With sports teams on the move to Va., downtown D.C. frets its future


Howard Marks and his wife, Sandy, bought a condominium in downtown D.C. nearly a decade ago, in part because they wanted to be a veritable slap shot from their favorite hockey team, the Washington Capitals.

They couldn’t have moved any closer.

On countless game nights over the past nine years, the couple left their Gallery Place apartment and walked less than a block to their regular seats at Capital One Arena, an option now threatened by team owner Ted Leonsis’s plan to move the Capitals and Washington Wizards to Virginia.

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“I feel betrayed,” Howard Marks, 79, said Wednesday, standing outside the arena in a red Capitals jersey and gray Capitals cap, an outfit he said he chose to express his anger. He vowed to remain in the neighborhood but said his commitment to Leonsis’s hockey team is another matter.

“We’re going to abandon the Capitals,” he said. “We’re going to teach Mr. Leonsis a lesson.”

The arena’s opening more than 25 years ago was a major milestone in the evolution of contemporary Washington, crystallizing D.C. leaders’ quest to transform the city from a sleepy government town into a cosmopolitan hub with a buzzworthy downtown. Restaurants and nightlife quickly followed the arena.

Yet, if Virginia officials approve Leonsis’s plan and he rejects Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s counteroffer, the teams’ departure in 2028 would deprive the city of two major franchises as downtown fights to regain post-pandemic traction amid a rise in violent crime.

The nation’s capital still has a plethora of A-list attractions, not the least of which are its museums and memorials, the U.S. Capitol and the handsome Pennsylvania Avenue address where the world’s most powerful leader resides.

But the simultaneous departures of two professional sports team — entities that unite and excite a metropolitan region and make its host neighborhood feel proud — is the kind of loss that can depress the civic spirit, especially one that’s already bruised.

“It sucks the air right out of the city, and the city is already deflated,” said Troy Smith, 51, a facilities manager who lives in Northwest, as he absorbed the news of the teams’ potential departure over lunch at Clyde’s, the venerated restaurant next door to Capital One Arena.

“It’s a pride thing,” said his friend, Will Canada, 50, who also works as a facilities manager and who lives in Southeast. “It hurts. It really hurts.”

Even if he doesn’t go to many games, Marks said, he loves to see the crowds of fans arriving for games in their red team jerseys. “It makes me feel like I’m at the center of the sports universe,” he said. “It makes me feel energized. This would be a real loss.”

He recalled the creation of the arena during the 1990s, an effort led by Abe Pollin, then the teams’ owner, whom he praised for having “the fortitude to bring the Capitals downtown” at a time when Washington’s finances were tanking and it was beset by crime.

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“Mr. Pollin had a vision of the arena being at the epicenter of an economic renaissance,” Marks said. “By moving the teams, Mr. Leonsis is pulling the rug out from that vision. He is betraying the memory of Abe Pollin.”

The anger is not universal. Ted Gong, executive director of the 1882 Project Foundation, a Chinatown-based nonprofit that promotes Chinese culture, said he does not believe that the neighborhood has prospered economically because of the arena.

“I see this as a great opportunity to rethink the whole thing,” Gong said. “During the pandemic, what did they do to help keep the small businesses around here afloat?”

The neighborhoods around Capital One Arena, including Chinatown and Penn Quarter, are not nearly as vibrant as they were before the pandemic. The vista along Seventh Street NW is pocked with vacant storefronts, including those once occupied by Urban Outfitters and Bed Bath & Beyond. Residents and business owners have complained about open-air drug dealing outside the entrance to the Gallery Place Metro station on H Street NW.

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Within minutes of Leonsis’s announcement Wednesday, the prospect of losing two major sports franchises triggered waves of anxiety among remaining business owners who say they’re already struggling to hang on.

“If they leave, downtown will be a ghost town,” said Tony Cheng, the owner of a Chinese restaurant that bears his name around the corner from the arena. “If they go, it will be a big hole.”

Cheng opened his H Street NW restaurant in the mid-1980s, more than a decade before the arena then known as the MCI Center arrived. Before the arena’s opening, he said his restaurant survived because of the federal workers from nearby office buildings who came for lunch and dinner.

“Nobody wanted to come here,” he said, seated in his dining room, where a wall is lined with photos of him with various luminaries, from President Bill Clinton to D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. “But then the arena came and it was big change. Everybody came.”

The pandemic changed all that, emptying downtown of those office workers and tourists he relies on. The departure of the teams would only deepen the pain, he said. “I cannot survive,” he said. “I will have to go, too. The mayor has to do something.”

Nearly 20 years ago, the managers of the Downtown Holiday Market chose the location where they still operate — on F Street NW, between Seventh and Ninth streets NW — in part because of its proximity to the arena.

“It’s huge — on game days, there’s a sea of traffic,” said Michael Berman, the market’s manager. “Those folks going to the games come from the Metro and have to walk through the market. It’s a burst of energy.”

He described the teams’ possible exit as a “gut punch.” “It takes the energy out of downtown. You lose a leg of the stool; it could fall over if you don’t replace it. What’s going to turn downtown around? Do they even have a vision?”

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Across the street from the market, Yared Betsate, a co-owner of Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza, was seating guests and refusing to surrender to pessimism.

Yes, his 20-year-old restaurant relies on the fans — especially those who follow the Capitals — but there will still be an arena even if the team leaves, with plenty of potential patrons coming and going.

“I can’t wait to see what happens next,” he said. “There’s so much they can do there. I mean, come on. We’re still in the middle of D.C.”

Mike Shankle, who lives a couple of blocks from the arena, said he interrupted a work meeting Wednesday to tell a colleague when he received a news alert on his phone about Leonsis’s announcement.

“And my co-worker said, ‘Should we just move?’” he recalled. “I feel like the neighborhood is going to be abandoned and deserted, and I don’t want to live in a deserted section of town. I’m really in a little bit of shock.”

Shankle’s day job is chief operating officer for a health-care facility. He is also an advisory neighborhood commissioner, whose district includes the arena. As a result, he said, he has to find a way to accept whatever happens to the Capitals and Wizards.

“Will it be a tremendous loss? Yeah,” he said. “But we have to think about how the neighborhood will be renewed. What journey will we be taking?”

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