Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The husband-and-wife proprietors of Skyland Liquors will have nowhere to go if the city forges ahead with its heavy-handed plans to raze the Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast.

Last week, the D.C. Council voted unanimously in favor of the city invoking eminent domain over the 16.5-acre complex that has been fully leased the past five years and serves a forgotten community along Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor roads.

Joseph and Rose became owners of the thriving liquor store in August, purchasing it from the estate of the late Paul Cooper for roughly $700,000.

It was Mr. Cooper’s “dying wish” that the business be made available to his two longtime employees with no money down, said the son, Steven, who handles the estate.

As part of the transaction, Joseph and Rose put up their home on Minnesota Avenue as collateral and agreed to monthly payments of $4,732 for the next 12 years.

They will not have the capacity to make those payments, or have a home, if their business at 2648 Naylor Road SE is sacrificed to the well-heeled and well-connected.

“I don’t know what we’ll do,” the 57-year-old Joseph says one afternoon, tugging hard on his chin.

He did not see this coming. He and his wife never would have agreed to buy the business if they had the slightest inkling that the city could do this to them. This is America. The government of the people, by the people and for the people cannot sidestep constitutional property rights and arbitrarily strip merchants of their livelihoods, can it?

Joseph and Rose run a good, clean business. They pay their taxes and employ eight persons. They say they rarely have problems with their clientele. Theirs is a warm, open establishment where the employees and customers often exchange gossip about the latest goings-on in the community.

Joseph and Rose take exception to it all: the manner in which the deal was made in secrecy a year ago, the maneuverings of Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Council members Kevin Chavous and Harold Brazil, their place being called a blight on the community.

Joseph and Rose say the shopping center could use a makeover.

“Why not spend the money to clean up the place?” Joseph says. “It seems to me it would cost the city a whole lot less money to do that than hand it over to a developer.”

Joseph and Rose love this community east of the Anacostia River. They are this community, as two lifelong residents now staring down the barrel of financial ruin because of a city’s vision to plop a “retail box” or two on the site. It is a vision with no guarantees, with no commitment from Target or Shoppers Food Warehouse.

“What do we do?” the 55-year-old Rose asks. “What can we do?”

So they worry about what will be, about the uncertainty and their utter sense of helplessness.

Their lives are slipping away, as Joseph and Rose see it, and they have come up against a cold and impersonal political wall of silence. They have been unable to get an audience with anyone who counts in city politics. And they want to be heard — no, really heard — before their dream is reduced to rubble.

Until then, they are left to assume that their well-being does not matter to the movers and shakers of this $28 million project.

Joseph and Rose have no flexibility to move the business because of their restrictive liquor license.

They also stand to receive no compensation from the city, not even a sorry, because the building is owned by Pete DeSilva, with whom they signed a 10-year lease last year.

Joseph and Rose Rumber are just two more of the little people in the shopping center being told to get lost by the city.

Joseph and Rose Rumber are being told, in so many words, to have a nice life after they have lost their business and home and filed for bankruptcy.

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