The steamroller that is the proposed Gallery Place sports arena may yet sputter to a halt. But the changes made earlier this week to a report by the D.C. Council’s Committee on Economic Development show a formidable momentum. Many of the committee’s imperatives were downgraded to suggestions after the primary potential tenant, sports mogul Abe Pollin, objected to them.
In the draft version, issued Feb. 2, the committee objected to a charrette (architect-speak for an intensive planning session) planned for Kansas City, Mo., home of sports-arena specialist Ellerbee Beckett, one of three architecture firms sketching plans for the Gallery Place site. “A local urban design and economic development planning charrette must take place in the District (rather than in Kansas City),” the report decreed, “and it must be completed while arena design decisions are still open for discussion.” In a hasty revision approved by the full council Feb. 7, this sentence became: “The Mayor should conduct a local urban design and economic development planning charrette, for the eastern section of Downtown DC, in the District to be completed while arena decisions are still open for discussion.”
Originally, the committee argued that the city’s plan not to assess real estate taxes on retailers located in the arena “provides either an unfair advantage to a retailer, or provides an unearned benefit to Mr. Pollin,” and that “the arena [should] be subject to all applicable District of Columbia taxes, except a portion of real property taxes for the entertainment space within the arena.” Five days later: “The Government’s agreement to forgive all taxes may provide unequal treatment to a retailer and may need to be studied further” and “the issue of treating both for-profit and not-for-profit concert ticket sales should be further explored.”
The original language also questioned the city’s purchase of additional land for the arena, specifying that “the fixed land lease payment should be raised to reflect the lost tax revenue from the land being purchased by the District and donated to the arena project.” After consideration, the committee decided merely to “suggest that the Mayor review this issue as negotiations continue.” And, where once “The Committee strongly recommends eliminating the plan for direct Metro access into the Arena,” it subsequently recommended “studying the plan for direct Metro access into the Arena.”
There are still plenty of unanswered questions about the arena proposal. Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, for example, wants to guarantee that “the poor people of the District” don’t end up paying the $400,000 to $700,000 in expenses entailed by NCDC, the nonprofit corporation that was to build the facility before Pollin agreed to pick up the tab. Also, it’s unclear that NCDC can legally sign over to Pollin the development rights to the Gallery Place parcel granted by the city’s Redevelopment Land Agency. Mayor Barry wants to break ground for the arena this fall, though, and the swift muffling of the council committee’s concerns suggests that Barry and Pollin hope they’ll soon be too busy pouring concrete to have to answer inconvenient queries.