- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

The city is embarking on a Constitutionally challenged endeavor to build a ballpark on a 20-acre plot of urban modesty in Southeast Washington.

This is the political subterfuge that lurks in the background of the hope and hoopla associated with the Expos being granted a permanent home in the city.

This is Skyland Shopping Center, Part Deux.

The legal wrangling between the shopping center and the city is an instructive precursor to what might befall the proposed ballpark site. The ballpark tract is divided among 27 owners, several of whom already are expressing displeasure with the notion of being told to sell their properties or else.

Theirs is the initial blow that is certain to become convoluted and lawyerly, judging by the ongoing test of wills being played out across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in another section of Southeast.

The 60-year-old Skyland Shopping Center is the small-business version of the American Dream that sits on 161/2 acres of asphalt east of the Anacostia River, hard against the arteries of Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor roads. It is a fully leased retail center that has come under the city-imposed threat of eminent domain, as dubiously applied beyond its original intent.

Skyland is the attempt of the city to take private property from working-class hands and place it in the blueblood hands of developers and a big-box retailer. It is an attempt that lost its questionable legal justification in late July, when the Michigan Supreme Court overturned its precedent-setting decision in 1981 that allowed Detroit to condemn the neighborhood of Poletown in order to make way for a General Motors factory.

The 1981 decision sent tax-hungry municipalities across the nation down an ever-slippery slope of land acquisition through eminent domain, or the threat of it.

As it was stated in the lead opinion of the Michigan Supreme Court in July, “Poletown’s ‘economic benefit’ rationale would validate practically any exercise of the power of eminent domain on behalf of a private entity. After all, if one’s ownership of private property is forever subject to the government’s determination that another private property would put one’s land to better use, then the ownership of real property is perpetually threatened by the expansion plans of any large discount retailer, ‘mega-store,’ or the like.”

City officials, of course, have not mentioned the unseemly application of eminent domain in their ongoing quest to satisfy commissioner Bud Selig and the owners of Major League Baseball.

Yet city officials have a problem: 27 disparate property owners who have different needs, agendas and dreams. Some undoubtedly will be happy to part with their land for a tidy sum. Others already are recoiling at the thought.

No one is apt to cry if the city razes the sub-standard public housing complexes in the neighborhood adjacent to the Washington Navy Yard, not even the residents sentenced to live in them. Yet there are viable businesses along Half and O streets. There are business and property owners who do not want to be displaced by a baseball team. A baseball team is someone else’s dream, not theirs.

Tell the city this: Build the darn baseball stadium at Stoddert Park on Calvert and 39th streets NW. Build the stadium there instead of a 22,000-square-foot recreation center. Plant a big-box retailer near the ballpark as well. Buy up all the rat- and raccoon-infested row houses in the vicinity. Many of these outdated row houses meet the definition of blight, easy.

Just leave the poor merchants of Southeast alone.

You want to improve a slum area? Come to Cleveland Ray’s streets around Stoddert Park.

One stipulation: Ray goes to the Expos as a member of the ground crew.

He will need the work anyway. As the camera-toting city inspector who is obsessed with the length of grass, Ray will be out of a job if his decrepit neighborhood is turned over to the Expos.

Ray could take pictures while other ground-crew members are dragging the infield.

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