- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Six members of the D.C. Council have co-sponsored a bill that undermines the big-box pursuits of the National Capital Revitalization Corp.

The Big Box Store Amendment Act of 2005 is fraught with the legislative parsing and qualifiers of the times. But its purpose, as crafted by David Catania, at-large independent, is intended to provide checks and balances to those national retailers that swing a big corporate stick that inevitably fells small-business owners.

The timing is curious, if only because the NCRC, in conjunction with the mayor’s office, long has been courting the giant retailers to take up residence in the city. The behind-the-scenes brokering of the NCRC in recent years mostly has resulted in hints of a promise from those retailers.

If NCRC officials cannot lure a giant retailer to the city without providing perks to the deal, how do they expect to do so amid legislation that puts up a series of roadblocks? This piece of constituent-friendly legislation comes at an especially good time for the owners and merchants of the Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast, all of whom have been sentenced to business purgatory the past few years.

It has been the self-fulfilling position of the city that this is a commercial strip whose time was done. It was a position that left the 16.5-acre plot in a permanently frozen state. Not one property owner or merchant has been inclined to spend a dollar on improvements or upgrades amid the prospect of being shuttered.

As the owners and merchants have pointed out on a number of occasions, investing in an unknown future would be the same as dropping money down a black hole, so long as city officials remained reluctant to entertain alternative plans.

A potential thawing has come to the proceedings, as Skyland’s owners have put together a redevelopment plan intended to address the concerns of the city and the Hillcrest community and spare the merchants from financial ruin.

Conversations among the various owners, lawyers and several council members suggest a growing hope of a solution that serves everyone’s interest.

The movement threatens to scuttle the plans of the NCRC, an appointee-filled body that seemingly answers to no one. The NCRC is acting with a sense of urgency because of an eminent domain case in New London, Conn., that went before the Supreme Court in February. A ruling is expected this summer.

A ruling in favor of the 15 New London homeowners would have a chilling effect on those land-grabbing municipalities that have come to define “public use” as anything that increases the flow of tax money.

That argument, if permitted to stand, renders moot the question of property rights and the Fifth Amendment. Just as a Target or a Home Depot would generate more tax wealth than a collection of mom-and-pop shops, a nine-story condominium building would generate considerably more revenue for a city than two or three single-family houses.

As Mayor Anthony A. Williams sees it, the New London case could have potentially damaging consequences to his vision on both sides of the Anacostia River, given all the legal maneuverings associated with Skyland east of the Frederick Douglass Bridge and the proposed ballpark site that sits in the shadow of the Capitol.

The taking of private property for public use commonly involves roadways, schools and military bases. Latitude also is granted to privately owned businesses, such as power companies, that offer an essential public service.

The mayor’s plan to pin a ballpark on the revitalization of a neglected waterfront is perhaps accurate, if the impact of the MCI Center on Chinatown is the reference point. That really is not the issue. The issue is more elementary than that.

Some owners just don’t want to fork over their properties and businesses to the city, and the framers of the U.S. Constitution probably did not have a big box or ballpark in mind while writing the “takings clause” into the Fifth Amendment.

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