News & Politics

Taking It Downtown

Abe Pollin Hopes His New Arena Will Breathe Life Into the City He Loves

As a teenager growing up near DC's Griffith Stadium, Abe Pollin followed the ups and downs of the Washington Senators. Now Pollin gets to bring his own teams–the basketball Wizards and the Capitals ice-hockey team–downtown when his MCI Center opens December 2.

For this self-confessed sports nut who made his fortune in construction and has been active in civic work in and around DC, the move from US Airways Arena–which Pollin built 25 years ago–to Seventh and F streets, Northwest, seems almost a summing up of his life.

Abe Pollin was born in 1923 in Philadelphia to Ukrainian immigrants. He moved here with his family when he was eight. Unable to speak English, his father worked as a day laborer before becoming a plumbing-and-heating contractor.

"My father never went to school a day in his life but built his company up to the largest in the Washington area," Pollin says. "He was on a first-name basis with all his employees. You didn't need contracts with him. His word was his bond."

Abe Pollin began working part-time for his father when he was 15. After graduating from George Washington University in 1945, he spent another dozen years in his father's business before opening his own construction firm.

His first big project was Robert Towers, near the Pentagon, named for his son. His last, a luxury apartment building in Chevy Chase, he named for his wife: the Irene.

Now married 52 years and living in Bethesda, Abe and Irene Pollin have seen their share of tragedy. They lost a one-year-old son in 1952 and a 16-year-old daughter 11 years later–both to congenital heart disease. Irene Pollin later became a psychotherapist and has pioneered a program to help others through grief and crises.

Pollin serves on scores of nonprofit boards and has raised lots of money for such causes as the Kennedy Center and United Jewish Appeal. Through the I Have a Dream Foundation, he and his partner, Mel Cohen, have guaranteed college education for 59 Prince George's County kids.

Honors include a Washingtonian of the Year award from The Washingtonian and the Golden Links Award from the Board of Trade for linking the region through sports and entertainment. Like his father, he has won the Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund.

Not surprisingly, sports have been a longtime passion. "I used to play a lot of baseball, basketball, and football, but I never was good enough to amount to anything," he says. Now he walks and plays regular tennis: "I have no backhand. I fake it."

The Pollins have two grown sons–Robert, an economics professor at the University of California-Riverside, and Jim, who lives in Miami and heads a cruise company–as well as two granddaughters.

In his office at US Airways Arena, Abe Pollin talked about what he's learned.

You obviously have an edifice complex. What's the joy of building?

It's the joy of creation. You start with nothing–just a piece of ground, just plain dirt. You plan a project for years, and then you watch it come to life and take shape.

Just yesterday I went down to MCI Center and saw the color seatings, which we had picked out two years ago. I saw lights turn on for the first time. I got a big kick out of walking into the bathrooms and seeing the toilets and wash-basin fixtures installed.

No other endeavor gives me such pleasure. After World War II, I built the first houses in Washington under the GI Bill. When I saw those former soldiers move into their own homes with big backyards for their kids, I just "kvelt"–had so much personal satisfaction. More than just making money, it was knowing that I had created a place for those GI families to call home.

Doctors, lawyers, accountants–they're all important. But in only a few professions do you get to see results so clearly years after a project has been launched.

What's the toughest part of construction?

Breaking ground. No doubt about it. Before you break ground, you must get the financing and all the permits required. Here we have to cope not only with the District but also with the federal bureaucracy. For MCI Center we had to deal with the Fine Arts Commission, the National Planning Commission, and other groups found only here. That was very, very tough to get done.

We broke ground two years ago, on October 18, and more trouble came immediately. We hit bad soil and eventually had to move thousands of truckloads of contaminated soil to Detroit.

And, remember, this is a gigantic endeavor. Right before MCI Center opens, we'll have some 1,000 men working there daily. If one guy holds up another, before long everything gets screwed up.

Happily, I have a fantastic builder in Jim Clark, who built the Capital Centre for me 25 years ago. And I have a fabulous personal staff. Besides, I go there every day to inspect and poke around. And I know a little about construction myself.

