- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The mayor’s office, the D.C. Council and the National Capital Redevelopment Corp. (NCRC) are endeavoring to have taxpayers swallow the costs of razing the Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast before one spadeful of dirt has been turned in the nearly 5-year-old DC USA project in Columbia Heights.

The DC USA retail/entertainment vision remains stalled and in serious need of financing, as the 5-acre site sits empty along 14th Street.

DC USA is one of the lessons that has been ignored in the push to drive out the owners and merchants of Skyland, a fully leased shopping center that has become a political instrument of bill sponsors Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat, and Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, in an election year.

The plan, which hinges on the NCRC’s securing a “big box” retailer to Skyland, such as a Target or TJ Maxx or Home Depot, is fraught with pitfalls, as council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, has found with DC USA.

Target remains committed to taking root in Columbia Heights, but only with considerable financial inducements from the city.

“Do we have to have a deal for Target that is so generous in every respect?” Mr. Graham recently told the Washington Business Journal. “Do we have to give the entire ranch away to make this happen?”

Mr. Graham, in a telephone interview yesterday, conceded that Skyland is an equally complex undertaking, fraught with a series of potential problems.

“I’m very concerned about Skyland, and as recently as this afternoon, I spoke with Ted Carter, and he promised me again they would not begin demolition until a [big-box] tenant is secured,” he said. “I think in Skyland, they will find it is complicated stuff.”

That is the prospect before city officials with the stretch of asphalt along Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor roads east of the Anacostia River. This is a neighborhood where 49.2 percent of the households earn less than $35,000 a year. This is a neighborhood that lacks the demographics and infrastructure that normally appeals to a “big box” retailer.

If Mr. Graham objects to giving away the “entire ranch” to lure Target to Columbia Heights, he and the rest of the city officials might consider an “entire ranch” a bargain with the 60-year-old Skyland Shopping Center, a 16.5-acre complex that is more than three times the size of DC USA.

The visionaries of the NCRC already have shown their cards in the past three “big-box” conventions in Las Vegas, only to come away empty-handed each time. Soon, as the threat of enhanced eminent-domain powers lurch forward at Skyland, they will not even have the fully leased center as a bargaining chip. They will have the desperation of an empty lot hanging in the negotiations.

Ted Carter, president and chief executive officer of the NCRC, has assured the property owners on at least two occasions that his group would not proceed with acquisition until a lead tenant is secured.

Yet with no such commitment and only the vague promise of interest, Anthony C. Freeman, senior vice president of the NCRC, dispatched a notice to Skyland’s property owners last Thursday that expressed the government’s desire to buy the site “without exercising its eminent domain authority.”

The notice hardly went over well with the owners who have been in the dark since the takeover plan was hatched in secret more than a year ago.

John Epting, a lawyer who represents one of the property owners, repeatedly has asked the visionaries of the NCRC to have a sit-down meeting with his clients in order to review and discuss the potential folly of demolishing a bustling marketplace.

“That meeting has not happened,” Mr. Epting said.

Mr. Carter indicated in the hearing last week that he would be meeting with the property owners before the summer is out.

“I don’t know if he meant this summer or next,” Mr. Epting said.

As Mr. Epting points out, at least with the DC USA project, it was a vacant lot waiting to be developed amid the rebirth of Columbia Heights.

There is no such dynamic in play at Skyland, where all too many mom-and-pop merchants are facing financial ruin if the unfeeling visionaries of the NCRC are permitted to proceed with their long-shot gamble.

The $2.4 million relocation numbers of the NCRC are laughingly misguided, considering the relocation estimates of two of the center’s larger tenants: the $3 million of Murry’s and the $2 million of Star Power.

Not to worry. Those overrun costs will be passed along to you, the put-upon D.C. taxpayer.

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