Wednesday, November 25, 2009

By investing $200 million in building a sports arena at Gallery Place, Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin revitalized a once-blighted and crime-infested section of the nation’s capital.

Today, the area is a vibrant mecca for tourists and residents, who flock to retail stores, restaurants and entertainment venues around the Verizon Center, the centerpiece of Mr. Pollin’s legacy.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry, who was D.C. mayor when the city broke ground on the arena in 1995, called Mr. Pollin a tough businessman whose commitment to revitalize Chinatown and the Seventh Street corridor in Northwest Washington inspired his trust.

Mr. Barry on Tuesday recalled his initial skepticism when Mr. Pollin told him his proposed location for the planned sports arena.

While visiting Mr. Pollin’s home for a Jewish Seder, Mr. Barry said he expressed doubt about the project, but was put at ease by Mr. Pollin’s character and confidence.

“I told him ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ He said ‘Trust me, you’re going to love it.’ That’s how he talked,” Mr. Barry said.

D.C. Council Chairman Pro Tempore Jack Evans, whose Ward 2 is home to the Verizon Center, described the area as “deserted and dangerous” in the mid-1990s before the arena was built.

Part of the deal to bring the Wizards and the Washington Capitals hockey team (which he subsequently sold) from suburban Landover, Md., to the city was that 50 Metropolitan Police officers would be stationed there because of fears of violence, Mr. Evans recalled. Mr. Pollin decided to bring the teams to the District and opted to pay to build the arena when the city couldn’t sell bonds to finance construction.

“That decision is the point where downtown Washington really began its renaissance,” Mr. Evans said.

The arena, originally called the MCI Center, prompted new building construction, with restaurants, theaters and museums opening nearby and revitalization stretching outward. The city and Metro spent $79 million to improve the infrastructure in the neighborhood. Investors followed, spending more than $5 billion and adding nearly 10 million square feet of office space.

In honor of Mr. Pollin’s 84th birthday last year and the 10th anniversary of Verizon Center, the city renamed F Street near the arena between 6th and 7th streets Northwest as Abe Pollin Way.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty also proclaimed Dec. 3, 2007, as Abe Pollin Day.

On Tuesday, Mr. Fenty said the District has “lost one of our greatest treasures.”

“Abe Pollin almost single-handedly revitalized the Gallery Place/Chinatown neighborhood by turning down offers from suburban jurisdictions to finance and build the Verizon Center.”

Elliot Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC - the District’s official tourism organization — said the Verizon Center was the impetus for further development that would grow into a vibrant, tourist-friendly downtown.

“His vision really helped redefine the immediate downtown area,” Mr. Ferguson said. “It has resurrected an area that was not necessarily desirable by tourists for a long period of time.”

The commitment of Mr. Pollin, a Washington-area resident since age 8 who most recently lived in Bethesda, extended far beyond building the Verizon Center. He gave millions of dollars to charity, constructed affordable-housing units, donated computers to public schools and participated along with his players in distributing food to needy families.

Last year, he gave $1 million to the Society for Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, which is working to find a cure for the neurological disease from which he suffered.

In 1988, he promised 55 fifth-graders from Seat Pleasant Elementary School that he would pay for their education, a pledge he extended to four additional students who transferred into the class. Thirty-nine of the students attended college or trade school at Mr. Pollin’s expense.

“I grew up in a house where both of my parents were very much involved in helping others,” Mr. Pollin once said of his charity work. “My philosophy is that those of us who are on the giving end rather than the receiving end are very lucky.”

He was chairman of the Advisory Council for UNICEF and he and his wife, Irene, established the Pollin Prize for Pediatric Research, the only international award honoring advances in childrens health care.

A 1945 graduate of George Washington University, he served as a member of the school’s board of trustees from 1974 to 1999. He was inducted into the School of Business Sports Executive Hall of Fame in March.

He served as co-chairman of the District’s Community Capital Campaign for N Street Village and honorable chairman of the Salvation Army’s Leadership Committee for Centers of Hope.

“The Salvation Army of Washington was saddened at the news of the passing of Abe Pollin,” said Maj. Steve Morris, the commander of the Salvation Army National Capital Area Command. “He was a friend of the Salvation Army. His loss will be felt throughout the entire Washington community.”

Charities across the area expressed sadness at his passing, speaking of his commitment to their organization and the city. Terry Lynch, the executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said Mr. Pollin’s company had co-sponsored a “Help the Homeless Walk” last weekend.

“Time and again he lent his helping hand to see not just his teams be successful but the whole town,” Mr. Lynch said.

Mr. Pollin himself seemed surprised about the transformative effect the arena had on the city.

“I knew it would be a catalyst, but I had no idea what a fantastic thing the arena would be for the city,” he told The Washington Times in a 2007 interview. “I had no idea it would be a catalyst to actually turn the city around.”

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