A Warning from Cleveland: Could Baseball Fail D.C.?
The extraordinary frenzy of construction that now surrounds the Washington Nationals ballpark is a tribute to ex-Mayor Tony Williams and all those who believed that bringing baseball back to the District would end up being a smart move for the city, even if taxpayers and fans are fronting $611 million to build the stadium.
But there is nothing automatic about expanding the tax base and sparking the economic development that stadium proponents have long touted as the justification for public investment in a ballpark.
I saw that firsthand this month on visits to Cleveland, Detroit and Cincinnati, where new downtown stadiums have done little to cure urban ills or inject street life into places that can be scary and desolate except immediately before and after a game.
I have made much in the past of the powerful success of downtown sports facilities in adding new neighborhoods to cities, thereby generating new tax revenues and rationalizing the use of public dollars. And examples of that phenomenon abound, from San Francisco to Denver to right here in the District, where the Abe Pollin Arena on Seventh Street NW made an enormous contribution toward luring other investors into what is now a thriving and attractive East End. When the new Shakespeare Theatre opens in October, that will be just the latest reminder of the remarkable turnaround Pollin launched by building his arena downtown.
But at this early stage of development around the Nationals ballpark, it's also important to look at places where the promise has not been fulfilled, and my family's summer trip to some of those new downtown ballparks was quite instructive in that vein.
"The perception is that Cleveland," according to my counterpart at the city's Plain Dealer, columnist Regina Brett, "is sinking faster than the Titanic." Bratt herself doesn't quite buy that assessment, but says that the city "has veered off course. No one is steering....We can't live like this anymore."
Another Plain Dealer columnist, Dick Feagler, suggests that his city is a "minor-league town" that has but a few "vestiges of a great city." What sparked Feagler's almost desperate plea for leadership in his city was the death earlier this month of a 58-year-old seamstress who was on her way from the suburbs to see "The Lion King" at a downtown Cleveland theater just a few blocks from the baseball stadium. The woman was run down by four teenagers--a 13-year-old and three 14-year-olds--who were fleeing police in a stolen Plymouth Breeze.
No sports stadium can solve social ills. But the idea behind public investment in ballparks is that they can serve as anchors for retail, entertainment, office and residential development that will in turn boost the city's tax base, enliven its streets and thereby lift all, or at least many, boats.
In Cleveland, it doesn't seem to have worked. Jacobs Field is a terrific place to watch a ballgame. It's inviting, seems smaller than it really is, fits well into the city's grid, opens onto the city and has sparked development of a few big and crowded bars that capture some of the pre- and post-game crowd. The Indians do their part, hosting post-game rock concerts on an inviting plaza that looks out onto the surrounding streets. But walk even two blocks away from the stadium and there is precious little evidence of any improvements that can be attributed to the stadium's presence.
The streets are desolate much of the time. Homeless men rule the downtown at night and nearly match the number of tourists strolling down to the (fabulous) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by day. There are very few restaurants downtown, and when we stopped in at one, neither the very helpful waitress nor four of her colleagues could think of a place to go for ice cream within a 20-minute drive of downtown.
Downtown Cleveland of course has a large number of major office buildings and the Rock Hall is one of the nation's top tourist attractions. But it's hard to point to any revival of downtown stemming from the construction of Jacobs Field, and there's certainly nothing like the retail and entertainment neighborhood that is planned for Half Street SE adjacent to the Nats stadium in Washington.
Similarly, Cincinnati's new Great American Ballpark, while a very pleasant place to watch a game, cannot be credited with sparking new development. There is a spectacular new museum next door focusing on the history of the Underground Railroad, but it and the stadium are divided from the bulk of the city's downtown by a huge interstate highway that forms a moat effectively discouraging any ballpark-generated development from connecting with the city's center.
And in Detroit, Comerica Park, which may be the best of the new class of stadiums in both architecture and fan-friendly amenities, sits in a great site in the very heart of downtown. But except for a couple of bars hard by the ballpark, there's not much evidence of economic spillover.
In all three of these cities, a visitor quickly gets a sense of how smart it was for the District to focus its revitalization effort on building residential communities downtown, which has created a density of pedestrian activity vastly beyond what any of these other troubled cities can boast, even after they built their stadiums.
There is still no guarantee that the D.C. experiment with baseball as economic development tool will work. Yes, some very big developers are pumping very big money into the area, and yes, the plans look great on paper or on a computer screen. But the ultimate test of the new Southeast's success will be whether people come, and the declining attendance at RFK over the Nationals' first three years is not hugely encouraging. That said, a new ballpark will inevitably draw large crowds to at least check out the new scene. The fact that the surrounding development will lag completion of the ballpark by a few years is a bit troubling, but still, the promise remains strong.
To warn against any cockiness, however, it would behoove city officials and developers to visit these Rust Belt cities to see clearly that a stadium alone is no panacea, and that an awful lot depends on making certain that a plan exists to require developers to provide amenities that will make the new neighborhood worth visiting, and that the team's owners do their part to make going to a game an experience worth repeating.
I'll have more on what these other cities can teach Washington on that front tomorrow right here on the big blog.
By Marc Fisher |
August 23, 2007; 7:52 AM ET
Previous: AA Renegade Dies--Whither Midtown? | Next: Lessons for the Lerners: What to Steal From Other Ballparks
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