Bowser Launches Effort to Reimagine Chinatown as Loss of Capitals, Wizards Looms

Robert Miller/The Washington Post
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is calling for a study on the future of Chinatown after the owner of the Capitals and Wizards proposed moving the teams out of Capital One Arena.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) trotted out a new task force Monday that would be responsible for envisioning the future of the two-block area surrounding Capital One Arena in Chinatown – an effort spurred by a plan by the owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals to move the teams to Virginia.

“This is about how old uses become new spaces,” Bowser said, while listing recent transformations of other areas such as the Wharf and Union Market. “We have the opportunity to do it again.”

That opportunity has grown out of the still-smoldering blow that Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis dealt Bowser and the District when he announced in December that he had reached a tentative billion-dollar deal with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) to relocate the teams to a proposed arena in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard. That plan thrust the future of the Gallery Place-Chinatown corridor into uncertainty, given that Wizards and Capitals games had long served as an economic boon and anchor for the neighborhood.

The loss ran counter to the mayor’s broader vision to revitalize downtown and to make D.C. the nation’s “sports capital,” requiring her administration to hit the reset button and entirely rethink how to revitalize the Gallery Place-Chinatown neighborhood without its main tenants.

In December, Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) offered Leonsis $500 million in public funds to upgrade Capital One Arena – but the offer came too late: Leonsis made his announcement with Youngkin the morning after she and Mendelson rolled out legislation authorizing the funds.

While Bowser reiterated that the $500 million remains on the table for Leonsis, if Leonsis isn’t going to take it the city probably will invest the money in downtown instead, Bowser said.

“No matter what happens, we must invest in Gallery Place-Chinatown so that it is one of the top cultural and entertainment districts in the nation. It can be and it will be,” said Nina Albert, acting deputy mayor of planning and economic development. “And if the teams do move – and we have to anticipate that they will – we have an opportunity to reposition almost two city blocks, five acres, right in downtown D.C. for a new use.”

The area surrounding Capital One Arena started encountering challenges after the pandemic emptied city streets in 2020, attracting more crime and loitering to the area that has put some residents and visitors on edge. Leonsis, in fact, had lodged complaints with city leaders about those issues. In February, the DowntownDC Business Improvement District published a study calling for significant economic investment, capital improvements and stronger security in the area. It called for more pedestrian-friendly spaces, more outdoor dining, more neighborhood amenities, such as retail and grocery stores – developments and spaces that would draw people, aligning with the goals of the task force Bowser unveiled Monday.

Albert will lead the new effort with “a super team of women leaders,” she said. The Gallery Place-Chinatown task force will be co-chaired by Jodie McLean, chief executive of Edens, which developed Union Market, and Uplands Real Estate principal Deborah Ratner Salzberg, who was instrumental in developing the Yards around Nationals Park.

McLean said their work will be guided by four focus areas. They will start by putting together an “immediate activation plan” aimed at drawing more people to the neighborhood to boost local businesses. Longer-term, she said, some of the “nation’s leading urban designers” will be invited to submit concepts for turning the area into a “world-class destination” while the task force also seeks out investors and developers interested in bringing creative spaces to the area. They’ll ultimately recommend public infrastructure investments the city should make “to directly support the vision,” including initiatives for attracting businesses, McLean said.

The new task force has Bowser walking a line between still holding out the offer to keep Monumental Sports & Entertainment- Leonsis’s company – in D.C. while also moving forward with rethinking the entire arena space. Officials with Monumental Sports have said they still want Capital One Arena to host live events and have floated having the professional women’s basketball team, the Washington Mystics, play at Capital One instead.

But that would require moving the Mystics from their relatively new arena in Congress Heights, Entertainment and Sports Arena, which opened in 2018. Bowser seemed to bristle at the idea Monday. Asked if she agreed with Monumental’s new vision for the arena, right-sizing the seating capacity and bringing over the women’s team, Bowser said: “Monumental has an obligation by their lease to have the Wizards and the Capitals play here. And if they’re not, then we’re going to move on from that discussion.”

The lease at Entertainment and Sports Arena is a 19-year lease, and the thought of losing the economic boost from the Mystics’ home basketball games – about 20 a season – has frustrated Ward 8 community members and business leaders.

Bowser said she would not allow Capital One Arena to become an “underutilized” space. Asked if tearing the arena down and rebuilding something new in its place was on the table, Bowser said the task force would be considering “all iterations” of what would be possible.

“Let’s be clear. We have to have a vibrant space here, and we can’t have it underused,” she said.

Bowser did not give a deadline for the task force to deliver a plan but said she expected them to work quickly. In May, she launched a separate task force to create a “Downtown Action Plan,” though that group, led by the DowntownDC and Golden Triangle business improvement districts, has yet to release its ideas. Albert said she is reviewing the final draft of the action plan and expects it to be publicly released within six weeks, noting its broad recommendations probably will guide the more specific planning for the Chinatown sector.

As part of her vision to revitalize downtown, Bowser is aiming to attract 15,000 new residents there by 2028. Toward that end, Bowser has pushed converting underused or vacant office buildings into residential housing – ambitious projects that are typically difficult undertakings for developers but that Bowser is hoping to sweeten with incentives, such as offering a 20-year tax abatement for developments that meet affordable housing targets. Five are under construction, she said.

Other work includes recruiting employers who “want to establish in-person offices downtown,” Bowser said. Earlier Monday, her administration changed telework guidelines for D.C. employees from two days a week to one day a week. She had for months called on the Biden administration to get more federal employees into downtown buildings. “I love to see everybody’s smiling face. But it’s not just about that,” Bowser said. “It’s about the services that we provide to our residents. We are a local government, and we need to be there to do that.”