Plan for New Caps, Wizards Arena in Va. Stirs Up Its Would-Be Neighbors

WASHINGTON POST: When Virginia officials and corporate executives formally announced their plans earlier this month to move the Washington Capitals and Wizards to a new arena in Alexandria, the audience watching them inside a heated tent cheered the deal with unwavering applause. But less than 12 hours after celebrating the news onstage, Alexandria Mayor Justin M. Wilson (D) found himself fielding a very different reaction: a volley of pointed questions from hundreds of constituents over what the project would mean for them. They wanted to know who would build the arena and where spectators would park. How it might impact the Northern Virginia city’s storm pipes and traffic on its already-clogged roads. Why the deal, subject to a nonbinding agreement, was all becoming public now.

Wilson answered nearly every question, at least in part, with the same response: “We will work on it.”

The hour-long virtual meeting, much like a few sharp comments at a city council meeting a few days later on Dec. 16, points to the fierce debate that is rapidly emerging in Alexandria, where knock-down-drag-out civic fights are just as much a part of the city’s fabric as the colonial relics dotting its historic Old Town.

The plan pushed by Wilson and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), which would relocate the Capitals and Wizards to the Potomac Yard area from downtown D.C., comes at the start of a competitive election to succeed Wilson and fill all other seats on council. (Sitting lawmakers are nonetheless expected to vote on the arena proposal before any turnover in 2025.) If the color of bricks are enough to stir debate among civically engaged Alexandrians, then it’s no surprise that the arena has become the biggest bone of contention around for this city of 160,000, with next year’s primary as the backdrop. In little more than two weeks, the surge of scrutiny has touched nearly every hot-button local issue — from the city’s finances to labor practices and flooding.

“I haven’t seen something this polarizing in the time I’ve been watching area politics,” said Katie Waynick, president of the Del Ray Citizens’ Association, who moderated her neighborhood group’s Dec. 13 meeting with Wilson. “There are some people that are really excited about it. There are some people that will not be okay with it no matter what is worked out. And there are a lot of people somewhere in the middle.”

The tentative deal, which needs approval from the Virginia General Assembly before going to local lawmakers, would use the new sports arena as the anchor for a much larger 12-acre complex next to the Potomac Yard Metro station. The site would also include a separate concert hall co-owned by the city and an underground parking facility, as well as corporate offices and a media studio for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the owner of the Capitals and Wizards.City officials behind the project have cast it as a way to catalyze development in the northern end of the Potomac Yard area, which is occupied by a shopping center and large parking lot but has long been viewed as underutilized. A Virginia Tech graduate campus is under construction just north of the planned complex.

“This is not an island where we’re building this little project,” said Stephanie Landrum, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. “This is catalyzing. … We only invest in and induce projects that have the ability to catalyze a much larger impact for the city.”

Additional private development still under negotiation would result in two hotels, a convention center, shopping and at least one office building and transfer a parcel over to the city for a new public school. An analysis of the project released by Landrum’s team late last week noted that it could bring about nearly 6 million square feet of new development in Potomac Yard beyond the arena deal, all of it generating additional tax revenue for the city.Yet the earliest critics — a handful of whom stood outside at the Dec. 13 announcement with signs like “Moms Against Monumental” and “Houses, Not Hockey” — said those projections have only intensified their worries about too much coming to the neighborhood, too quickly.

“The very nature of the project doesn’t serve the community well,” said Andrew Macdonald, a former city council member who has been organizing a group to oppose the arena. “We want a development that fits into the fabric of the city and protects and preserves our quality of life. This most definitely does not do that.”

Macdonald, whose council tenure in the 2000s includes a stint as vice mayor, said his Stop the Arena at Potomac Yard group will be lobbying both city and state officials on a long list of objections. As a geologist, he primarily opposes the arena on environmental grounds. But he also takes issue with the financing plan.Under the deal, a sports and entertainment authority created by Virginia lawmakers would issue two bonds to finance the construction of the arena and surrounding complex. Monumental would put in about $400 million up front and make lease payments on the arena, which would pay off one bond.

