Shooting the ball from downtown Washington's MCI Center: Like Camden Yards, unlike Cooke Stadium, D.C.'s new arena is in the right place.

November 28, 1997

IN THE SPAN of four months, Washington has unveiled two new sports palaces. One is in the wrong place. One is in the right place.

The one in the wrong place is Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. It's comfortable enough. Yet its wayward placement just inside the Capital Beltway, like a glowing starship landed between townhouses and a church, resulted from the bitter distillation of politics and its namesake's desperation to get the thing built after years of shopping it around Washington.

In Thanksgiving terms, the site the late Mr. Cooke renamed Raljon, Md., was leftover turkey. Traffic congestion at Redskins games this autumn, as well as the site's lack of purpose much of the year, confirm its shortcomings.

The stadium in the right place is the $200 million MCI Center in downtown Washington. It already has come in for praise prior to Tuesday's opening. The builder is Abe Pollin, mild-mannered owner of the Wizards basketball and Capitals hockey teams and the brand-new women's professional basketball team yet to be named. Georgetown University also will play basketball at the MCI Center.

The arena will be a glittering venue for folks to spend wads of cash while watching young millionaires play games. It's the same with all new pro sports facilities these days.

More important, MCI Center should prod thousands of fans to come to downtown Washington for the restaurants nearby, the shops and to see the District in a brighter light.

Unlike a facility plopped beside a superhighway, MCI Center on F Street, N.W., between 6th and 7th streets, promises a symbiotic interplay with its surroundings. Its eateries and shops will be open daily to draw people, not just on game dates. Arena fans will patronize nearby businesses and parking lots during the night.

The project has been compared favorably to Camden Yards, site of downtown Baltimore's acclaimed baseball park that next summer will gain a football stadium, too. It's an apt parallel. Both projects feed and are nourished by mass transit; both enhance downtown rejuvenation. The economic impact of these bricks-and-mortar investments will be debated fiercely, but the marketing value for center cities seeking to regain stature is incalculable.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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