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baseball stadium

WHAT'S IN A STADIUM?

Baseball Comes Back to the Nation's Capital

After several years of often contentious efforts, Washington, DC again has a baseball team. That team is now playing temporarily at the existing RFK stadium, which was successfully refurbished on a tight schedule and within costs. What had been at best a lack-luster team in Montreal has been playing far better than anyone expected under its new name, the Washington Nationals. Ticket sales have been higher than anticipated, though attendance lags sales by a substantial number (presumably due to over-stocked lobbyists). The "Nats" were at the top of their league division (temporarily) at mid season, and two of their players made the All-star game in July. But the skeptics still doubt the venture's impact on DC's economic rejuvenation.

The site for the new stadium has been established in an eminently sensible part of town, despite various detractors. It is part of a larger "Near Southeast"area which was as blighted and empty as any large tract in DC, before its redevelopment began several years ago. The rundown Navy Yard has been almost totally renovated and is now populated by some 10,000 workers relocated from Crystal City (across the Potomac in Arlington). To its east, a new office complex is in use. To its west, the long-fallow " Southeast Federal Center (SEFC)" has been released by the GSA for high density development, and some of its major new office buildings already structurally complete.

Across M Street, SE, to the north, new office buildings are already occupied; a sizable new hotel is well underway; the Marine Corps Band Barracks is occupied; and the last of the blighted. Arthur Capper housing project buildings are coming down. The partially-elevated Southeast Freeway is no longer a real or imagined "barrier" to anyone! South of the SEFC, the banks of the Anacostia River will be almost totally redeveloped from the National Arboretum to Ft. McNair, and its National Defense University. The Anacostia Redevelopment Corporation has been established and staffed to take on the city's most ambitious ever 20-year urban and environmental renewal project. The White House has submitted legislation to the Congress to turn over 200 acres of federal property to DC for this project. The Near Southeast's western boundary, South Capital Street, is a major "front entrance" to the city, and is due for a complete redesign by the National Capital Planning Commission, including a major new bridge across the Anacostia River. And the Navy Yard Metro station will be tripled in capacity for stadium crowds.

The 14 acres planned for the stadium itself have not yet been purchased, and there are arguments over just how much they will cost, and how they will be financed. A handful of hold-outs have been trying to resist displacement, though the recent Supreme Court decision re the use of eminent domain for urban economic renewal has taken much of the wind out of their sails. Private firms are already assembling large parcels for high-density, mixed use development just west of South Capitol Street. DC's oracular CFO has certified that the current stadium costs are within the right ball park, and the DC Council has finally stepped up to the plate to approve the procurement technique.

In an unusual move, the city has hired a single architectural firm to design a "signature" stadium that will symbolize the nation's capital and/or city. In the last decade or so, Joseph Spear has designed new baseball stadiums for Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, San Diego, and San Francisco. But DC officials have asked him to depart from his old-fashioned red-brick style and design something fresh (!). Furthermore, Spear has little knowledge of, or experience in, the nation's capital city. Surely, there's nothing as challenging as starting from scratch.

On this basis, NARPAC finds the temptation to offer suggestions irresistible. We have been at best passive supporters for the baseball team, albeit more active advocates for keeping it out of DC's current downtown high-rent district. NARPAC sees endless opportunities to capture some facet of the city's current image in the concrete, steel, stone, and glass of the stadium and the buildings immediately around it. With our collective tongue in our collective cheek, here are 20 potential contenders to symbolize the city in several different categories, presented from the several different vantage points that complicate the city.

(As a frame of reference for our visual doodles, we have used the cover illustration by Michael McCann on the recent NCPC brochure outlining the proposed redevelopment of South Capitol Street. It is shown to the right, unsullied by the graffiti we have scribbled on the subsequent faded close-ups. We mean no disrespect to NCPC or its outstanding staff. Their notional version of the new stadium is center right, its apex pointing to what might become the city's most inappropriate high-volume traffic circle. (View larger version)

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DC's internal self-image:

Chocolate City

The population of the nation's capital city became 'majority-black' sometime around 1960 as government jobs opened up and birth rates soared. But it was not until about 10 years later that the city became majority-black-adult as the youngsters grew up, and "white flight" took many white families to the suburbs as a result of school integration laws. Regardless of the basis, the newly emergent black middle class, based primarily on federal and local government employment and first-rate black entertainment venues, took pride in their majority status and many referred to DC as "Chocolate City". Even the city's current mayor accepted the objective of demonstrating that Blacks could provide one of the most effectiveness US city governments. Nevertheless, the city is becoming more and more vanilla, as black birth rates continue to drop, and more Hispanics move in. DC's adult population between the ages of 20 and 40 is already majority-non-Black.