The city and state would be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars if the expected tax revenue does not materialize for the other bond of about $1.05 billion, according to a state-requested JPMorgan analysis of the tentative deal, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.“It’s a project that’s really based on subsidizing a billionaire’s desire to build a sports facility,” Macdonald said.

City leaders have emphasized that the arena and surrounding development included in the deal will more than break even, though the analysis released by Landrum’s office did not detail specific numbers on the tax revenue it would generate for Alexandria. For every dollar being borrowed to build the stadium and which would need to be paid back, they say, it would generate at least another dollar to increase city services.

“The asset will generate revenue every year, and we will pocket that. The asset will pay off our investment,” Landrum said. The city would separately put in $106 million contribution to build the parking facility and the concert hall, she acknowledged, but revenue on tickets would eventually make up that cost, too.

Stephanie Landrum, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership Bill Blackburn, who owns several restaurants around the city, said he sees promise in the proposed arena — for his businesses, which include Pork Barrel BBQ in the more suburban Del Ray neighborhood nearby — and for the family he is raising in the same neighborhood.

“There certainly are challenges, but they’re solvable,” the 46-year-old said. “As the shock wears off, reasonable people are going to say: ‘Hey, this isn’t that bad. This is an exciting opportunity.’”

Blackburn, who has donated to Wilson’s previous campaigns, said that he would be eager to walk to hockey games — or for his kids, now 5 and 9, to walk to their first concerts when they are older. Mostly, though, he sees it in terms of tax revenue: The city depends on real estate taxes, particularly on houses and apartments, to fund the bulk of its city services. To build new schools and parks or bolster roads and police, it would need to either raise property taxes or try to encourage new efforts like this one.

“Alexandria has an appetite for pretty shiny things, and that stuff has to be paid for,” he added.

After Landrum and city manager Jim Parajon presented details on the plan during a city council meeting earlier this month, a line of residents getting up to the mic raised other concerns — an early preview, perhaps, of how lawmakers will have to negotiate between a growing list of constituent concerns. Dan Heng, a Potomac Yard resident who said he previously lived near Capital One Arena, questioned what kind of Metro access the arena might have given the transportation system’s funding woes. He also asked how the city would pay for the additional police presence required on game days.

“You might know the answer to some of these questions, but we don’t,” he said. “I’m a sports fan. I love sports. There are no worse neighbors than Capitals and Wizards fans leaving a game.”

Nathaly Zelaya, an organizer for the advocacy group Tenants and Workers United, called on the council to commission an independent analysis of the arena’s impact on people of color and low-income renters, including in the Arlandria-Chirilagua neighborhood where her organization is based.

Group leaders say the area’s working-class Central American immigrants have seen steep rent increases amid the build out of Amazon’s new headquarters nearby. The Amazon campus is a few miles away from their neighborhood. Tenants and Workers leaders, who reiterated Zelaya’s request to council members in a Dec. 18 letter, noted that the proposed arena is practically across the street.

“We hope the leadership of Alexandria City takes a bold stance to protect and preserve our families and prioritize working class people of color who will be the most impacted,” the letter read, “compared to traffic, parking and aesthetic concerns.”

The advocacy group Tenants and Workers United brought dozens of its members to testify at a city council meeting on Dec. 16. Macdonald, meanwhile, said he is hoping that history will repeat itself.

After the owner of the Washington football team hatched a similar deal in the 1990s to move a football stadium to Potomac Yard, the plan fell apart in negotiations between the team and the governor. Alexandria’s then-mayor, Patsy Ticer, emerged as one of the loudest voices in a fervent local opposition campaign.

Wilson, though, has expressed optimism about the arena and complex. He said at this month’s Del Ray meeting that he wanted to hear from residents on what would “get them to yes” — what kinds of conditions would be necessary for them to ultimately support the project.


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