- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Cranes have invaded Buzzard Point.

Not the birds, but the machines that tower over the construction sites that dot the southern neighborhoods of Buzzard Point and Navy Yard in the District of Columbia, where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers meet.

They surround Audi Field, the soccer-specific stadium for D.C. United that will open this summer. Just up the road, at the ballpark where the Washington Nationals will hold their home opener Thursday afternoon, six cranes speckle the skyline where new apartment buildings are going up.

Ten baseball seasons have come and gone since Nationals Park opened in March 2008. In that time, the area has transformed from an industrial backwater to the city’s fastest-growing neighborhood.

It is hard to quantify how much of the development can be credited to the stadium, but the surrounding neighborhood isn’t colloquially called “the Ballpark District” for nothing. The Camden South Capitol apartment complex across the street advertises its upscale rentals on a banner with a baseball pun: “Get Caught Looking.”

Nearby, fans can visit The Big Stick, a sports bar that opened in 2014 with a baseball in its logo and “NATchos” on its menu. The single, cozy room fills to standing-room-only capacity on Nationals game days, said Spencer Griffin, a Big Stick bartender for three years.

Even a simple survey of residents’ apparel during March does the trick. People aren’t wearing hats that bear the Wizards, Capitals or Redskins logos. Just curly W’s.

Meredith Fascett, who has lived in Navy Yard since 2011, called baseball’s impact on the area tremendous and said Nationals Park formed a “sort of natural attraction to the neighborhood.”

“The Nationals being in the neighborhood is a huge sense of pride and enthusiasm for the community,” said Mrs. Fascett, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for ANC 6D07 since 2014. “We are big Nationals fans in the neighborhood.”

Michelle Hill, a lifelong Washington resident, is a prep cook at the stadium’s barbecue joint, Blue Smoke. Ms. Hill went to junior high school in the Navy Yard neighborhood in the 1970s, so she has recognized its transformation.

“You had people start getting jobs that didn’t have jobs,” Ms. Hill said. “That [stadium] gives you jobs. Seasonal jobs, which helps the city.”

The ballpark, with distinctive views of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument from the upper decks, has become an icon in a city with no shortage of iconic structures. For years, it has even been featured in the opening credits montage for Netflix’s “House of Cards” alongside monuments and government buildings.

For the more than 40,000 fans who will flock to Thursday’s 1:05 p.m. home opener against the New York Mets, the stadium and its surrounding attractions are a treat for the senses — from the sight of the pristine green field to the taste of cold beer and the smell of grilled hot dogs.

But for the residents and businesses that live and operate in the park’s proximity, baseball is, for better or worse, also about dollars and cents and quality of life.

‘Results and returns’

When he was the mayor of the District in 2006, Anthony A. Williams faced opposition from some on the D.C. Council during the debate over where and whether to build a permanent home for the Nationals. The council ultimately voted 9-4 in favor of building the park in Navy Yard with no more than $611 million in public spending.

That number grew to $670 million, and the city invoked eminent domain to seize property from 16 owners for the park.

Mr. Williams said the park would spur a revitalization of the downtrodden Navy Yard.

“There was a real pent-up demand for investment in D.C.,” Mr. Williams said. “If you can improve fundamentals and do it on a site-specific basis, you would see the investment flows and the consequential economic results and returns.”

Park supporters say the past decade has more than justified the public investment. According to the firm MPF Research, the Navy Yard recorded the fifth-highest rate of new apartment construction of any neighborhood in the country from 2012 to 2016. Real estate values have gone up 41 percent since 2009 after adjusting for inflation.

The area has a variety of large and small, locally owned businesses, Mrs. Fascett said. Some unique establishments stand out: A brewery called Bluejacket was built in a former boilermaker factory near the Navy Yard, and Washington’s first winery, District Winery, bloomed in The Yards neighborhood.

The city certainly believes in the power of its stadiums. The Anacostia riverfront was one of four locations that the District pitched Amazon for the company’s planned second headquarters. In the pitch, city officials called the area “a vibrant entertainment hub” thanks to the Nationals Park and, soon, Audi Field.

It has helped that the Nationals have become, over the past decade, one of the best teams in the MLB, with a streak of six straight winning seasons and four playoff appearances in that time.

Michael G. Stevens, president of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, said it is important that the team has been consistently competitive.

“I think as the team improved and attendance went up and once our restaurants started opening, [investors] really saw the catalytic effect of the ballpark as an anchor, and an iconic anchor,” Mr. Stevens said.

Business improvement districts, or BIDs, are city-approved management entities for specific neighborhoods or areas within cities. The district’s property owners assume a BID tax that creates revenue for the BID to assist with development projects.

Mr. Stevens pitched stakeholders on the need for a BID 11 years ago. Development was slow at first because of the national economic recession coinciding with Nationals Park’s opening. But the park still left an impression.

“What we like to say is that facility, that 42,000-seat ballpark, mentally mapped our neighborhood in a region of 6 million people and introduced our neighborhood to that fan base,” Mr. Stevens said. “Everybody coming by Metro or arriving by car realized there was something new happening here.”

Now, the BID has more than 400,000 square feet of retail space that leadership expects to grow to 900,000 by 2020. Mr. Stevens said around 160,000 square feet of that will be in the “Ballpark District” area, the two blocks north of the park on and around Half Street.

The economic impact debate

Every time a city is awarded a sports franchise, builds a facility or hosts an event like the Super Bowl or Final Four, a debate emerges about that transaction’s “economic impact.”

Business leaders and some government officials often say large sporting events or new teams will create jobs and development that lead to a big, positive impact on the metro area in question. Economists such as Dennis Coates see it differently.

