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Nats Town: Empty Lots, With Sprouts Of Hope

There was supposed to be a neighborhood here -- teeming streets, happy people sharing nights of cheer and cheers . . . even, perhaps, an occasional win. Instead, the blocks around Washington's new baseball stadium remain largely empty, an eerie expanse of flattened lots so bereft of activity that they can be used for but one thing -- parking.

The promise that the return of baseball brought to this forlorn part of Washington seems distant now. One hundred and fifty-four buildings have been demolished in what used to be the city's industrial zone, a back lot dotted with seedy nightspots and dingy warehouses, all bulldozed to make way for a stadium where men play games and fathers and sons dream together.

The idea was that by building the stadium, the city would unleash imaginations and wallets. Bars and restaurants would spring up, and tax dollars would flow. A grand circle of investment would be completed.

Then everything froze. Six buildings have been finished since the first Opening Day at Nationals Park last spring, according to JDLand, an encyclopedic blog by Washington Post computer wiz Jacqueline Dupree that chronicles the transformation of the stadium area. Several hundred new residents call the still-unnamed neighborhood home, but come Monday, when the Nats take the field for their sophomore season in the new park, fans will see even more vacant lots than last summer. The same abandoned construction pit lies directly across the street from centerfield. The office buildings erected remain mostly empty.

In addition to seeing President Obama throw out the first ball, fans will notice new trimmings on the stadium -- and on the field. A new slugger, Adam Dunn, will sport a Nationals uniform, and at the entrance, a new sculpture commemorates the only real home-run king Washington's Senators ever had, Frank Howard.

But despite the optimism each new season brings, there is a growing unease, questions about whether fans will really support the team and whether the city's investment will provide the promised returns. Times and moods change. When the city's soccer franchise asked for the same deal the Nationals got, Mayor Adrian Fenty gave D.C. United the back of his hand. They announced a move to Prince George's County, which now says it doesn't want them, either, not if it would cost the taxpayers more money they don't have.

No one builds much of anything these days. We've lost the trust we had in the idea that building begets building, that that domino effect creates the energy that sustains us.

But when the ceremonies begin Monday afternoon, and the new president -- a rare figure of trust (for now) in a damaged, skittish society -- re-creates an image from the era when men wearing fedoras and silly grins played hooky to watch the opening game, it will feel, for a little while, like spring again.

A last-place team will start fresh. The place will be packed, Nats President Stan Kasten promises. The sense of possibility -- young new pitchers, a surplus of big-league outfielders -- will intoxicate enough people that a few will say, "Hey, maybe these guys can win."

From that sprout of hope, we will cleave into two camps. Some will say it's time to return to reality: The owners aren't spending the money it takes, the team's still a loser, the game's in decline, times are tight, let's stay home and watch TV. Others will embrace possibility, believing there is a plan and it can work. They'll say that a place right next to a Metro station, with tens of thousands of people walking by each evening, can't remain empty for long.

The future of the team, the neighborhood and the economy depend on how we split between those two views. For all the pain, all the jobs and savings we've lost, the next stretch is -- as a president who stood tall only with the aid of braces taught us -- ours to make.

FDR's words about "fear itself" may sound like poetry that glosses over the reality that life is shaped by forces beyond our control. But builders want to build, owners want to win and fans want to believe.

Empty lots can send a message of risks untaken, dreams undreamed, failure. But to some eyes, empty lots look like the next great thing, playgrounds for the human spirit. It all depends on what you let yourself imagine. Each spring, when the game starts anew, there is no score.

Tomorrow on Raw Fisher at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher: What's new at Nats Park -- a review.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential"at http://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  April 9, 2009; 8:55 AM ET  | Category:  Baseball , Development , The District
Previous: Hard Times: The Boys & Girls Clubs' Sell-Off | Next: Nats '09: Great Crab, New Flags, But Will They Come?

Comments

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I've got to call you on your assertion that DC United asked for the same stadium deal the Nats got. Far from it. United's original proposal for the Poplar Point site was for the team itself to foot the bill for the stadium if the city would pay for infrastructure improvements. Since the Poplar Point project envisioned development well beyond the stadium, including retail, a hotel, and a park, the new roads, etc., would benefit all of the new buildings and wasn't for the stadium alone.

Posted by: b18bolo | April 9, 2009 11:54 AM

Mr. Fisher,

After reading your piece in the Metro Section titled "Future of Nats and their Neighborhood is up to us",
I am a bit upset by how you portray this area.
If you follow JDLAND.com, you understand just how this area is taking shape. My wife and I will be moving into a new rowhouse due to be completed in July. It is located right smack in the heart of the new area. We invested in this area back in 2006 when the old Capper Carrollsburg housing was still standing. This was an area filled with such crime that a walk down the block was a risk at any hour. Not today. I've walked the area from Barracks Row at 10PM without fear.
Yes, the area is dotted with vacant lots and completed buildings yet to be filled, but what I see is a future, not a wasteland. Many people think the same since many folks camped out to purchase a rowhome even before there was a single pitch inside the stadium. These rowhomes are seeing their first occupants moving in next week. I can't wait to move into the area. School buses will be replaced with a great park, new businesses will open as the area becomes more populated.
I'm not concerned whether Adam Dunn or Adam West is wearing a Nats uniform. I will support the team as a resident and a fan. I will enjoy the park. Each day I walk by, I see new signs of progress. I see my vision coming to life.
The area by the Verizon Center took years to become what it is today.
I don't see dreams undreamed. I see dreams being fulfilled. I see enormous potential that will be realized. The economy tanked everywhere, not just by the stadium.
I felt like a pioneer way back in October of 2006 when I elected to purchase a new home while the old housing was still standing. It starts with a vision and a dream. I (along with my new neighbors) see a community, not a win-loss record for the Nationals.
Things did freeze. Things froze everywhere. This will pass. My vision is still strong.
As for the human spirit, I, along with at least 20 others camped out overnight because we wanted in.
2 1/2 years later, we are still as excited as back then. I know because I see my neighbors as we all anxiously await moving day. Go back to jdland.com and compare before/after pictures again and decide whether things are moving along for the better.
You are right, its up to us and i said...go for it.
If you build it,they will come. its built and we will come, just not as quickly as in the movie.
Thanks.

Bruce DarConte
Soon-to-be resident.

Posted by: bdarconte | April 9, 2009 7:41 PM

was dc united looking for 600 million in help Mr fisher? that must have been an expensive 24k seater? explain that to me?? Same deal, i think not

Posted by: Norteno4life | April 9, 2009 8:47 PM

As my place of employment is located in this area, I and many others have had plenty of opportunities to perform an evaluation. Let me share some frustrations and hopes. First the frustrations -- it is dangerous to leave "the bubble" (area to/from subway stop to/from office to/from lunch places, etc.) The fact that this area is still dangerous has been verified by reports of daytime crime. So even if a bunch of stuff has been torn down, the area is not exactly crime free.

Second, the hopes -- there are big plans; condos, office space, stores, the water front, etc. And when this happens the bubble will expand to include a wider circumference which will be good. However, things seem to have come to a roaring halt due to the state of the economy. So when and if the economy comes back and the plans can come to fruition, this should be a great area. But until then, it is almost a trap.

Posted by: lawson14 | April 9, 2009 9:59 PM

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