The Chili Bowl

The Chili Bowl restaurant on U Street in the heart of DC's once-thriving Black entertainment district (across the street from the famous Duke Ellington outdoor mural) has long represented the symbolic center of Black political power. No candidate for public office in DC would ever fail to make a highly publicized visit to this city landmark. Nevertheless, this part of town is now home to a majority of DC's relatively recent Hispanic arrivals. Hispanic Night at the stadium would no longer accommodate all of this rapidly growing DC population segment.

The Pothole

A favorite gripe of city residents and the multitude of commuters from the suburbs, is the city's supposed inability to keep its almost 1200 miles of freeways, avenues, streets and alleys properly paved. Potholes have for years been a symbol of the inability of the city government to provide even the simplest of city services. Seldom mentioned is the basic contributing factor that DC is a "mid-Atlantic" city, with significant precipitation and winter temperatures cycling above and below freezing dozens of time per winter.

The Tin Cup

Not completely unrelated from the racial mix and background of the city is the pervasive view, still widely held, that the residents of the district are hapless wards of inattentive federal overseers who fail to provide justifiable hand-outs to compensate for any number of real and perceived (often racially-based) inequities. There is a strange dichotomy between those pressing for complete political autonomy and those continuing to demand that city residents are forever "owed" by the rest of America. Do DC residents deserve reparations for living in the nation's capital city?

The Topographic Bowl

At the other end of the activist spectrum are a large number of people determined to preserve and revere the basic L'Enfant design for the capital city, laid out to fill the "topographic bowl" that occupies the central third of the city bounded by the Anacostia River on its southeast side. Barely noticeable to the average visitor, there are in fact a number of "high points" some 300 to 400 feet above sea level. In fact, those vantage points offer very unobstructed views of the city. Many are capped by churches, apartment houses and schools. It is no coincidence that these historic preservation buffs have succeeded in getting some 77,000 historic sites set aside within the 30,000 acres, including everything from a gas station to an early concrete building. And it is no accident that many of these sites prevent or circumscribe the higher-density growth and "gentrification" the city so badly needs.

The Financial Structural Imbalance?

The city has been ill-served in recent years by various so-called "expert" studies that purport to show that there is an inevitable and incurable fiscal imbalance between the city's expenditure needs and revenue sources. Under such respected imprimaturs as the Brookings Institution, the Government Account Office, and the city's Chief Financial Officer, the myth has been instilled and codified that the city should not be expected to pay its own operating costs because either a) it has no rural/suburban tax base to offset its urban (primarily welfare) operating costs; b) it cannot afford the unrecompensed costs of hosting the federal government; or c) it can't get it's share of federal pork because it lacks political heft.

None of these assertions is supportable. The ability of the city to achieve budget surpluses seven years running, including across a national economic slowdown, would tend to contradict them. Particularly when municipal pay scales are demonstrably inflated.. What the city cannot afford to do out of locally generated revenues is a) provide a world-class urban infrastructure befitting the world's premiere national capital, b) become the region's repository for the disadvantaged, or c) pander to local activists bent on preventing more productive (higher density) use of its limited, and largely squandered, urban acreage.

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DC's external image:

High Crime Rates

Within recent memory, the nation's capital city had earned itself the soubriquet ???? of "the murder capital of the US", with the hand gun as weapon of choice. Rates have dropped in the past few years, but little faster than they have dropped elsewhere across the US ??. Meanwhile, the murder rates a mile or two across the border into Prince George's County are rising rapidly along with assault and auto theft. Crime and failed education are partners. The still-living victims of "serious crimes" over the past 16 months would fill the new stadium. DC residents whose cars have been stolen since the Millennium would have trouble finding seats.

Poor Public Schools

The sorely oversized, over-staffed, under-maintained, out-dated public school system with DC has become the major force in changing the demographics of city residents. Standard school test scores are significantly below those of every other school jurisdiction in the metro area, and high school drop-out rates are among the highest in the country. A drop-out reunion at a National's home game could only accommodate half of those who left DC schools prematurely, 40% of whom still lack a 9th Grade education.

Too Many Single Moms

One, if not the, primary reason for the poor performance of DC's almost-entirely minority school kids, is the lack of education amongst their parent(s). DC has a very high number of single moms, and an equally high share of teen-aged single moms. To the extent that government programs are slowly reducing the number of teen pregnancies, the enrollment in DC schools is dropping proportionately. Nevertheless, the cycle of poverty caused by poor, inadequately- educated moms, producing poor, inadequately-educated kids goes on unbroken. A fully-attended convention of DC's current single moms would need a larger venue than the RFK stadium.

