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Scenes From A Changing City--Part Two

Second stop on today's tour of change in the District: A work in progress--Nationals Park, the $611 million investment by the city and the region's baseball fans that was sold to taxpayers on the theory that an urban stadium, like a downtown sports arena, could boost the much-needed expansion of the District's tax base. So far, so good: Although the economic downturn has slowed some building plans, there are lots of construction pits, cranes and earthmovers dotted all around the stadium district.

I visited the ballpark this week to watch the first test of the massive centerfield scoreboard, a video spectacle that persuaded me for the first time of the essential difference between HD video and the old-fashioned stuff. The clarity and power of the images on that screen will take fans' breath away, especially after RFK's pathetic scoreboard.

But it was the walk from the Metro station to the stadium that taught me something about how cities change. The Metro entrance closest to the stadium isn't open yet--it will be done by Opening Day, we're assured--so I walked the extra couple of blocks from New Jersey Avenue. Any walk around the ballpark area these days is a bit treacherous, as the area is cluttered with construction materials and work crews. But it's possible to see that what two years ago was an industrial and nightclub zone in which only the brave dared walk alone is on its way to becoming another piece of the grid. What was a collection of rutted roads, empty lots, warehouses and fringy businesses is becoming an extension of downtown in which walking around is as routine as on Seventh Street in the East End, K Street downtown or M Street NW in Georgetown.

Except around game time, there will be a paucity of retail around the ballpark for a few years. This will be a stadium in a construction zone for at least three or four years. But from the new U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters to the Lerner family's just-opened office building on M Street SE, there are already several new office structures, a couple of eateries, and the beginnings of a business district.

There are still some relics of the old, anti-pedestrian neighborhood that need to be erased. At the top of that list is a supposedly secret intelligence installation at 1st and M with an impressively ugly, Go Away Now fence around it. There's also a sewage plant closer to the stadium that has to go. (The intelligence ugliness is actually the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and The Post's Jacqueline Dupree, the mistress of all things ballpark district, reports that the building is going away by around 2010.)

But the planners' dream of an intimate street leading from the Metro to the broad pedestrian plaza at the ballpark's centerfield gate is coming to pass. It's still far too soon to say whether this will become a neighborhood that shows signs of life when there's no ballgame happening, but the ground work being done now is encouraging. Now, if the District really wants to show some courage, it will start planning to take down the Southeast-Southwest elevated expressway and connect the neighborhoods to its south with the city's core to the north.

By Marc Fisher |  March 7, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
Previous: Scenes From A Changing City--Part One | Next: Scenes From A Changing City--Part Three

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Oddly enough, several of things that were part of what keeps a retail and entertainment area alive at night when there's no ballgame were torn down either for the ballpark or for the office buildings that will suround the park, the nightclubs. Both the huge Nation Night Club and the small gay-friendly ones. I guess they'll be replaced by more of the ultra-luxe places that have taken over K Street, but the atmosphere certainly isn't the same. The old places were certainly safe, but they were decidely more downmarket.

Posted by: EricS | March 7, 2008 10:25 AM

Probably the most impressive development will be The Yards. Tons of retail planned, in addition to condos. An entire historic Navy Yard building dedicated just to restauarants. It's that inclusion of restaurants and night life that will make the area a destination and a desireable living spot.

Posted by: Hillman | March 7, 2008 11:06 AM

As a 16-year Barracks Row resident, where I walk to work at the Marine Barracks, and as a car-free person... I too, dream of the time when the ugly, divisive SE Expressway is gone, and replaced with a beautiful urban Virginia Avenue. Thanks for keeping this on the radar screen, Marc!

Posted by: Jack Norton | March 7, 2008 3:18 PM

I say YES to the removal of the elevated Southeast/Southwest Freeway. I can remember HUD commercials of the late 60s talking about Southwest development centered around the freeway. What an eyesore! This city is far too grand to have these anomalies of ugliness.

Posted by: 6th and D | March 7, 2008 7:29 PM

I say YES to the removal of the elevated Southeast/Southwest Freeway. I can remember HUD commercials of the late 60s talking about Southwest development centered around the freeway. What an eyesore! This city is far too grand to have these anomalies of ugliness.

Posted by: 6th and D | March 7, 2008 7:29 PM

I say YES to the removal of the elevated Southeast/Southwest Freeway. I can remember HUD commercials of the late 60s talking about Southwest development centered around the freeway. What an eyesore! This city is far too grand to have these anomalies of ugliness.

Posted by: 6th and D | March 7, 2008 7:29 PM

I have to disagree with one point, that is the water treatment plant "has to go." Maybe the plant inside should go, but the 1905 building that houses that plant has got to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the entire city. It would be a trajedy if it was knocked down.

Posted by: brad | March 7, 2008 9:47 PM

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