After a long competitive bidding process, the city in 2003 awarded the project to Forest City, a Cleveland developer known for its ambitious mixed-use projects.

“We were attracted to the site because it is a 42-acre waterfront site within the District of Columbia within walking distance to Capitol Hill,” said Gary McManus, the director of marketing for Forest City Washington. “That, from a developer’s standpoint, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

And Forest City got lucky. A year after Forest City gained control of the site, the city announced that it was building a new ballpark for the Nationals just blocks to the west, immediately boosting the project’s allure.

“We were very concerned in the early going that we would have to create a reason, an awareness and a familiarity to make this a destination in town and make it work,” Mr. McManus said. “So when baseball ended up coming next door, it was a wonderful thing for us. It was a wonderful happenstance. It took some of the heat off of us to draw attention to Southeast.”

Redevelopment of the Southeast Federal Center, now dubbed “The Yards,” will begin this year and continue in phases for at least a decade. The project ultimately will contain as many as 30 new buildings with 5.5 million square feet of development — including 2,800 condominiums and apartments, 400,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and 1.8 million square feet of office space. Forest City also plans to restore several historic buildings on the site, including a gun assembly shop and boilermaker shop, and convert them into condominiums and retail space.

Meanwhile, Forest City has been working with developers EYA and Mid-City Urban on the redevelopment of the 23-acre Capper/Carrollsburg public-housing project, about six blocks northeast of the Nationals ballpark. The companies plan to build more than 700 housing units — many of them set aside for lower-income residents — along with 730,000 square feet of office space and 500,000 square feet of retail. The first town house is expected to open this year.

Forest City also holds the exclusive rights to negotiate with the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority to develop about 4 acres of land located between the Yards and the new ballpark. Early plans call for about 800 residential units with retail. No developer will control more real estate along the Southeast waterfront than Forest City will.

The thoroughfare

Most of baseball’s iconic ballparks sit adjacent to pedestrian-friendly avenues with shops, bars, restaurants and other places for fans to gather — Eutaw Street in Baltimore, Waveland Avenue in Chicago, Yawkey Way in Boston, for example.

In Washington, Nationals Park will be served by Half Street Southeast, a two-block avenue stretching from the Navy Yard Metro station on M Street Southeast to the ballpark. It’s a stretch that city and team officials hope eventually will become home to a row of shops, restaurants and homes similar to the blocks surrounding Verizon Center downtown.

The Half Street development is currently led by Monument, which paid more than $60 million for land on the street’s east side and has presented plans for 275,000 square feet of office space, 50,000 square feet of retail, a 200-room hotel and 320 residential units.

“Our primary responsibility is to our investment partners, but you can’t overlook that this is a property and development area that you’re going to be able to come back to 30 years from now and watch a baseball game, and that we played a large role in creating a destination,” Mr. Hines said.

Development of the eastern side of the street is well under way, with Monument managing the expansion of the Navy Yard Metro station while building a new office building directly above it. Company officials hope to complete the project in time for the 2009 season.

“Monument got the vision early on,” Mr. Stevens said. “Those guys are aggressive, and they got down here and bought up that site and said, ‘We’re sitting on a premier piece of real estate that can capture a lot of the ballpark experience but also make it a year-round destination.’ ”

But the outcome of development plans on Half Street is uncertain — control of the western side of the street, currently occupied by a Metro bus garage, is under dispute. Metro last year agreed to sell the property to Akridge, another District-based developer, but Monument sued on grounds that it had previously struck a deal for the exclusive rights to negotiate for the property. Monument filed for an injunction to stop Metro’s sale to Akridge; a judge is not scheduled to rule until the end of February.

The dispute is not expected to hinder the development of the eastern side of Half Street or upgrades to the Metro station. But it is not clear who will be responsible for improving the streetscape to ensure that fans can walk easily from the Metro station to the ballpark. And the dispute likely means that many ballpark-related amenities will not be in place until several years after the ballpark opens.

The dark lining

With more than a dozen projects already under construction near the ballpark, market conditions appear ripe for new development. But fallout from the recent subprime mortgage crisis coupled with a general softening of the economy could keep many projects in the pipeline longer than developers originally planned.

Furthermore, many new office buildings in the area are struggling to find tenants, and new residential projects have shifted from offering condos for sale to apartments for rent.

“The biggest issue is going to be market conditions,” Mr. Albert said. “We’re in a slightly slow cycle right now. The thing I don’t want to have happen is people buy property just to sit on it.”

Nationals and city officials also face a more pressing problem: how to manage all of the new development while ensuring that fans can get to the ballpark easily. The area can accurately be described as an active construction zone, and many of the road improvements needed to accommodate game traffic will not be in place for the upcoming season.

“It’s a high-class problem to have, too many buildings being constructed at the same time,” Mr. McCarthy said. “We’re working collectively to make sure you can get to and from the ballpark in an orderly fashion. Obviously on game day, we’re going to have to closely monitor what’s happening. It’s going to be, no doubt, a challenge.”

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