October 17, 2005

The Spectre of Gentrification

I've been having a discussion with Brandon over at The Curly W about DC's political landscape and its relationship to the new stadium fiasco. You can read his most recent thoughts on the issue here. Brandon rightly notes that the kind of shenanigans going on now in the city council are essentially the norm. All cities experience significant political upheaval when major redevelopment is at issue. But as much as Washington, D.C. is like other urban areas it is equally unique. The city existed for more than 100 years as a ward of the U.S. Congress, that font of enlightened management. Even when limited Home Rule came to DC the city was constrained by numerous federal restrictions. Most recently Congress turned over most of the city's management functions to an independent Financial Control Board because the city government was in such disarray. Much of the credit for turning DC around has to go to Mayor Tony "Bowtie" Williams, but he's now exiting the scene.

A history of alternating abuse and neglect has left local politicians inherently suspicious of grand plans imposed by outsiders without local accountability, be they Congressional subcommittees or MLB owners. This is one reason I believe that local ownership is more important to the Nationals than your average sports franchise. Stadiums, with their large footprints, inherently limited use and intrinsic benefits to wealthy private owners are always controversial projects. The MCI Center, built almost entirely with Abe Pollin's money, and instrumental in the rebirth of Chinatown, was nevertheless a very controversial undertaking. The waves of upscale restaurants, retail outlets and residences that followed in MCI's wake have confirmed both supporters hopes and opponents fears for the project.

Brandon notes that Mount Vernon Square, Shaw and U Street are all development hot spots, and the southeast waterfront will develop with or without the new stadium. But the rebirth of Mount Vernon Square and Shaw would not have happened without the anchoring effect of the MCI Center and the new DC Convention Center. These large public projects attracted retailers, which allowed residential developers to market these neighborhoods as vibrant, amenity-rich communities. The Anacostia waterfront will be redeveloped, with guidance from the quasi-governmental
Anacostia Waterfront Corporation. The development will certainly have a different character without the new baseball stadium, but whether more community-friendly redevelopment will result is speculative at best.

Brandon repeats the persuasive arguments for building the new stadium at RFK. The site is served by more transportation options than any other locale in the city. But the same web of roads limits the redevelopment potential around the stadium. Where not bounded by freeways RFK is surrounded by residential neighborhoods. It would require massive dislocation to transform the area into the mixed-commercial zones typically favored to maximize stadium-related tax revenue. For all the hue and cry over uprooting longtime residents along the waterfront, any move to change the neighborhood mix around RFK would be ten times more disruptive.

The new stadium is not, and should never have been touted as, a cash-cow for the city. It should be considered a revenue-generating engine, and an indirect commuter tax. The tax money the city stands to make from new development around the waterfront stadium site far outstrips any realistic projections of direct stadium revenue. It is the obligation of the new mayor and the city council to see that these funds are put to use for the benefit of the many DC residents who will never profit directly from the Nat's new home.

1 comment:

Brandon Kriner said...

Awesome, awesome post, Nate. Discussions like these are why I became a Nats blogger!

You're right about the RFK neighborhood situation. I failed to analyze that aspect in my post, but I guess my feeling is that the ballpark doesn't necessarily need a bevy of surrounding development to be succesful. A new stadium on the RFK site could be perfectly viable as the island it is. I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that all these new stadiums haven't been around long enough to prove or disprove their revitalization potential.

What scarce evidence there is seems to be a mixed bag. Some stadiums revitalize neighborhoods and others don't. I wonder to what extent a bunch of surrounding bars, etc cannibalize revenues that would otherwise be spent inside the ballpark. Also, what becomes of all this great surrounding retail from October to April?

MCI Center worked because it was in the middle of two vibrant parts of DC: K Street and Capitol Hill. It's going to take a lot of convincing to get your average NoVa dweller to hang out in Anacostia after dark, especially when there are now so many other "hip" parts of town.