Wednesday, October 13, 2004

D.C. Council member Jim Graham has drafted a letter of inquiry to the National Capital Revitalization Corp. regarding its maneuvering to take over the Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast through the excessive application of eminent domain.

The Ward 1 Democrat believes the 13-member council was misled by then-NCRC President Ted Carter in a hearing in April. Mr. Carter had assured the council that his agency would not move against the property owners and merchants of the 60-year-old shopping center unless a commitment was secured from a big-box retailer.

“There has been talk of a Shoppers Food Warehouse going there,” Mr. Graham said yesterday. “That is what we are hearing, and that is hardly the tenant the NCRC agreed to seek before exercising eminent domain. That agency has been granted wide powers, and I think we need to review the independent nature of this agency. An ongoing problem is this agency being impervious to the D.C. government.” Mr. Graham has a number of concerns with the NCRC, starting with the cost-efficiency of razing a fully leased shopping center.

“I was given a promise in that hearing by Ted Carter that no eminent domain action would be taken unless we had a firm commitment from the retailers we were seeking for that area,” Mr. Graham said. “I took that to be a solemn oath. Had I not been given that assurance by Mr. Carter, I would have moved to have an amendment. I know firsthand how complicated these matters are [from the DC USA project]. I raised that issue. At the same time, I don’t want to be a stone in the path of economic development of Ward 7.” Yet Mr. Graham does not want to be part of the fiscal folly of providing a sweetheart deal to retailers disinclined to plant a big box on the 16.5-acre site.

Mr. Graham is feeling a chill wind from the unchecked power of the NCRC.

“They have become a power unto themselves,” Mr. Graham said. “I say, ‘Why have we done this?’ We need to look at their independent status. What do they really care what [council members’] views are when we have given them sweeping powers? They basically are accountable to no one. And here’s the thing: I’m hard-pressed to find what the NCRC has developed on its own.” Mr. Graham has followed the ongoing wrangling between the NCRC and the property owners and merchants of Skyland, and he is not happy about it. He sees Skyland as a “modest but prosperous” shopping center that provides an essential service to those consumers who must watch their dollars.

He wonders about the merit of placing a Shoppers Food Warehouse in competition with a Safeway that sits across Alabama Avenue. He wonders whether there would be any fiscal bang at all from such a maneuver.

As Mr. Graham has watched the Skyland situation unfold the past few months, he has become more uneasy with the related finances. His unease now has washed over to the NCRC.

The shopping center has become an oasis of lawyers that could end up as another test case for the court system.

Mr. Graham is all too aware of the Kelo v. City of New London eminent domain case that sits before the U.S. Supreme Court. He is all too aware of the Michigan Supreme Court’s reversal in July involving a neighborhood called Poletown that was razed for General Motors Corp.

“No lower court is going to do anything” until the U.S. Supreme Court rules, Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Graham knows what he knows about eminent domain and the NCRC, and he knows what Mr. Carter told the D.C. Council in April. And now Mr. Graham wants answers. He wants an explanation. And, no, he is not going to be pleased if the best the NCRC has come up with is a grocery store to compete with another.

That hardly sounds like a plan of solid economic development in Ward 7.

That sounds like a waste of good taxpayer money and an insult to the oppressed property owners and merchants of Skyland.

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