What are some lessons on construction?

Stay flexible. If one thing doesn't work, find another way to get it done.

For instance, we have black marble tops for our private Center suites. They're made in China. The boat they were on was supposed to come here through the Panama Canal. But it got too late for that. So we had to arrange for that boat to dock in California and transfer all that marble onto trucks to get it here in time.

Second, have a tight schedule and, by God, stick to it. Six months ago the guys told me that we couldn't possibly open until next spring. I said, "No way. That's unacceptable. We're going to open December 2."

Nobody believed me then. Now they do.

Did building MCI Center differ from building the Cap Centre?

Yes, in lots of ways. The Capital Centre–now called the US Airways Arena–is 300,000 square feet. MCI Center's around a million, and it has features found in no other building in the world. Its Discovery Store spans three levels, 25,000 square feet in all, and itself costs some $20 million.

It'll be the most fantastic store of its kind anywhere. The lower level will focus on the ocean and water. The middle level features earth. And the top level, space. It'll have lots of interactive displays.

MCI Center also features the MCI National Sports Gallery, another 25,000 square feet on two levels, which contains probably the best sports memorabilia in the world–on every sport.

This, too, will have interactive stuff galore. A baseball fan can peer into the Yankee dugout and see films of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth there, then enter a cage and swing a bat to a computer-thrown pitch.

Or a fan can pitch. The computer tells that the game's in the bottom of the ninth inning, score tied, 3Ð2 count, et cetera. Your pitch determines whether your team wins or loses.

Then we're creating the Discovery Theater, with a new "Destination Washington" film made for us. There in a small theater, 80 or 85 people can learn about Washington highlights before heading out to see them.

Our Velocity Restaurant overlooks the Wizards' practice court. The sports bar has a glass floor and glass walls. Anyone sitting and having a drink in the bar can watch the Wizards work out.

Will MCI Center change the city?

It already has. Building downtown, rather than in some suburb, has helped spark an urban revitalization, at least in that neighborhood.

This city's been good to me. I've lived here almost all my life. A few years ago, I felt that somebody had to step forward and say, "Hey, this is the nation's capital! This is the world's most important city. Let's not let our city go down the drain."

I'm fortunate. Not many people own two sports teams and thus can step forward this way, but I felt that the Center could become a catalyst to turn the city around. And it has.

Go down to that area and you see all the new restaurants and galleries that opened. Once the new Opera House goes up downtown, Washington will be what it should be.

What's the joy of sports?

A sports event is like life itself. You have a beginning, ups and downs, joys and frustrations, and an end. You never know just what'll happen–in either the game or in life. Odd things happen. Sometimes the league's worst team will beat its best.

And sports unites a community like nothing else can. When the Bullets won the championship in 1978, Washington hadn't had a sports championship for 36 years. Well, this town came together in a big way. There were parades. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor–everybody felt a euphoria.

What makes a great athlete?

It's a combination. He or she must have ability, but that's fairly common. Thousands of youngsters have great athletic ability. After that comes the hard part–the dedication needed to become a real star.

To be really great takes two key things–a big brain and a big heart. The brain is for anticipating moves and plays. The heart is for sheer determination. A great athlete just doesn't accept losing. He'll play whether hurt or not. He'll play to win.

When Michael Jordan left the University of North Carolina, he couldn't hit a jump shot, but he taught himself the jump shot by trying it maybe 500 times a day, for countless days, until he had it down. Jordan has such a fierce competitive nature. That's why he's the best basketball player I've seen in my 34 years in the sport.

How is Washington as a sports city?

The main problem I have with fans here stems from Washingtonians' being so transient. I find it maddening to see guys who have lived here 20 years rooting for their former home teams. In this city, sports has to compete hard for people's time as well as money. There's so much happening in Washington that sports attendance and support can never be taken for granted.

You're now the dean of pro-basketball owners. Do you feel pros are overpaid?

Some are. New, untried athletes are definitely overpaid. Some kid right out of college gets an enormous salary before he's proven himself. Once a player does prove himself, though, he deserves that big salary.

