Wednesday, November 25, 2009

REPOST: Verizon Center Turns 10, Celebrates Again

This is a REPOST. It was first posted on MAY 21st 2008. None of the events are current. It's in conjunction with the post above regarding the death of Abe Pollin, financier of the Verizon (MCI) Center and former owner of the Washington Wizards. This post is from nearly TWO YEARS ago.

Hockey fans, get ready. A year after the Washington Capitals thrilled area sports fans with an amazing late season run into the playoffs, the Verizon Center will host the men's NCAA hockey championship--the Frozen Four. It's the hockey equivalent to the Final Four and March Madness. The organizers predict that the event will have a $10,000,000 impact on the Washington area. Much of it will go directly to owners and workers in local hotels, food establishments, museums and entertainment businesses. We see a bump like this whenever outside $$$ are bought into our local economy system via sports. None of this would have been possible without the Verizon Center.

At 10 years old, the Verizon Center is not the newest arena of its kind. Its not the largest, it doesn't have the most seats, and it isn't home to a championship team, at the moment. On the inside, its looks like most other NBA and NHL arenas. They are much harder to differentiate from each other than say, a baseball stadium, or even some NFL stadiums. The Prudential Center in Newark is almost identical to the Verizon Center in every way. The experience you have, for example, seeing a college basketball game or a Bon Jovi concert would be practically identical in either arena. Except for one aspect: the experience you have coming and going to the arena. I've been to both venues. Here's what's around the Pru Center: absolutely nothing. We went to a concert at the Pru Center this February and parked 2 blocks from the arena for $10. On the way there was nothing. Not a person on the street (who wasn't going to the show) and nary a restaurant, gas station, hotel, convenience store, condo, rowhouse, or office building. On the way back to the car we took a different route and passed one dive bar that looked pretty cool, but it was the only sign of life we saw. We ate fries inside the arena. That was dinner.

Contrast that to Gallery Place and the immediate areas around the Verizon Center. Since the arena's opening 10 years ago, the surrounding neighborhood has seen a sonic boom of development. Apartments, condominiums, restaurants of the lunch, fast food and fine dining type, clothing stores and even pay-for-experience museums have inhabited the area. Like Near Southeast, development may have been inevitable even without a sports stadium/arena, but surely it wouldn't have come with such a fervor or quickness. I dare say that the Verizon Center saved PQ/Gallery Place/Chinatown, if not from desolation, at least from becoming a boring, bland landscape of boxy, identical office buildings, ala Roslyn, or parts of K Street and the West End. Comparatively, I think a project like NoMa will end up being a staid, boring, urban office park. The development there will be manufactured in too strict of a cannon and too managed. Sounds strange to say, but if you treat the completion of the Verizon Center as a starting point, the development in that area has come fast, but it's been organic. It may be hard to replicate in NoMa or Near Southeast.

Development around Verizon Center has even helped usher in the name "Penn Quarter" as the name that should be used to refer to what is becoming its own neighborhood. The moniker may eventually replace Chinatown and Gallery Place as a place name for the area. While the "Gallery" (National Portrait Gallery) has reopened, its no longer the only cultural institution or Museum in that area. And the only time I hear the word "Chinatown" used for that area is when one is referring to the Metro stop. Few locals refer to the area as Chinatown. Visitors form New York and SF even mock the name, comparing it to their solid and historic neighborhoods of the same name, but larger scope. A single name will help the area grapple with its new identity, whenever it becomes clear, what that identity actually is. Verizon Center helped with that identity. Of course, one of my favorite blogs, Penn Quarter Living used to be named Gallery Place Living.

I can't say that Verizon Center single-handedly saved that part of downtown from complete abandonment. But there is no way that Madame Tussuad's, Newseum, Museum of Crime and Punishment, Urban Outfitters, two Starbucks, Fado's, City Sports, Bed Bath and Beyond, La Tasca, Matchbox, Harman Theater and a 14 screen Regal could have ALL been successful if they individually put down roots in what was Chinatown. Verizon Center, the home of three major league professional sports franchises and one nationally powerhouse university men's basketball team, spread the wealth around east-downtown DC over the last 10 years and looks to be set for the next 10. And, the original team's owner paid for it, unlike the Nationals and "their" Nationals Park.

Verizon Center celebrating its 10th birthday all year and holding another celebratory event today. The Taste of Ten Luncheon will be held in the arena on the main concourse, F Street side. The Luncheon is $10.00 with all proceeds going to Washington Sports & Entertainment Charities. In a nod to development spurred on by the Center, the admission gives you the opportunity to sample foods from several of the over 25 PQ area eateries who are participating. Includes many local faves, including, Zaytinya, Zola, Matchbox, Jaleo, Rosa Mexican and the Source. Advance tix are not available, just bring cash to the event; its 12-2pm today.