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

WASHINGTON (AP) — Already struggling to keep his Chinatown bar afloat, Yousef Tellawi felt a sense of doom when he learned that the owner of Washington's Capitals and Wizards wanted to move to northern Virginia.

The departure of the teams from their home at Capital One Arena, he said, "would completely pull the plug on Chinatown."

Across the Anacostia River, another fragile Washington neighborhood is dreading the ripple effects of that deal — which still needs approval by the Virginia General Assembly and the city of Alexandria.

Congress Heights is one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods. And it, too, has pinned its economic hopes on a sports arena and the crowds it draws.

The 8-year-old Entertainment and Sports Arena is home to the WNBA's Mystics and the NBA G-league's Capital City Go-Go. If the deal goes through, Ted Leonsis, majority owner of all four teams, is proposing that the Mystics move to the much larger Capital One Arena, once it's vacated by the Capitals and Wizards.

"We're all pinning our plans on that arena to help feed the east side of the river," said Ronald Moten, a longtime local activist.

The fate of these two vulnerable neighborhoods now hangs in the balance in what could be months of political wrangling. Leonsis' announcement of a tentative agreement with Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin touched off a flurry of public maneuvers, lobbying and negotiation-via-press conference.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser's government has responded with a two-track strategy. She convened a task force to reimagine the Chinatown district without the arena. But simultaneously, Bowser and the D.C. Council put together a $500 million offer to renovate Capital One and are quietly hoping the Virginia deal fails.

For Tellawi, who manages the Bulldog bar around the corner from Capital One, the issue is an existential threat. His most profitable nights are when the arena hosts a major concert that floods Chinatown with fans. Home hockey games produce a moderate bump in business, while Wizards home games barely make a dent.

Tellawi has to innovate to draw crowds. He hosts comedy events with the first drink free, but notes that most female comedians insist on finishing before 10 p.m. due to Chinatown safety concerns.

"Right now, we're still fighting," he said. "Maybe you could say we're on life support."

In Congress Heights, business owners have similarly been counting on its 4,200-seat arena to help lift the neighborhood's fortunes. Moten envisions the arena spawning "a new Black Wall Street," and offering opportunities for a fresh generation of entrepreneurs.

A recent visit to Congress Heights revealed some signs of that vision. Located on the sprawling campus of a former hospital, the arena still feels slightly isolated — surrounded by red brick buildings in various states of construction or disrepair. But next door stands the gleaming blonde wood of Sycamore and Oak, a multi-level commercial center featuring a food court and multiple shops — all Black owned.

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

"We definitely get a rush before and after games," said Dante Brown, owner of Triceys DC Afro-Caribbean restaurant. "And look around, this is just the beginning of what we're trying to do."

So far, the threat remains distant. Bowser has flatly rejected Leonsis' proposal to move the Mystics to Capital One if the Wizards and Capitals leave, saying she has "zero interest in an underutilized arena."

She notes that the Mystics are committed to play in Congress Heights through 2037 unless the city release them. Leonsis is also committed to Capital One through 2047, but could buy himself a 2027 exit by paying off $35 million in outstanding bonds.

Moten has thrown his support into the Stop The Arena movement — which recently sent a busload of activists to Richmond, the state capital, to lobby legislators. The prospects for the legislation underpinning the deal look uncertain as the Virginia General Assembly's session nears its March 9 end date.

If the deal does pass the state legislature, the final hurdle would be a potentially raucous public showdown at the Alexandria City Council. Opponents cite objections to the public expenditure and a belief that traffic to the proposed new arena would overwhelm U.S. Highway 1 without massive infrastructure upgrades.

Leonsis has responded with a public letter claiming the envisioned sports and entertainment complex in Alexandria's Potomac Yard neighborhood would be, "like nothing ever built before in sports and entertainment."

The letter played down any divisions between the District of Columbia and the intertwined communities of northern Virginia and Maryland, claiming 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 — public safety in the district has deteriorated in a way that may be scaring off potential customers.

"It is clear to us, and 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 stated.

Violent crime in Chinatown rose by 36 percent in 2023, police say — part of a citywide spike in homicides and carjackings. In August, months before Leonsis announced his Virginia deal, a public meeting on Chinatown safety featured multiple residents complaining of worsening conditions and what they claimed was an open-air drug market right outside the main Gallery Place Metro entrance.

Tellawi, of the Bulldog bar, feels those safety challenges personally. Four people have been shot on the surrounding block since the bar opened; he saw one of the shootings. Last year, somebody broke in, raided the refrigerators and was found by police doing drugs upstairs.

"Honestly, things haven't been going great here even with the arena," he said. "If the teams do leave, my only hope is that the city government takes that $500 million they're offering (Leonsis) and pours it into making this neighborhood safe again."

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