“It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the overall city income of the city economy,” said Mr. Coates, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “To think that this is some huge panacea, some huge economic development silver bullet or magic bullet, is just kind of crazy.”

Mr. Coates has researched sports economics since the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and became the Ravens. He was skeptical about what he called “ridiculously over-the-top” projections for how the new team would improve jobs and income levels in the city. His research and other studies consistently find no evidence supporting the idea that sports facilities can serve as economic engines.

Specific neighborhoods like Navy Yard that receive sports facilities often do see development, Mr. Coates said — but often at a cost to the overall tax base that is subsidizing the team.

“Not always, but often there is visible evidence of new development. But then you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s going on in the rest of the city?’” he said. “Because those same businesses, those same apartment complexes or residential housing units of whatever sort, could have gone somewhere else in the city.”

Other critics of the public investment into Nationals Park cite similar arguments. “Corporate welfare,” Ryan DeLoughry concluded in a 2017 analysis in the economics journal Comparative Advantage. In 2013, Washington engineer David Cranor compared development around Navy Yard to growth around NoMa — without a stadium as a catalyst.

For the most part, the idea that the stadium has transformed a grim corner of the city has become the conventional wisdom. D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and a ballpark supporter, told Washington Times columnist Thom Loverro in 2016 that he felt vindicated for his votes and marveled at the facility’s impact on the area.

For Mr. Williams, baseball made sense from the beginning for the revitalization of Navy Yard and the Anacostia at large.

“I’m not speaking for all cities and saying that baseball team investments are successful. You have to do it on a case-specific basis,” Mr. Williams said. “And you can’t compare D.C. to other cities because we’re a limited-taxing jurisdiction.”

Destination DC, a private corporation supporting travel and tourism in the District, estimates the MLB All-Star Game, coming to Nationals Park in July for the first time, will have a $50 million to $60 million economic impact on the District. Miami claimed an $80 million impact for last year’s game, and Cincinnati reported $65 million from hosting the 2015 event.

Mr. Coates points out that the economic impact must be measured against the opportunity cost — what otherwise would have happened instead of a given event.

“It’s not every hotel room that’s occupied during this event; it’s how many hotel rooms that would not otherwise have been occupied,” he said.

Other benefits, drawbacks

Locals agree that Navy Yard has seen an upgrade, but it’s far from perfect. One issue, about to be exasperated with the opening of Audi Field, is local parking.

Mrs. Fascett, who as an ANC commissioner is an elected advocate for the neighborhood in city matters, said residents realize “there are not vast parking lots to absorb the situation” but that the city needs a long-term transportation solution for the area.

“The parking lots that are currently being used both for the Nationals and for D.C. United, most of them are slated for development. And so what’s the long-term plan?” Mrs. Fascett said.

She added that the District Department of Transportation will provide more transportation control officers to certain intersections around Nationals Park this season.

Ms. Hill, the cook at Blue Smoke, remembers Navy Yard long before the ballpark was built. She can name its old clubs from memory, like Chapter III and Tracks. She recalls a car break-in and burglary while they were in the area.

The neighborhood surely has improved, she said, but there is a give and take. Another friend of Ms. Hill’s, a hospital intern, moved to a one-bedroom apartment near Nationals Park last year. His monthly rent is $1,800 and doesn’t cover all utilities, she said.

“He was explaining to me how he was eating at the hospital because he couldn’t afford to buy food in order to pay his rent,” Ms. Hill said.

While some neighborhoods see their rents soar, others are affected in other ways.

To cross South Capitol Street away from Nationals Park is to leave Near Southeast and enter Southwest. Its projects such as James Creek Dwellings and Syphax Village are rent-controlled but still pricey because public housing conditions are slower to improve than private developers’ projects.

Ms. Hill puts it this way: “If you live in that neighborhood, you have to leave that neighborhood to enjoy spending more money because you can’t afford to go really just across the street.”

She is one of many who feels that way. A Southwest native named Arthur Jones II wrote in an essay for “The Undefeated” last year that many black residents have moved out of the area since the park was built because of gentrification.

Former Mayor Williams points to the sizable percentage of D.C. public spending on social services and education for those who need help.

“I want investment in neighborhoods. I want diversity of incomes in the neighborhood,” he said. “You want to minimize displacement, but it’s easy to exaggerate and stereotype” the problem.

Gentrification and the disruption that follows fuel controversy in cities and neighborhoods across the country — and Washington and Navy Yard have been no exceptions.

But the Nationals organization works to integrate itself into the community.

The team this year launched an initiative in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) efforts in local schools and sponsors the D.C. Public Library’s summer reading program. The Nationals also donate baseball uniform hats and tops to about 16,000 boys and girls in the region each year.

“We’re as an institution in a relationship with the community and relationship with the city, and we like to think that we’re a central part of the Washington, D.C., experience,” said Valerie Camillo, the team’s revenue and marketing officer. “Having our players, having our organization embedded in the community, interacting with the community is just part of what we think our responsibility is as an organization and a team.”

Local employees like Ms. Hill and Mr. Griffin, the Big Stick bartender, have seen a reduction in crime. And the ballpark’s opening coincided with the renewed effort to clean the Anacostia.

“We like to call the Anacostia River corridor our version of Rock Creek Park on this side of the city,” Mr. Stevens said.

In “Casey at the Bat,” Ernest Thayer wrote about “that hope which springs eternal in the human breast.”

Hope — it’s part of what unites the thousands of Nationals fans who will fill the stands Thursday and through the summer. For many people who live and work in the shadow of Nationals Park, “hope” is also a fair and familiar summation of what baseball, overall, has meant to the neighborhood.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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