- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

No tax gifts to a big-box anchor would be necessary if the neighborhood around the Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast were in an economic position to support a high-end retailer.

That has been the fundamental flaw in the thinking of city officials since they began acquiring parcels of the 18.5-acre tract through the deployment of eminent domain. If the neighborhood east of the Anacostia River were more demographically appealing, all sorts of big-box retailers would be competing against one another to land the choicest locations at no cost to city residents.

But city officials rarely allow the marketplace to intrude on their Soviet-style planning. Such social tinkering is one reason the Southwest quadrant exists in its soulless condition, the product of government intervention in the 1950s that resulted in a glut of cold, impersonal buildings.

City officials and commentators routinely point to the success of Chinatown to justify the latest urban-renewal plan, whether the subject is Skyland or the ballpark site. Yet all kinds of variables fell into place to make what Chinatown is today, not the least of which was a real estate market that started to explode in 1999.

Abe Pollin’s sports arena is traditionally perceived as the catalyst that revitalized Chinatown. But all kinds of other neighborhoods in the city have been revitalized in the past decade, and not one has an arena.

What triggered the revitalization of many of these previously hardscrabble neighborhoods was their affordability, a condition that became ever more appealing as home prices shot up in the city’s best neighborhoods and the inner suburbs.

With revitalization came the usual national chains to a neighborhood: the ubiquitous Starbucks, trendy restaurants and a national grocery store. The appeal of 17th Street by Dupont Circle led to a push to 14th Street and a rebirth along that previously decayed strip. The push eventually made its way beyond Logan Circle.

The marketplace made it all happen, not tax breaks or social engineering. And now the real estate in those neighborhoods is some of the priciest in the city. Old row houses bought on the cheap in the 1990s have been restored and can fetch $1 million-plus even in a buyer’s market.

The various advisory neighborhood commissions and civic associations that serve that swath of the city now inspect more closely which businesses are looking to enter their commercial strips. They can afford to be picky, to the point of instituting a liquor-license moratorium in some cases.

City officials certainly did not envision the real estate boom that occurred in the urban centers along both coastlines of the nation. Many economists missed it as well and then predicted the housing market’s fall each successive spring until finally, almost by chance, getting it right in 2005.

Given the region’s recession-proof nature and the high density of the suburbs, the city’s re-emergence was bound to happen. Anthony A. Williams, the city’s developer-friendly former mayor, undoubtedly encouraged the rebirth. But even without his leadership, the city’s viability as a living option was destined to increase, as urban ills moved to the suburbs and commuter times increased.

The city’s face-lift, of course, has not come to the neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River. That is not surprising, given the crime and poverty there that discourages developers and national retailers. That is changing, if haltingly so. Yet the changes are not occurring as quickly as some residents and city officials would like.

So city officials, in their infinite wisdom, resort to the anachronism known as urban renewal, a concept that has badly served all too many cities in the past.

That is because the great intentions of lawmakers inevitably are trumped by the cold realities of the marketplace.

Unfortunately, all too many of America’s once-grand urban centers are a testament to this elementary truth, of overreaching projects that failed miserably.

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