D.C. mayor to Wal-Mart: Open store at Skyland, or forget the other four

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray delivered an ultimatum in a face-to-face meeting with Wal-Mart officials at a real estate convention here Monday: If the chain wants to enter the District at all, it had better commit to opening at Skyland Shopping Center, the long-delayed redevelopment project in Gray’s home ward that he considers the most important development project in the city.

Wal-Mart has announced four sites in D.C. where it would like to open stores and has been meeting with residents, community groups and members of the D.C. Council to build support. The sites are on Georgia and New Jersey avenues in Northwest, New York Avenue NE and East Capitol Street, areas that have few shopping options and have not seen significant development in recent years.

But in the meeting, held with Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins and five members of the D.C. Council at an annual convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers, Gray said he made clear that he will not support the chain’s efforts to open anywhere in the city without anchoring a redevelopment of Skyland, an aging retail complex at the intersection of Good Hope Road and Alabama and Naylor avenues in the Southeast neighborhood of Good Hope.

“They’re interested in developing four stores,” the mayor said in an interview after the meeting. “All of us said, ‘What about a fifth store?’ They hemmed and hawed, and it ultimately came down to — you have a choice. You can do five stores or you can do no stores.”

Wal-Mart does not require major zoning changes or subsidies to open any of its first four stores, but two are on publicly owned land, giving the city a measure of control. Gray indicated he would be willing to go so far as to nix the company’s requests for building permits on privately owned sites, even for neighborhoods where residents favored Wal-Mart’s opening.

“We had five council members and the mayor and the deputy mayor sitting in the room at the meeting . . . so it was a pretty compelling argument. They have to get building permits, don’t they?” he said.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said Skyland is one of several dozen sites in the region that the chain is considering.

“As we move forward on the approval process for our four announced locations and the 1,200 jobs they will create, we also will expedite our due diligence on Skyland to determine whether the site can come to fruition,” he said.

Skyland Shopping Center is envisioned as a mixed-use town center by developers the Rappaport Cos. and William C. Smith & Co. The city already approved a $40 million subsidy in the form of tax increment financing, in which the city sells bonds to be repaid by future tax revenue.

D.C. does not, however, have control of all the land at the site, which has stalled the development plans. For years, the city has been fighting expensive legal battles in court in order to take property from private land and business owners at the site using eminent domain.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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