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Leonsis' plan to light up arena would cheapen Chinatown

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe
Gotta love New York, for a quick sec, at least. I took the train up the corridor last week for a day of meetings in Manhattan, and on the way back to Penn Station the cabbie shot down Seventh Avenue through Times Square.

Wowzer! The billboards and marquees flash and glow from 10 blocks up the avenue. I nearly broke my nose against the window as I tried to catch a glimpse of the barely clad women in billboards that stood two stories tall. Kinda gross, actually.

A few hours and a train ride later I was driving north up D.C.'s Seventh Street toward Chinatown, our version of Times Square. To my left there was the Portrait Gallery and a line of restaurants tucked into the street's original facades; to my right billboards and signs on the Verizon Center flashed and blared. Even with the arena's garish signs, the streetscape was in scale with our town's low-slung, understated feel.

Not for long, if the Verizon Center has its way.

Ted Leonsis, the marketing genius millionaire who owns the arena and the teams within, wants to dress up his building. According to legislation scheduled to come before the city council Monday, Leonsis wants permission to add up to nine more displays, including banners, video screens, interactive kiosks, and images projected onto the Verizon Center itself.

To accomplish this feat, Leonsis must change current D.C. law. He needed a willing ally, dare I say lackey, and he found one in Ward 7 Council Member Yvette Alexander. The chairwoman of the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs introduced a bill, most likely written by Leonsis' own staff, that would require Mayor Vincent Gray to issue rules for the sole purpose of allowing Verizon Center to glitz itself up.

Poor Yvette. How can she be so easily bent to do a millionaire's bidding? Did it take a personal visit by Ted himself? The promise of free tickets to a Wizards game, which are plentiful since Leonsis' basketball squad is 1-12 thus far?

Maybe that's it: Leonsis' teams are not faring well, he needs cash, and he's hoping ad revenue from the billboards will bring in millions to prop up his investment. At what cost to the city, the neighboring property owners, folks trying to get to the Metro without being bombarded by video, drivers trying to focus on crowds crossing the streets?

When Alexander's bill comes up for hearing, a solid opposition will call for its demise, including the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the Committee of 100 and a few adjacent property owners. But the council should kill it on merit, or lack of it. The Verizon Center is lit up like a Vegas stripper already. When the arena was built, the city and various planning commissions demanded the design fit in with existing architecture. Moreover, the mayor has already established a working group to review the city's signage. What's the rush? Or is rushing the point?

Makes me miss Abe Pollin, the civic-minded man who built the arena.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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