D.C. brought out a red carpet, go-go pros Rare Essence, and local dignitaries to christen a new professional sports and music venue that could be mistaken for a sleek new library.
The Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA) made its public debut on Saturday, kicking off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The new 4,200-seat home to the Washington Mystics and the new NBA G League team Capital City Go-Go, as well as the practice facility for the Washington Wizards, will also host boxing, esports and musical acts, starting with Mary J. Blige and Cage the Elephant next month. And as a corporate sponsorship is in the works, said Events DC president and CEO Gregory O'Dell in a courtside interview, it may soon have a new name.
The athletic and arts facility, first proposed in 2015, is just one part of a city-led development project on the east campus of historic psychiatric hospital St. Elizabeth’s that includes housing options soon to break ground.
The facility was originally slated to cost $55 million before growing to $65 million. City officials estimate that it will bring in $90 million in tax revenue over 20 years. $10 million in contractshave also already been awarded to businesses from Ward 7 and Ward 8, the latter of which is home to the arena.
So what’s it like?
Modern but humble. The two-story building attached to a practice facility features limestone-colored brick, large sheets of glass, and smartly placed rows of insulated, terracotta-hued metal panels—colors selected to blend in with the historic facades of surrounding structures on St. Elizabeth’s campus, notes Michael Marshall, whose firm, along with design firms Moya Design Partners and ROSSETTI were tasked with the interior and exterior design of the complex.
Inside, it’s like Capital One lite. As you walk through glass doors and enter the concourse, panels overhead greet you with the words “So Close” and photos of musicians and athletes, including Mystics player Elena Delle Donne.
Likewise, the color palette inside the facility matches the red and blue of Mystics uniforms. You’ll find the concession stand stocked with food and drink from local purveyors, including The Orange Cow, MLK Deli, and Plum Good.
No, the space is not nearly as cavernous as Monumental Sports & Entertainment-owned Capital One Arena, whose capacity is nearly five times that of the ESA. Last season, the Mystics attracted an average of 7,771 fans per game, according to USA Today—a fair bit more than the 4,200-seat ESA can accommodate. The Mystics are far from the only WNBA team to downsize their game-day facilities in the last few years—in fact, only four teams in the league will play in NBA facilities next season. Mystics president Sheila Johnson thinks a smaller venue has its advantages for the Mystics.
“We were playing in a huge facility at Capital One, and we have great fans and we could hear them. But we would lose them,” said Johnson, also the vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, at the opening. “But to have them right there with us, the intimacy of this arena is going to be magical.”
Indeed, “so close” is an apt motto for this new venue. With an upper bowl of seats intentionally dropped closer to the stage than what’s traditional, notes O'Dell, there is no nosebleed section to be had. With Wi-Fi running throughout the building, the arena is also well-equipped for esports or social media. And for concertgoers seeking a middle ground between stadium shows at Capital One Arena and intimate performances at the 9:30 Club, the ESA presents a promising new alternative.
For his part, O'Dell, who participated in community meetings about the arena's development, said he appreciated the input from local leaders such as Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C chair Mary Cuthbert and D.C. Councilmember Trayon White, Sr., who represents Ward 8.
“They embraced the vision, but they also challenged us to make sure that there was meaningful participation from residents as well as businesses," O'Dell said at the ribbon-cutting.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who was wearing a navy "RESIST" T-shirt under her blazer (with the "SI" traded out for a "51," likely in reference to her advocacy of D.C. statehood), said the ESA is akin to other revitalization efforts the city has made over the past several years, such as at Buzzard Point and The Wharf.
“If anybody tells you that we spent too much money on Congress Heights, you tell them to come see me,” Bowser said at the ceremony.