With the swipe of a mechanical claw, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray demolished a slice of a Ward 7 retail center that has been a sore point for officials and residents alike for two decades and symbolized the challenges that come with ambitious projects east of the Anacostia River.
Mr. Gray, who lives down the street from the Skyland Town Center, donned a hard hat and worked the levers of an industrial backhoe to put a hole into the stone wall of one of several buildings on the 18-acre plot, summoning cheers from an audience of local residents.
"Hooray! Hooray! Let the hammer down," said Herman Mitchell, a Hillcrest resident and member of the Skyland Revitalization Task Force, as the wall crumbled. "I didn't think I'd live long enough to see this."
The District plans to build 315,000 square feet of new stores, restaurants and housing at the site — including an "anchor tenant" in Wal-Mart — through its developers, the Rappaport Companies and William C. Smith & Company.
Mr. Gray beamed about the project at the long-dormant plaza of darkened and rundown stores where Alabama Avenue meets Naylor and Good Hope roads. The site has been a source of public struggle for the District since 1989, when the revitalization task force was formed, and spawned seven legal challenges — six of which have been resolved — after the city seized the site through eminent domain in 2005.
One challenge is remaining, the District of Columbia v. Greene, although the dispute is over the value of 7.06 acres of property at the site, and not one of the structures slated for demolition, according to Mr. Gray. The city gained a favorable ruling in the lower courts, and the case is before the D.C. Court of Appeals, officials said.
"It's a very complicated situation, I don't think there's anything like it — certainly in the city," Mr. Gray said of the site and its legal hurdles.
Officials expect to relocate several businesses and clear the site by the second quarter of next year. New development should be completed at some point in 2014 or 2015, the mayor said.
Mr. Gray pitched the city's plan within the context of broader projects throughout the District — 50 cranes dot the city skyline as part of $9 billion worth of projects, $2 billion of which include city investments — and his commitment to bringing amenities and jobs to wards 7 and 8, where the unemployment rate sits at about 15 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, told her constituents that, after years of waffling, developers are finally "talkin' business" when it comes to their neighborhoods. At the conclusion of her remarks, she enthusiastically turned around to point out an artistic rendition of plans for the site.
"Who can't wait for that to come here?" she said.
The key hurdle to transforming the site had been attracting an anchor tenant, which they found in Wal-Mart. The retail behemoth has decided to build six stores throughout the District, and Mr. Gray was quoted playing hardball with executives during a Las Vegas retail convention last year to obtain a store at Skyland.
"Wal-Mart is committed," Mr. Gray said Wednesday. "They are committed to be here."
After their remarks, the mayor, Ms. Alexander and Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, took turns ripping apart the first building in a Deere-brand construction vehicle that jostled them about with each crash of its metal claw.
After his dismount, Mr. Gray said demolition-day had been a long time coming.
"If I showed you a picture today of what [Skyland] looked like seven or eight years ago, you wouldn't be able to tell much of a difference," he said. "This is arguably the worst shopping center in the city — there's no real planning involved. I think the most important thing is we're on our way now."
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