You've had to cope with life's worst tragedy–the death of a child–not once but twice. How do you get through it?

I haven't gotten through it. I live with it every day of my life. It never leaves me. Never.

After our 16-year-old daughter, Linda, died in 1963 from congenital heart disease, I quit my business and went into a deep, deep depression. Eventually, I realized I still had a family to support, a family that needed me. So I fought my way back into life. I tried to help my wife and remaining children find some peace.

In our daughter's memory, I built a nonprofit housing project. This helped bring me back to and into life. We also created the Linda Pollin Foundation at Harvard Medical School. We do the best we can with what God has handed us.

Still, we suffered. The professionals we contacted were without a clue on how to help us. We were grieving so badly, yet all the psychiatrists we visited wanted to talk about our childhoods and all that nonsense. They were absolutely of no help.

That's why my wife–after ten years of practically being out of commission–decided to return to school for a master's in therapy and psychiatric social work.

From that she's created a new field known as medical-crisis counseling, with a new approach to grieving and dealing with people and their families when faced with chronic illness. Hers is a short-term program of six to ten visits to help people through eight common fears. She trains people around the country and has written two books on how best to help these people.

Has the city cooperated with MCI Center?

Absolutely. Once the city was financially unable to keep its promise to finance the bulk of this project, I told Mayor Barry I'd finance it myself–but only if he'd help me cut through the red tape. The mayor promised that and has kept his word.

You seem to be on every nonprofit board in Washington. Why?

Because the Lord has been good to me, despite some real tragedies in my life. Those of us in a position to give are damn lucky. It's incumbent on us to help our fellow man.

What's been your most moving experience doing that?

I haven't shared this with anybody before now. As I said, the Linda Pollin Memorial housing project in Southwest DC was a nonprofit. Its 331 apartments were low-rent, and since Linda loved children, many of the units have three or four bedrooms.

It hadn't always been easy there. For instance, we built a library for the kids, but the night before my wife and I were to open it, they burned it down. Folks have cut up trees and so on. Still, I felt we'd done something important there. I just didn't know that.

Well, about a dozen years ago I was sitting on a stool eating alone at a restaurant. A black gentleman came up and said, "Excuse me, but you look like Mr. Pollin."

I said, "I am."

He said, "You don't know who I am, but I'll tell you. As a youngster, my family moved into the Linda Pollin project you built. That turned my life around. We had never lived in a decent place, where people cared about people less fortunate like us.

"Now I'm a successful businessman. I just want you to know it was because of you."

That was awfully rewarding to hear.

Another incredible moment came when I went to Uganda with UNICEF. I had read in the Post that UNICEF estimated some 40,000 children die of hunger every day somewhere in the world, and I wanted to do something about that. So I went with a Channel 7 television crew to a feeding station in the Karimoja region of Uganda–a very remote area where people live like they did in the Stone Age.

We saw thousands of mothers squatting in the dirt under the hot sun holding their babies, waiting to see if the babies were underweight enough to qualify for the raw kernels of corn UNICEF was handing out.

Mothers would come up and pour the corn into a small basket or into their hands. I'd see little kids–three years old–run and scoop up any dropped kernels out of the dust, put them in their little mouths, and eat them.

That experience is emblazoned in my mind forever. For our world to allow something like that to happen is terrible. To allow children to starve to death when there's food to go around is simply inexcusable.

Most people in the world don't give a damn. They close their eyes to news like that. These kids are far away. Nobody knows about them. But they're human beings. They're God's children.

What have you learned in life?

That life's full of ups and downs, good times and bad, glorious days and tragedies.

Anything good in life comes with a price on it. Nothing comes free. When you're high and everything's going great, realize it won't last. Accept that.

The same thing when you're low. Know that a terrible, terrible time in life–whatever caused it–won't last either. Someday, it'll get better.

So many wonderful things happen in life. We fall in love. We have children. We have grandchildren. We create things. But for every wonderful thing, we pay a price.

Just keep your spirits up.

Have a sense of humor.

Have a goal and don't ever give up on it. Keep on fighting until you get there.