- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The merchants and property owners of the Skyland Shopping Center and a representative of the Institute for Justice gathered inside Blimpie’s restaurant yesterday to fight anew the eminent domain abuses of the mayor, the D.C. Council and the National Capital Revitalization Corp.

Rob Wiles, a coordinator with the institute, told the aggrieved parties that his group is with them.

“We are on your side,” he said. “There are lots of people in D.C. who would be appalled by the city’s actions if they knew what was happening around here.”

What is happening on the 16.5-acre site that rests along Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor roads in Southeast is a threat to the welfare of many of the proprietors, regardless of how city officials try to hide their land grab in obtuse language.

Verna Fields, who owns Fields’ Records and the Alexis Hair Gallery, looked at the anxious faces around her and shook her head.

“I think it is absolutely very wrong what the city is trying to do,” she said. “They are taking away our private property and giving it away to another private owner. How can that be right?”

The 60-year-old shopping center has been fully leased the past five years and serves a forgotten element of the city. It provides a much-needed function that would go unmet by a big-box retailer, such as Target, assuming that the city would be able to secure a store of that quality without sweetening the deal considerably.

Helen Higginbotham, a member of the powerful Hillcrest Civic Association who lives in the middle-class community that abuts the shopping center, has taken up the cause of the merchants.

That makes her a turncoat with the Hillcrest activists who have been imploring council members Kevin P. Chavous and Harold Brazil to raze the shopping center.

“There is nothing wrong with beautifying the neighborhood,” Miss Higginbotham said. “My problem is how the city has been going about it. The city is attempting to destroy people’s lives, and that is just not right.”

The merchants and property owners have pleaded with the NCRC officials and council members to work with them and formulate a redevelopment plan that would serve them, the community and the city. All they have received in return is silence and a notice stating that their days are possibly dwindling to a precious few.

Rose Rumber, the proprietor of Skyland Liquors, is consumed with the uncertainty that has joined her life. She and her husband, Joseph, stand to lose their home on Minnesota Avenue SE if the city has its way. She was encouraged by the show of force.

“I really feel lifted up,” she said after the meeting. “We are gathering in strength. It is not going to happen overnight, but we are going to fight this, and we are going to win. I feel good about this.”

Mr. Wiles was there to say the same, sounding a hopeful refrain. “Just as often as you win these battles in a court of law, you can win them in the court of public opinion,” he said.

David Burka, a property manager, has secured 1,500 signatures on a petition against the city’s estimated $31.5 million project.

The estimate, according to the various lawyers who have been retained by the merchants and property owners, is hopelessly outdated in this bullish real estate market.

Mr. Wiles passed out posters and stickers to the merchants and property owners. Their message will be deployed in storefronts in Skyland and is defiant enough: “Eminent Domain Abuse.” A red line cuts through the three words.

Sam Franco, who owns Discount Mart in the old Naylor Theater, was there to fight, as were Pete DeSilva, Carolyn Alper, Mary Greene, Marion Fletcher and so many others.

They are galvanizing to beat back the bureaucratic beast.

They do not want to leave their businesses and properties, and, if you must know, they resent with all their might that their “dreams” are somehow a blight on the city.

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