Too Many Poor

With only 12% of the metro area's population, and 8% of its wealth, DC has almost 40% of its family and individuals below the poverty line. There is clearly no way that the city can provide the equivalent quality of life as its suburbs. If in fact, there is a "structural imbalance" within DC, it is the imbalance in residents' income. In essence, the middle class has been forced out by non- competitive city services, leaving a small number of very wealthy taxpayers to satisfy the public service needs of the very poor. All the city's poor under 18 and over 65 years of age could not be seated at once in the stadium. All the city's working-aged poor (omitting those between 18 and 24, since they include many college students!) would also find standing room only. Break the cycle of poverty or perpetuate DC's lousy inner-city image.

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DC's constitutionally circumscribed position:

Congressional Oversight

Congress is constitutionally responsible for all activities within the District of Columbia. By historical precedent, it is far more interested in the goings on of local government in local affairs, than in the obligations of the federal government to assure DC's prestigious role as the national capital city. This year's local tax revenues, evenly distributed, would put roughly $100,000 in each stadium seat. Federal grants for other than formula social programs would add only a few thousand more in each seat.

The Locked Ballot Box

The lack of full representation in the US Congress for its 600,000 citizens is a continuing source of discontent and imagined, if not real, disadvantage in the halls of both national and regional political affairs. There is real but slow progress towards achieving full voting representation in the House, if not the Senate. There would be substantial psychological advantage to local residents in becoming so enfranchised, even though it will inevitably remain a secondary force to the federal and international presence.

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DC's regional position:

Regional Gridlock

Perhaps the most telling indication of a dysfunctional region lacking effective state (or federal) oversight is the growing inadequacy of major regional arteries and/or public transit to deal with burgeoning commercial, private, and commuter traffic. Surface and underground network expansion is sufficiently overdue so that gridlock is almost certain to constrain future growth. Ten cars and one heavy truck enter the city every day for each seat in the stadium.

The Shrinking Metro Share

The District's relatively fixed and small land area competes poorly with the development of relatively unconstrained land in all the neighboring counties. Over the past 25 years, DC's share of regional population has dropped from 24% to 12%, while its share of regional wealth has dropped below 10%. Only in all aspects of the disadvantaged population does DC vastly exceed its proportional share. Unless DC's current residents agree to substantially higher density development of their own residential and commercial areas, our national core city will shrink further in relative capability and importance to its surrounds. There are only a quarter as many revenue-producing acres in DC as seats in the stadium, and less than 20% of them generate more revenues than they consume.

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the national image:

The Pork Barrel 

To many Americans, Washington is primarily the source of federal funds for sorely needed projects in one's own Congressional district, and of incredible waste in everyone else's district. The relative size of such annual 'hand-outs' is generally considered to be a measure of the political strength of individual members of the Congress. Pork dispensed so far in the 21st Century would surely exceed one million dollars per stadium seat.

Federal Loopholes

To other Americans, primarily those in business, a major Congressional function is to provide exceptions to various tax and regulatory laws to protect the interests of certain influential companies or sectors. DC considers itself disadvantaged by its lack of Congressional representation at both the barrel and the loophole. There are almost as many subparagraphs in the 6000-page US Tax Code as there will be seats in the new stadium. (Loopholes are the firing slits in ancient castles).

The K Street Lobbyists

The Great Facilitators for the special interest beneficiaries mentioned above are the individual, and associations of, lobbyists who 'pedal influence' to federal legislators and regulators. They provide both the argumentation, the legislative language, and the re-election campaign funds to further their clients' particular interests. Collectively they form a substantial source of commercial real estate tax revenues for DC, even if the individuals live in the finest suburbs. A full DC, Maryland, and Virginia turn-out for Lawyers' Night at the stadium would exceed planned capacity, and almost 50% would come from DC, even though DC has only 9% of the total workforce.

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the international perspective:

The Seat of American Power

There is only one superpower at the beginning of the 21st Century, and America has only one capital city, easily recognized worldwide by some of its symbolic federal buildings and monuments. From the capitol dome and the White House, to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, most of the world's population has admired the hope and promise inherent in these landmarks. The city's largest employers are its federal and local government, whose workers could fill the planned stadium seven times over.

The Pre-emptive Striker

The new American policy of exerting its overwhelming military power to quell possible future attacks on the US homeland before they take shape is giving rise to a new and less friendly symbol of US unilateralism on the world scene. The combined casualties (dead and wounded) of the Afghanistan/Iraqi wars would fill the stadium to overflowing.

Ground Zero

Given America's superpower status and its leadership in the war against terrorism and authoritarianism, it inescapably remains a major potential target for anti-American activity. With a weekday population of well over a million, a major catastrophe could easily fill the stadium with casualties. Fortunately, tourists from all over the US and the globe understand that this threat is far more remote than becoming a victim of drunk driving, and are flooding our nation's capital to enjoy its real sights, symbols, and majesty  

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This page was updated Aug 5, 2005


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