- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Skyland Shopping Center redevelopment cost has ballooned to $125 million, nearly a $100 million increase from the initial estimate in 2004 and certain to climb even higher as the National Capital Revitalization Corp. endeavors to push out the remaining property owners and proprietors with the heavy-handed use of eminent domain.

For now, the 16.5-acre tract in Southeast is languishing in the clutches of legal minutia, as the remaining little people of Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor roads cling to their modest dreams and fight the powerful forces of big government.

The city has secured about half the property in the fuzzy hope that Target eventually will be the site’s anchor retailer. That contention will come to be only if the city provides the tax and lease sustenance to sway the corporate honchos of Target. This piece of social engineering fails to impress Fred Sternburg, whose family owns about 4 acres and has offered to redevelop the shopping center at no cost to city taxpayers and in tandem with the NCRC.

“NCRC’s retail Holy Grail is nothing more than a Hail Mary,” Mr. Sternburg said. “Holy Grail? It will wholly fail.”

The convoluted business principles of the city have been deemed objectionable by David L. Burka, president of the property management firm that oversees part of the shopping center. In a pointed letter to members of the D.C. Council, Mr. Burka noted the fundamental difference between the baseball park site and Skyland.

The ballpark site on Half Street Southeast already has an anchor tenant in the Nationals. Skyland has no such tenant, just a distant belief that one eventually will surface with the proper inducements.

As Mr. Burka writes, “The main retailer that NCRC desires — Target — and other coveted retailers have barely visited the Skyland site. They have been far from committing to the proposed NCRC plan and even further from evidencing any resolve that would allow the council to unflinchingly condone the ballooning Skyland budget.”

The notion of being fiscally responsible is a novel concept to city lawmakers whose coffers are flush with cash from escalating property taxes. They don’t pause to consider the need to have cash on hand in the lean years, and they don’t consider the risk they are taking with one of the few viable commercial centers in Ward 8.

The taking of private property to award to another private enterprise is an ugly business that threatens both America’s small-business owners and defenseless homeowners.

Skyland is just one battleground in the national land-acquisition war.

Deborah Baum is representing the property interests of First FSK Limited Partnership, as the lead litigator on the case with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. She plans to file a notice with the D.C. Court of Appeals next week after the case was denied in D.C. Superior Court.

Mrs. Baum is as baffled as Skyland’s property owners and merchants by the city’s insistence on spending public money to redevelop the site with private funding available.

“It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it?” she said.

The city is not in the mood to compromise, no matter how many small-business owners it hurts. And the small-business owners are mostly minorities in a city that purports to champion their entrepreneurial cause.

Mr. Sternburg, whose family is fighting the good fight at no small financial and emotional cost, is troubled by a city government that is more responsive to the needs of developers than constituents.

“The cost of this boondoggle has escalated so high and so fast that the new name for this NCRC folly should be, ‘Pie-in-the-Skyland Shopping Center,’” he said.

This unsettling intrusion could happen to anyone.

The city could decide it wants your business or home, for whatever it decides is the public good, and there is not a darn thing you could do, except hire a team of lawyers and hope someone along the judicial merry-go-round intuitively understands that we live in America and not the old Soviet Union.

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