WASHINGTON -- If it were a car, the new arena planned for downtown Washington would have "loaded!" written in big letters across the windshield: sky boxes, high-rent club seats, two cafes, a museum, glassy exterior. Some seats will even have their own interactive television sets, from which fans may be able to order Bullets tickets and Capitals sweat shirts.
"It will be the most technologically advanced building in the world," gushed Abe Pollin, who intends to break ground next month on the MCI Center and have his Washington Capitals and Bullets playing there by fall of 1997.
Twenty-two years after he moved the NBA Bullets out of Baltimore and, along with the expansion NHL Capitals, into the Capital Centre at Landover, Pollin is poised to complete the southern migration. He sees his teams as a force for urban renewal and their proposed home a new state of the arena builder's art.
Opponents of the $175 million project see it as a five-acre boondoggle, awkwardly wedged into a historic district. But they admit that time and opportunity is running short to stop its construction. With only a few more regulatory signatures to collect, the arena has, in little more than a year's time, gone from the political photo-op to the bulldozer stage.
"It is going to happen," Pollin repeated several times yesterday at a news conference where he unveiled a scale model and the architect's drawings.
He set lofty goals for his latest real estate development, predicting it will both attract tourists and drive out muggers, not to mention pump up community pride while hosting everything from tennis tournaments to town meetings.
More than an arena, the center will feature underground parking, multiple levels of specialty shops and eateries -- many of which will be open to the public even when there are no events in the arena -- and a museum. In all, there will be 50,000 square feet of retail shops. A pair of subway stops serve the site; one will be connected to the arena by an overhead canopy.
Inside, there will be multi-tiered seating for 20,000, including 110 sky boxes and 3,000 "club seats," pricey seating alternatives that carry annual rents and have become a fast-growing source of revenue for sports teams.
The club seats also will be wired as "smart seats" by the namesake sponsor, MCI, a telecommunications giant and the largest corporation based in Washington. Each will have its own interactive television set, capable of taking merchandise orders and providing other high-tech amusement the team will announce in coming weeks. Kiosks in the concourses also promise advanced diversions during game breaks.
"It will be a force for cohesion; forward-looking yet respectful of the federal style around it," said architect Coke Florance, with Florance Eichbaum Esocoff & King of Washington.
Three firms participated in the project, including noted sports-facility architects Ellerbe Beckett of Kansas City, Mo.
Critics, however, are unmoved by the design and are holding out hope that it can be stopped, perhaps by Congress when its financial oversight board claims jurisdiction over the nearly bankrupt District's finances Oct. 1.
"Right now there is a big question about whether the city has the money to do this. There is a lot of bluffing going on," said Dorn McGrath, a professor of urban and regional planning at George Washington University and chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.
Pollin, whose frustration over trying to get an arena built in Washington 20 years ago led him to finance and build the USAir Arena himself, is confident the groundbreaking will take place as scheduled Oct. 18.
"The longtime package is complete. It is going to happen," Pollin said.
Bullets, Baltimore go separate ways
The planned opening of the MCI Center in Washington two years from now will mean the end of Bullets games in Baltimore, officially severing a 30-year-plus connection to the city.
"It is one of those sad requirements," team owner Abe Pollin said yesterday.
Leases for the Bullets and Washington Capitals call for all home games to be played in the new arena. In each of the last seven seasons the Bullets have played three or four games at the Baltimore Arena.
The Chicago Zephyrs moved to Baltimore and were renamed the Bullets in 1963. Pollin, a Washington-area developer, became an investor the next year, and sole owner in 1968. He renamed the team the Capital Bullets and moved them to Landover in 1973, and acquired the NHL Capitals by expansion.
The basketball team was renamed the Washington Bullets in 1974.