Two fragile DC neighborhoods hang in the balance as the Wizards and Capitals consider leaving town

WASHINGTON — Already struggling to keep his Chinatown bar afloat, Yousef Tellawi had a sense of impending doom when he heard that the owner of Washington’s Capitals and Wizards wanted to move the area teams to northern Virginia.

The teams’ departure from their home at Capital One Arena, he said, “would completely pull the plug on Chinatown,” an area already hard hit by a post-pandemic decline in the number of downtown office workers and a sharp increase in violent crime in the neighborhood.

Across the Anacostia River, another vulnerable Washington neighborhood fears the ripple effects of that stadium deal — which still needs approval from the Virginia General Assembly and the city of Alexandria.

Congress Heights is one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods and, like Chinatown, has also suffered from the current crime spike. And the country also pins its economic hopes on a sports arena and the crowds it draws to games, concerts and other events.

The 8-year-old Entertainment and Sports Arena is home to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the NBA G-league’s Capital City Go-Go and also serves as a practice facility for the Wizards. If the deal goes through, Ted Leonsis, majority owner of all four teams, is proposing that the Mystics move from their current home to the much larger Capital One Arena once it is vacated by the Capitals and Wizards.

“We’re all focusing our plans on that arena to help nourish the east side of the river,” said Ronald Moten, a longtime local activist and community organizer. “This would take away a lot of the credibility we have built.”

The fate of these two vulnerable neighborhoods now hangs in the balance in what could be several more months of political tug-of-war. Leonsis’ announcement of a tentative agreement with Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has set off a wave of public maneuvering, lobbying and news conference negotiations. According to preliminary figures, the deal would cost $2 billion, with about $1.5 billion of that in the form of bonds that would be repaid through a mix of tax revenue from the stadium and surrounding complex, lease payments and other sources.

The administration of Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, seemingly surprised by the Virginia deal, has responded with a somewhat dissonant two-pronged strategy. She convened a high-level task force to develop plans for a new vision of the Chinatown neighborhood in the arena’s absence. But at the same time, Bowser and the DC Council were trying to launch a $500 million bid to renovate Capital One and are not so quietly hoping the Virginia deal falls apart.

Council President Phil Mendelson recently summed up the vote by saying, “I don’t wish ill will on anyone. But if the deal falls through in Virginia, we are ready to pick it up.”

For Tellawi, who manages the Bulldog bar around the corner from Capital One, the potential loss of the location is an existential threat. His most profitable nights are when the arena hosts a huge concert that floods Chinatown with fans. Home hockey games for the capitals generally generate a modest increase in revenue. And for reasons Tellawi struggles to understand, Wizards home games barely make a dent.

Tellawi must innovate to attract an audience. He hosts stand-up comedy events three nights a week where the first drink is free, but notes that most female comedians insist on finishing before 10 p.m. due to safety concerns in the area.

“Right now we’re still fighting,” he said. “Maybe you could say we’re on life support.”

In Congress Heights, residents and business owners are similarly counting on the 4,200-seat arena to anchor the neighborhood and help boost the neighborhood’s fortunes. Moten, the local community activist, envisions the arena would spawn “a new Black Wall Street” and provide opportunities for a new generation of Black entrepreneurs.

A recent visit to Congress Heights revealed some signs of what Moten is hoping for. Located on the sprawling campus of the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the arena still feels somewhat isolated – largely surrounded by red-brick former hospital buildings in various states of construction or disrepair. But right next door is the gleaming blonde grove of Sycamore and Oak, a multi-story commercial center with a food court, boutiques and multiple shops – all Black-owned.

For the business owners of Sycamore and Oak, which opened in the summer of 2023, the arena’s foot traffic for basketball games, boxing matches and the occasional concert is already a major lifeline.

“We definitely get a rush before and after games,” said Dante Brown, owner of Tricey’s DC Afro-Caribbean restaurant. “It’s very important. And look around, this is just the beginning of what we’re trying to do.

So far, the threat remains remote. Bowser flatly rejected Leonsis’ proposal to move the Mystics to Capital One if the Wizards and Capitals leave. Bowser has said the WNBA team’s shorter schedule would leave Capital One empty too often and that she has “no interest in an underutilized arena.”

She noted that the Mystics are committed to playing in Congress Heights until 2037 unless the city chooses to release them. Leonsis also has a long-term commitment through 2047 at Capital One Arena, but could buy himself an exit in 2027 by paying off $35 million in outstanding bonds. Officials with Leonsis’ Monumental Sports argue that Capital One would thrive without sports teams, freeing up space to host entertainers and events looking for multi-day commitments that the arena cannot currently accommodate during basketball or hockey season.

Moten has expressed support for the Stop The Arena movement — which recently sent a busload of activists to Richmond, the state capital, to lobby lawmakers. The prospects for the legislation underpinning the deal appear uncertain as the Virginia General Assembly session approaches its scheduled March 9 end date.

If the deal passes the state Legislature, the last major hurdle would be a potentially raucous public showdown in the Alexandria City Council. Opponents cite objections to the government spending and the belief that traffic to the proposed new arena would overwhelm U.S. Highway 1 without massive infrastructure improvements.

Leonsis has responded with a public letter claiming that the proposed sports and entertainment complex in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard neighborhood would be “like nothing ever built before in the field of sports and entertainment.”

The letter downplayed any divisions between the District of Columbia and the intertwined communities of northern Virginia and southern Maryland, claiming that they were all part of the same “supercity” and would all benefit from the new venture.

Leonsis also diplomatically pointed out one of the uncomfortable truths of the Chinatown issue: the fact that public safety in the area around Capital One has seriously deteriorated in a way that could deter potential customers.

“It is clear to us, and to many of our neighboring businesses and residents in Chinatown, that the needs of downtown Washington, DC and its businesses and residents are significant and challenging for the city,” the letter said.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, violent crime in Chinatown is up 36% by 2023 — part of a citywide spike in murders and carjackings. In August, months before Leonsis announced his Virginia deal, a public meeting on Chinatown safety included several residents who complained to city and police officials about deteriorating conditions and what they claimed was an open-air drug market just outside the main entrance from Gallery Place Metro.

Michael Shankle, a member of the Chinatown Advisory Neighborhood Commission, says the idea of ​​deteriorating safety in Chinatown is part truth and part perception. Burglaries of parked cars and storefronts have spiked since the pandemic, he said, along with occasional aggressive panhandlers and a 24/7 smell of marijuana outside the Gallery Place escalators.

“I think people have a sense of greater vulnerability,” Shankle said. “I don’t feel unsafe when I walk around here, but I can see where that perception comes from.”

Tellawi of the Bulldog bar feels those safety concerns personally. Since the bar opened, four people have been shot in the surrounding block. He said he witnessed one of the shootings. Last year someone broke into the bar, raided the fridges and was caught by police doing drugs upstairs.

“Honestly, things aren’t going well here, even in the arena,” he said. “When the teams leave, my only hope is that the city government will use the $500 million they are offering (Leonsis) to make this neighborhood safe again.”


Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.