- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Leslie R. has a few questions for the stakeholders of Washington and, considering this is the nation's capital, that includes every red-blooded American taxpayer. "Can we, please, get a supermarket in Ward 8?" she begs. "And when will we get some big-box retail out here? And how about a nice sitdown family restaurant?"

Her questions are quite legitimate, and Leslie and her fellow Ward 8 taxpayers have been posing them for at least two decades. Their pleas grew louder four years ago, when, in the heat of the 1998 mayor's race, Safeway closed its tiny, 20,000-square-foot supermarket on well-traveled Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Safeway's pull-out was inevitable, considering much of Safeway's clientele lived across the street at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a huge complex for the mentally ill where Reagan wannabe-assassin John Hinckley remains locked up and where all manner of derelicts and nefarious creatures freely wander in and out of its black wrought-iron gates.

So, what's left for residents are tiny grocers that don't sell fresh produce, and a proliferation of booze, fried chicken and fast-food joints hardly the proper diet for poor or unhealthy folks. What's lost to the city's tax base in the meantime, is the $173 million in buying power that leaves Far Southeast and lands mostly in nearby Maryland's supermarkets and shopping districts.

Of course, it didn't used to be that way. Between World War II and the civil rights movement, Ward 8, which encompasses the southeast corner of this roughly diamond-shaped city, used to be a racially mixed quadrant of mostly single-family and well-maintained apartments. Its bustling corridors Alabama Avenue, MLK Avenue (formerly Nichols Avenue) and Good Hope Road, consisted mostly of mom-and-pop shops. There was a Woolworth's five-and-dime on Good Hope, as well as a few retail chains in nearby Ward 7, including Sears. But that socio-economic balance began changing with the rise and fall of Malcom X, and then took a quick change for the worse following the 1968 assassination of King, when the riots and curfews scared away white folks and the well-to-do. Only in the last two years have things begun to somewhat reverse.

Huge, unkempt and unmanageable public housing developments have begun tumbling down, and new single-family homes and townhouses are being built in their place. The fact that established neighborhoods have also finally gotten subway stations has helped, too at least on one hand. See, while the Metrorail certainly helps Maryland commuters ease their way into that end of the District, the reverse is true as well. So, now, instead of retail-deprived residents limiting themselves to a bus ride just across the D.C.-Prince George's County border, they hop the subway and ride into Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, where sales taxes are cheaper and big-box retail is within walking distance of every rail stop. Consequently, the District loses out on retail revenue and countless jobs to boot.

Still, there is another gripe residents have. "How many years have they been talking about developing Camp Simms?" Leslie asks. Another legitimate question. Camp Simms Military Reservation used to be an ordnance site. The feds abandoned the 25-acre site a lifetime ago, and sold it to the District in 1984 for $1.8 million. As early as 1982, D.C. politicians began promising commercial-residential development on the tract. By then it was too late to interest developers, however. The crack wars had begun, turning Anacostia, Congress Heights and adjacent neighborhoods into Dodge City and Boot Hill. I know. When a drug-dealer was executed in the alley behind our house in 1989 and a reporter from this newspaper showed up to see if there was any newsworthiness I fled to the other side of the river.

Since then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has scoured Camp Simms for munitions, and the site has been cleared and zoned for development. However, still it sits.

There is, or at least should be, good news, though. According to Social Impact, which has studied emerging urban markets in Harlem and Houston, has also done an extremely thorough analysis on the potential of the Ward 8 market from per-acre buying power and bill-paying habits, to creditworthiness and daytime population, to crime and homebuying trends. And, boy, is there tremendous potential.

A few telling facts are:

Since 1980, the median family income of Ward 8 has more than doubled from $17,000 to $34,000.

More new and renovated housing has been built in Ward 8 than anywhere else in the city.

Crime has declined considerably.

Now, the bottom line for Leslie and others who repeat the rumors that Giant Food Store and Shoppers Food Warehouse are coming is that a Giant Food or Shoppers does, in fact, come. To tell the truth, though, I don't think they have a particular preference.

They are, however, tired of the promises made by politician after politician politicians who now claim one of those dreaded environmental impact studies is the only thing that stands between Ward 8 residents and a new supermarket cart.

Indeed, many of them have far more faith than Leslie and I do in politicians who say one thing election year and then do another. Guess they wouldn't be politicians if they always delivered on their promises.

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