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Two fragile DC neighborhoods hang in the balance as the Wizards and Capitals consider leaving town

Mar 3, 2024, 9:07 PM

Capitol One Arena is shown before an NHL hockey game between the Washington Capitals and the New Je...

Capitol One Arena is shown before an NHL hockey game between the Washington Capitals and the New Jersey Devils, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Washington. The proposed move of the Capitals and Wizards sports teams to nearby Virginia has stoked concern in a pair of fragile Washington neighborhoods. Residents and business owners in Chinatown fear that the departure of the teams would devastate the neighborhood around the Capital One Arena. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Already struggling to keep his Chinatown bar afloat, Yousef Tellawi felt a sense of impending doom when he learned that the owner of Washington’s Capitals and Wizards wanted to move the teams out of the neighborhood and into northern Virginia.

The departure of the teams from their home at Capital One Arena, he said, “would completely pull the plug on Chinatown,” an area that’s already been hit hard by a post-pandemic decline in the number of downtown office workers and a sharp increase in violent crime in the district.

Across the Anacostia River, another fragile Washington neighborhood is dreading the ripple effects of that stadium deal — which still needs approval by the Virginia General Assembly and the city of Alexandria.

Congress Heights is one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods and, like Chinatown, also has suffered under the current crime spike. And it, too, has pinned its economic hopes on a sports arena and the crowds it draws to games, concerts and other events.

The 8-year-old Entertainment and Sports Arena is home to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the NBA G-league’s Capital City Go-Go and also serves as the Wizards’ practice facility. If the deal goes through, Ted Leonsis, majority owner of all four teams, is proposing that the Mystics move from their current home to the much larger Capital One Arena, once it is vacated by the Capitals and Wizards.

“We’re all pinning our plans on that arena to help feed the east side of the river,” said Ronald Moten, a longtime local activist and community organizer. “This would take away a lot of the credibility we’ve built.”

The fate of these two vulnerable neighborhoods now hangs in the balance during what could be several more months of political wrangling. Leonsis’ announcement of a tentative agreement with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has touched off a flurry of public maneuvers, lobbying and negotiation-via-press conference. The deal, according to preliminary numbers, would cost $2 billion, with about $1.5 billion of that coming in the form of bonds that would be repaid by a mix of tax revenue from the stadium and surrounding complex, lease payments and other sources.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser’s government, seemingly caught by surprise by the Virginia deal, has responded with a slightly dissonant two-track strategy. She convened a high-level task force to develop plans for a reimagining of the Chinatown district in the absence of the arena. But simultaneously, Bowser and the D.C. Council scrambled to put together a $500 million offer to renovate Capital One and are not-so-quietly hoping the Virginia deal falls apart.

Council President Phil Mendelson recently summed up the mood by saying, “I wish no ill will on anyone. But if the deal falls through in Virginia, we’re ready to pick it up.”

For Tellawi, who manages the Bulldog bar around the corner from Capital One, the potential loss of the venue is an existential threat. His most profitable nights are when the arena hosts a major concert that floods Chinatown with fans. Home hockey games for the Capitals generally produce a moderate bump in business. And for reasons Tellawi struggles to understand, Wizards home games barely make a dent.

Tellawi has to innovate to draw crowds. He hosts stand-up comedy events three nights a week with the first drink free, but notes that most of the female comedians insist on finishing before 10 p.m. due to safety concerns about the neighborhood.

“Right now, we’re still fighting,” he said. “Maybe you could say we’re on life support.”

In Congress Heights, residents and business owners have similarly been counting on its 4,200-seat arena to anchor the neighborhood and help lift the neighborhood’s fortunes. Moten, the local community activist, envisions the arena spawning “a new Black Wall Street,” and offering opportunities for a fresh generation of Black entrepreneurs.

A recent visit to Congress Heights revealed some signs of what Moten is hoping for. The arena, located on the sprawling campus of the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, still feels slightly isolated — largely surrounded by red brick former hospital buildings in various states of construction or disrepair. But directly next door stands the gleaming blonde wood of Sycamore and Oak, a multi-level commercial center featuring a food court, boutique grocery stores and multiple shops — all Black owned.

For the business owners at Sycamore and Oak, which opened in summer 2023, the arena’s foot traffic for basketball games, boxing matches and the occasional concert is already an important lifeline.

“We definitely get a rush before and after games,” said Dante Brown, owner of Triceys DC Afro-Caribbean restaurant. “It’s very important. And look around, this is just the beginning of what we’re trying to do.”

So far, the threat remains a distant one. Bowser has flatly rejected Leonsis’ proposal to move the Mystics to Capital One if the Wizards and Capitals leave, saying the WNBA team’s shorter schedule would leave Capital One vacant too often and that she has “zero interest in an underutilized arena.”

She notes that the Mystics are committed to play in Congress Heights through 2037 unless the city chooses to release them. Leonsis also has a long-term commitment to Capital One Arena through 2047, but could buy himself a 2027 exit by paying off $35 million in outstanding bonds. Officials with Leonsis’ Monumental Sports maintain that Capital One would thrive in the absence of any sports teams — freeing up the schedule to host entertainers and events seeking multi-day commitments that the arena can’t currently meet during basketball or hockey season.

Moten has thrown his support into the look uncertain as the Virginia General Assembly’s session nears its scheduled March 9 end date.

If the deal does pass the state legislature, the final major hurdle would be a potentially raucous public showdown at the Alexandria City Council. Opponents cite objections to the public expenditure and a belief that traffic to the proposed new arena would overwhelm U.S. Highway 1 without massive infrastructure upgrades.

Leonsis has responded with a public letter claiming the envisioned sports and entertainment complex in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard neighborhood would be, “like nothing ever built before in sports and entertainment.”

The letter played down any divisions between the District of Columbia and the intertwined communities of northern Virginia and southern Maryland, claiming they were all part of the same “supercity” and would all benefit from the new venture.

Leonsis also diplomatically pointed out one of the uncomfortable truths of the Chinatown issue — the fact that public safety in the area around Capital One has deteriorated badly in a way that may be scaring off potential customers.

“It is clear to us, and many of our neighboring businesses and residents in Chinatown that the needs of downtown Washington, DC and its businesses and residents are significant and challenging for the city,” the letter stated.

Violent crime in Chinatown rose by 36% in 2023, according the Metropolitan Police Department — part of a citywide spike in homicides and carjackings. In August, months before Leonsis announced his Virginia deal, a public meeting on Chinatown safety featured multiple residents complaining to city and police officials of worsening conditions and what they claimed was an open-air drug market right outside the main Gallery Place Metro entrance.

Michael Shankle, a member of Chinatown’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission, says the idea of deteriorating safety in Chinatown is part-truth, part perception. Smash-and-grab break-ins on parked cars and storefronts have shot up since the pandemic, he said, along with occasionally aggressive panhandlers and a 24/7 marijuana smell outside the Gallery Place escalators.

“I think people have a sense of greater vulnerability” Shankle said. “I don’t feel unsafe walking around, but I see where that perception would come from.”

Tellawi, of the Bulldog bar, feels those safety problems personally. Four people have been shot on the surrounding block since the bar opened — he said he witnessed one of the shootings. Last year, somebody broke into the bar, raided the refrigerators and was caught by police doing drugs upstairs.

“Honestly, things haven’t been going great here even with the arena,” he said. “If the teams do leave, my only hope is that the city government takes that $500 million they’re offering (Leonsis) and pours it into making this neighborhood safe again.”

___

Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.

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Two fragile DC neighborhoods hang in the balance as the Wizards and Capitals consider leaving town