One dump truck was stalled out Wednesday along Alabama Avenue Southeast in Ward 8, its hood flipped forward to show an engine undone by a pressing workload.
Otherwise, sections of the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus were covered with every indication of construction. Flatbed trucks, temporary wire fencing, piles of rubble.
One portion of the campus remains the same: That’s the vaulted section where the city, Events DC and Monumental Sports and Entertainment announced plans for a sports and entertainment arena back in September of 2015. The mayor, balloons and Bradley Beal were part of the festivities that day.
Eighteen months later, the plans for that project remain moving forward, though a front-end loader is yet scoop out a chunk of soil to begin arena construction.
At the 2015 announcement, Mayor Muriel Bowser touted the coming facility: a small sports and entertainment arena dropped into the middle of Ward 8. The personnel commitment from Monumental, a Ted Leonsis company, was significant, even if the firm’s financial stake was not. The Washington Wizards would use the practice facility adjacent to the arena. The Washington Mystics would train and play their home games there. Monumental would also place a D-League team in the facility.
Those plans remain intact. Events DC — which is responsible for construction of the building, Monumental is just leasing the space — projects a September 2018 opening. Work is expected to begin in early June. Keeping to that timeline is crucial for the Wizards’ plans there.
Wizards training camp began Sept. 29 last season, meaning work in the 2018-19 season would start in Ward 8 should the timeline hold. Opening the facility in September or October would also allow a D-League team to begin play in the 2018-19 season. Monumental expects to have a D-League team in place at that point.
“We look forward to bringing our teams to the new facility when it is completed in the fall of 2018,” a Monumental Sports spokesperson said in a statement. “Monumental Sports and Entertainment is excited to be a tenant at the new St. Elizabeths campus and in addition to bringing basketball to the community, we are committed to investing in the growth and economic development of Ward 8. We hope that other businesses in the D.C. community will join us and do the same.”
Arena configuration and costs have both changed slightly. The arena will hold 4,200 seats in a split-bowl setup (down from 5,000 seats in a single bowl configuration). The cost projection has moved from $55 million to $65 million, in part because of the change in configuration. Monumental Sports’ contribution has remained the same.
Funding over the course of the 19-year lease includes an investment by the city of nearly $23 million, plus $37 million from Events DC, an event-managing arm of the city that will also be responsible for the construction of the new facility. Leonsis’ Monumental Sports will put up to $5 million toward construction and “an additional $10 million for St. Elizabeths redevelopment and community philanthropic investments.”
When the project was first touted in September of 2015, D-League President Malcolm Turner said teams usually need a 12- to 18-month lead time to launch a team and business around it. Monumental will have the advantage of mixing an existing team and brand in with the D-League team at the same facility.
The September 2018 target date for “substantial completion” to occur, providing a certificate of occupancy opportunity, puts Monumental in line to be purchasing a D-League team soon. Around the NBA, 26 of 30 franchises now own a D-League team. Despite multiple seasons when a direct affiliation with a team would have been beneficial, Washington will be among the last in the league to acquire what equates to a minor-league franchise.
The Wizards would have received a significant benefit from a D-League team last season. They started the season with three undrafted free agents at the back of their roster. Sheldon Mac, Danuel House and Daniel Ochefu watched throughout the season. House was released March 1 to create roster space. Mac made multiple trips to the D-League. Ochefu played 75 minutes all season.
Installing a D-League team so close will allow the Wizards continuity in coaching from Scott Brooks down. Systems will remain the same. The team’s preferred prospects will play the majority of the minutes instead of being on a team with a group of other unaffiliated players trying to make it to the NBA out of the D-League crab bucket. Brooks has noted multiple times during his first season as Wizards coach the importance of a D-League franchise.
Monumental, Events DC and the city tout the coming arena as a jobs engine and community changer for oft-ignored Ward 8. In a community meeting last week, some Congress Heights residents expressed their displeasure with the amount of communication between the development factions and the community at large. One prevailing word hanged in the air amid the complaints: gentrification.
Events DC president and CEO Gregory O’Dell listened to the issues. He was pleased that the arena development plans had recently moved past logistical hurdles like approval from the Commission on Fine Arts and Historic Preservation Review Board. He said he knew from the beginning that not all residents would be pleased with every aspect of the project.
“The feedback that we got, frankly, was mixed,” O’Dell said. “Some people were happy with the projects. Others felt like we had not engaged them. I tried to listen to the concerns whether we fully engaged everybody. I concede it’s never a perfect process in terms of outreach, but I wanted to do two things. One, commit that we would improve on our outreach if those in the community feel we haven’t done sufficient outreach, but also try to maintain some integrity to the process we have followed.”
One of the marketing lines Events DC has used during the process is, “Bigger than basketball.” That’s true for the community and the revamping of St. Elizabeths sprawling 346-acre campus.
For the Wizards, Mystics and a prospective D-League team, this project is very much about basketball. In 18 months, those three teams expect to have a new facility, one that will give the Mystics their home, the Wizards a nearby training facility and finally deliver a D-League team.