- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Thanks to the so-called “emergency” vote of the D.C. Council earlier this month, the National Capital Revitalization Corporation now has the power to claim more and more private property through an expanded interpretation of eminent domain.

Here is the politically approved paragraph that the NCRC is using as a sledgehammer on the property owners and proprietors of the 60-year-old Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast:

“Slum area means an area where there is a predominance of buildings or improvements, whether residential or nonresidential, which are impaired or substandard by dilapidation, deterioration, age, or obsolescence which: contribute to physical or economic conditions conducive to disease, infant mortality, juvenile delinquency, poverty or crime; and endanger life or property by fire or other causes.”

This mumbo jumbo is too good.

You slip into Murry’s to buy a few bags of groceries, and you are liable to leave with scurvy, beriberi and a huge welt on your head after a steel beam comes crashing down on you.

There is an aspect of this land grab that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. NCRC board members have been trekking to “big box” retail conventions in Las Vegas the last two years in search of a commitment from a Target or Shoppers Food Warehouse.

Not surprisingly, many of Skyland’s property owners and proprietors, aware of these comings and goings, have opted not to make improvements in this uncertain environment.

Why should a store owner spends thousands of dollars to remodel a place if the city plans to raze it as soon as it forges an agreement with a big-box retailer?

Not that the site, which abuts Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor roads SE, is necessarily attractive to the retailers the NCRC is courting. That is one reason why the NCRC board members keep returning to Las Vegas, as they did this week.

The city seemingly already has in Skyland what it is seeking elsewhere. It has a viable commercial space that has been fully leased the last five years. It has a property whose assessed value rose by 15 percent in the 2004 tax year and 43 percent in February. It has a shopping center that actually serves the needs of the neighborhood’s low-income residents, 49.2 percent of whom come from households that earn less than $35,000 a year.

These are the voiceless souls of the community, their concerns muted by the middle-class activists of Hillcrest, who expect D.C Council member Kevin Chavous to deliver the big box they think their community deserves, regardless of the costs to taxpayers and the lives the project is certain to destroy.

There is no guarantee that the big box will ever be secured, which makes Las Vegas an appropriate venue to go looking. The city is gambling big-time on this project, ready to hand over a $20 million to $24 million property to developers at the bargain-basement price of $4.3 million.

This is not merely about the future of the little people who work and shop in Skyland. This is also about the expanded powers of the political appointees of the NCRC. They answer only to the D.C. Council, which has treated Skyland with a rubber stamp.

Mr. Chavous implored the other council members to vote his way, or else. The vote was unanimous, of course.

The NCRC visionaries are entitled to visit just about any worn-down patch of asphalt in the city and claim it as theirs.

As John Epting, one of the lawyers working on the case on behalf of the property owners, points out: The Tenleytown retail strip in Northwest is a collection of aging structures that, unlike Skyland, underserves the community. So far, it has avoided being characterized as blight by the NCRC.

With a little foresight and at considerably less cost, the city could work with the owners and proprietors of Skyland to enhance the shopping center and preserve its history.

Take Sam Franco’s Discount Mart on Alabama Avenue. That used to be the old Naylor Theater. What an expert hand could do with that place, if only the NCRC was inclined to think that way.

No, the NCRC is pushing to tear it down and find a big box. How architecturally appealing.

How unfeeling to those who have made their lives in Skyland.

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