Mayor Muriel Bowser may be headed to Cuba this weekend, but on Thursday she traveled to the campus of St. Elizabeths hospital in Ward 8 to start tearing down a vacant building that will become a sports arena.

Bowser donned a white construction hat and stepped into an excavator positioned next to what used to be a mental-health facility on the campus’s east side. Then, with a little help from a construction worker, she made the machine crunch into the building’s awning. Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May did so next.

The event launched the first phase of redeveloping the site into a new practice facility for the Washington Wizards and the home court of the Mystics, to be overseen by the Department of General Services for the next two and half years. The District expects the 5,000-seat arena to be completed by September 2018 and to generate $90 million in tax revenue over two decades. Events DC, the local sports authority, will operate the venue, which will also host concerts. Taxpayers are funding 90 percent of the $55-million investment.

St. Elizabeths East will also become the site of 250 mixed-income apartments, 60 townhomes, and 171,000 square feet of office and retail space after the first phase of development is complete. D.C. officials say the project will create 600 construction and 300 long-term jobs, with priority given to Ward 7 and 8 residents.

“With this new development, we are delivering on a promise to revitalize Congress Heights, create quality affordable housing, generate hundreds of jobs, and put more District residents on a pathway to the middle class,” Bowser said in a prepared statement.

Still, during the kick-off, a couple of protesters from advocacy group Empower DC shouted that the project would push out Ward 8 residents. Last October, some community members called for a “displacement-free zone” near the site to limit property-tax increases. Police moved these protesters away from the equipment.

Schyla Pondexter-Moore, who’s been a public-housing organizer for Empower DC for more than three years, said she doubted the development would “sustain the community.” Rather than creating temporary construction jobs, Pondexter-Moore said, the District should invest in Ward 8 small businesses and youth.

“Who is the housing going to be affordable for?” she said, saying many people she knows would not qualify.

Bowser told reporters that “nobody is being displaced,” underscoring the project’s economic potential for the area. Councilmember May said such a big investment in Ward 8 “hasn’t happened before,” adding that she was pleased by the “commitment to resources and services” for local residents. “It’s our time,” she said.

Asked about her reelection chances in this June’s primary race, May, a Bowser ally, said: “I don’t go to the game to watch. I go to the game to win.”

Photo by Andrew Giambrone