- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hang a left after rising out of the Congress Heights Metro stop, walk about two blocks and cross the street. There, old meets new. Construction equipment is pawing at dry soil and temporary silver fencing surrounds parts of St. Elizabeths, the dilapidated former mental hospital, sitting in Ward 8. The city is building an arena here.

Check in with the man at the makeshift booth, then walk along the outer edge of the St. Elizabeths eastern campus. Peeling paint, broken windows and wayward antennas fill what would be a perfect horror film landscape. St. Elizabeths opened in 1855 as the first federally operated psychiatric hospital, and that is what it looks like.

The District of Columbia announced a plan on Wednesday to change this property from an aged hospital to a fresh arena. On top of a ramp, under a glaring sun with balloons swaying in the breeze, District mayor Muriel Bowser and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, among others, explained their vision for the property, which will provide a home arena to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, a practice facility to the Wizards and an entertainment option that does not exist in one of the ignored corners of the city.

Construction for a $55 million, 118,000-square foot, 5,000-seat facility is planned to begin in 2016 and end in 2018. Funding over the course of the 19-year lease includes a District investment of nearly $23 million, plus $27 million from Events DC, an event-managing arm of the city which will also be responsible for the construction of the new facility, and $5 million from Monumental Sports and Entertainment toward construction.

An additional $10 million from Leonsis is earmarked for St. Elizabeths’ redevelopment and other “community philanthropic investments.” He hopes what happened around Verizon Center in the Chinatown neighborhood can happen in Ward 8. The Wizards‘ home arena opened in 1997. Eventually, new business and buildings filled the surrounding area.

“The first three years at Verizon Center, as a season-ticket holder, you’d come and go, ‘Oh, my gosh. Is this going to work?’” Leonsis said. “Right? You’d come to the arena and go. There was no place to eat, nothing. Now, it’s the cultural entertainment hub of the city.”

Those new business also pushed out many of the smaller, family-owned Chinese restaurants and shops that previously populated that section of downtown. Bowser, a Democrat, addressed how the planned development could affect the immediate surrounding area in Ward 8.

“The question always comes, ‘When you make investments, what happens to property values surrounding it?’” Bowser said. “And, it’s a conundrum that we’re looking forward to working through. We do want to attract more businesses, more residents, more opportunities for homeownership, and we want everybody that lives around [here] to have more opportunities, as well.”

The facility will provide the Wizards and Mystics multiple benefits. The Wizards will have a full-size practice area, plus offices and additional training resources, such as a virtual reality training room. The Mystics will have a home floor that seats 5,000, as opposed to the cavernous Verizon Center, and their own locker room.

Leonsis said the Wizards will now start “serious discussions” about purchasing an NBA D-League team. Entering this season, Washington will be one of 11 NBA teams unaffiliated with a minor-league team. Leonsis said the new arena would be a fitting home for a D-League team. It would also allow him to replicate a layered but melded approach he uses with the Washington Capitals. The Capitals use the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington to train. He sees symbiosis between the club’s AHL team, the Hershey Bears, the training facility and the Capitals.

“The bringing together of AHL, practice facility and Verizon Center and looking at them all as a platform, really elevated the team, the way we played, our ability to attract free agents, kind of the buzz we had around the league, and the players were happy,” Leonsis said. “So, we’re hoping to replicate that with the Wizards.”

Leonsis took time to make a separate point about the financial investment he is making in the arena. About 90 percent of construction and development will be paid for by city taxpayers. The District will continue to own the land, plus the arena. Leonsis said Monumental Sports and Entertainment will pay $400,000 annually in rent, and a 10 percent revenue tax to the city, in addition to the $10 million set aside for the community. He will also have to pay to acquire a D-League team.

“The amount of money that is going to be poured into this community, to build the building, to bring in the teams, do development on the side, will be significant,” Leonsis said.

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