- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Anacostia River promises to be as resistant to change as perhaps Robert Siegel, the land baron who is threatening to stand in the way of the proposed ballpark at Half and N streets in Southeast Washington.

The Anacostia River, an 8.4-mile-long body of slow-moving mystery forever impervious to the best clean-up intentions of local governments, serves as a metaphor of the mess on both sides of its odorous banks, if only as the dead zone snaking between the Skyland Shopping Center and the proposed ballpark site.

Siegel, as he flips through the yellow pages in search of an eminent domain attorney, should be happy to know that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to entertain the burgeoning issue of tax-hungry municipalities seizing private property in order to turn them into hubs of economic activity.

The case that has come to the attention of the Supremes involves the working-class homeowners of New London, Conn., who have resisted the city’s initiative that would result in the razing of their dwellings and the building of a riverfront hotel, health club and offices in their place.

The question of “public use,” once limited to the necessities of schools, thoroughfares and bridges, is now the euphemism employed to enrich developers before attracting young urban professionals or big-box retailers to the newly finished site.

Property that goes from one pair of private hands to another under the threat of court order is the legal stretch that mocks the Fifth Amendment, no matter the well-meaning spirit of urban planners and politicians.

This is the sentence that hangs over the merchants of the fully-leased Skyland Shopping Center on Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor roads east of the Anacostia River, as well as the 27 property owners holding various portions of the 20 acres of the proposed ballpark site.

One person’s garbage is another person’s treasure, as it is said, and that is no less true of business establishments, homes and vacant land.

The application of blight at Skyland or Half Street comes as an insult to those who have fashioned a living out of those hardscrabble stretches of asphalt.

Kathy Chamberlain, an activist in the Hillcrest community, speaks for those who object to the “unwanted element” that apparently contributes to the problem of “public urination” at Skyland. It is an objection that appeals to all, especially to merchants who could envision a loss in business if “public urination” reached epidemic proportions around their premises.

As a bladder control expert, Chamberlain, alas, confuses “public urination” with commerce. The latter is a legal activity. The former is a law-enforcement matter unless she can prove that a beauty parlor or music store somehow leads to shaky bladders.

To be fair to the hard-working proprietors of Skyland and Half Street, “public urination” is commonly associated with Brookland and Georgetown, two neighborhoods that tout university students with historically underdeveloped bladders.

Both Catholic and Georgetown have been urged to teach their students, in the absence of a rest room, to shake their knees together in times of extreme discomfort and leave a neighborhood’s trees, bushes and fire hydrants out of it. This is good advice for the rest of the city, starting with the indiscriminate lurking around Skyland or along Half Street.

In a way, the city’s Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is championing the advice of smart waste disposal, packing a considerable budget to clean up “the Forgotten River” that for too long has been used as an extension of the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant.

The river could use the help of the city, plus Maryland’s.

Yet civic help is a trickier pursuit if applied to viable businesses and homes.

The notion of help can be as unclear as what constitutes blight.

That explains why the New London case is before the Supremes.

Their decision will go a long way in determining the “public use” direction of two suddenly fashionable sites on both sides of the Anacostia River.

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