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The proposed sports arena for Gallery Place is a hot potato—a half-baked hot potato. Heavy on hype and light on analysis, the project begs for additional scrutiny lest the politicians’ giddy rush to approve it produces another costly white elephant for the city. Locating the arena in a 200-year-old grid of streets and monuments reflects locker-room logic, rather than orderly analysis.
Arena advocates, led by the private, pro-development Federal City Council (FCC), derive much of their exuberance from the success of the recently opened Gund Arena in Cleveland, which hosts the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Cavaliers. But planning and building a publicly subsidized arena by analogy is risky business: Despite all the hoopla, Gund Arena is the wrong model for Washington.
For one thing, the city of Cleveland has adopted a formal planning strategy that provides for a range of public and related private investment decisions. Washington, alas, has not. The Cleveland Plan has won national awards for creative content, orderly process, and public/private support—all of which are foreign currencies in Washington. What’s more, Cleveland actually makes decisions on the basis of its plan.
Since Washington has no credible plan for its downtown, the proposed Gallery Place arena, which would be home to the NBA’s Bullets and the National Hockey League’s Capitals, is little more than an adventure in copycat architecture—a facility desperately shoehorned into the wrong downtown site.
Gund Arena is part of a well-designed sports complex that includes Jacobs Field (the new home of the baseball Indians). The complex also features two new parking structures for 3,200 cars, planned and built as integral elements of the site.
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Washington’s proposed arena relies on just 750 built-in parking spaces for the executive-suite and club-seat customers. The city’s self-serving Environmental Assessment report claims 7,000 off-street and 1,800 curb parking spaces that “currently exist within a three to four block radius of the site.” Presumably this includes the 302 new spaces in two metered parking lots just north of Mount Vernon Square, spaces that would be eliminated by the construction of the new convention center the city wants to build. Just imagine Bullets fans searching for parking as tip-off time nears, circling for blocks in a maze of streets and alleys and private garages.
The Washington/Cleveland analogy continues to falter: The Gallery Place site is near the center of Washington’s central business district, while Gund Arena is on the edge of Cleveland’s central business district near two interstate highways that feed into wide and recently improved arterial streets. Fans from the Cleveland suburbs, as well as outlying areas, can access Gund Arena quickly and safely. No such highway service is possible in Washington, short of rebuilding the dead-end of I-395, and that would cost millions in unprogrammed funds—money the city doesn’t have.
Gallery Place cheerleaders crow about the site’s excellent Metrorail access, but this doesn’t guarantee that most of the fans will use Metro. Most Cleveland fans arrive by car, even though Gund Arena is served by a new $10-million air-conditioned tunnel connecting it to the nearest rapid-transit station. The District’s Environmental Assessment report also cites the commuter rail service to Union Station, 3,500 feet farther east, as another reason to equivocate on the amount of parking needed for the arena. Yet the assessment offers no concrete comparison of travel times by car, train, bus, cab, or foot.
Gallery Place advocates assume that 3.0 visitors per car (“an industry standard”) will arrive for sold-out events, resulting in 3,800 vehicles parking in “a six-to-eight-block square area.” But the Cleveland experience teaches us that 1.5 to 1.7 persons per car is more realistic, which translates into 7,400 vehicles for each event, and means the crowd would spill beyond the “5-minute walk radius” touted by the FCC back in June. At least 29 metered spaces on G Street NW between 6th and 7th would vanish as that segment is removed to make way for the arena. Another 100 or so meters on the major streets bounding the arena site would be rendered useless by game-time traffic. And since Washington’s major access streets are narrower than Cleveland’s, proponents could argue for the elimination of many of the 1,800 metered parking spaces on the streets of Chinatown that would block traffic access during arena events.
Other aspects of Gund Arena that can’t be replicated here include wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks to handle the pre-game and after-game crowds; a 200-foot-wide plaza/meeting place outside the arena where fans can meet friends and wait for cars from the adjacent garage; another generous entry plaza to give the huge building visibility and a ceremonial setting on a major arterial street; and a common civic focus with a baseball stadium next door. Also, where Gund Arena seats 21,500 (basketball) on a 7.1-acre site, the D.C. arena would seat 23,000 (basketball) on a mere 6 acres.
The arena’s sheer bulk would dictate the removal of at least two, and probably three, 11-story buildings housing several key agencies of the District government, but there is no plan for relocating these agencies and their 1,400 to 1,500 employees.
Set smack dab in the center of a connected series of historic districts, the Gallery Place arena would choke the close-in neighborhoods to death. Compare this to the open expanse opposite Gund Arena, which falls away to the Cuyahoga River and gives Gund breathing space. It is remarkable that Washington’s Environmental Assessment report asserts that the hulking new 130-foot-high, 440-foot-long structure, its 200-plus yearly events, and its continuous logistical activities would present “no adverse impact” on the surrounding historic properties. This is another triumph of hype over content.
“Washington deserves one of these,” writes architecture critic Benjamin Forgey of Gund Arena in the Washington Post. Maybe. If the city had done more homework on linking an arena to its transportation systems, considered alternative sites with more room and better access, and analyzed its proper role and location in relation to the other functions of the nation’s capital, Washington might indeed deserve, and get, an arena of Gund’s class. But not even brilliant architects can design a great facility if the basic planning has been superficial and skewed by over-enthusiasm.
The proposed new arena is yet another hip-shot in the city’s civic development free-for-all-except-taxpayers (see also the various proposed stadiums, Metrobus garages, casinos, convention centers, downtown campuses for the University of the District of Columbia, and now a tour-bus impoundment center). Without benefit of public hearings, the D.C. Council hurriedly modified the city’s long-debated and previously adopted Downtown Plan to accommodate the arena, pre-empting what had been a long-standing public commitment to providing substantial housing downtown on the site. Thus the arena is yet another crude graft onto the city’s clumsy Comprehensive Plan.
Many of the arena’s objectives are laudable. It would give the city a big psychological boost if the Bullets shot hoops and the Capitals slapped shots downtown. But the project mocks the concept of orderly, planned development as required by the home rule charter. In the rush to carry out this particular project on the basis of unmitigated boosterism, the city’s heritage is cheapened and the government incurs costs it cannot afford. It also forecloses options for more appropriate development in the future.
Isn’t there a better site for an arena near downtown? A better way to finance any arena to be built in the city? A closer look at Gund Arena says yes.