Landowners in Stadium's Path Fight to Stay Put
Thursday, February 2, 2006
The moving truck arrived at the yellow-brick art studio and restoration center at sunrise on a recent chilly morning.
Reinaldo Lopez drove a yellow forklift back and forth from inside the building, hauling heavy crates stacked with supplies and equipment, and loading them onto the truck. His wife, Patricia Ghiglino, stood outside in the cool air and flipped through the pages of "The Prince" by Machiavelli.
"Above all he must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony," Ghiglino read aloud.
The words have special meaning for Ghiglino and Lopez. For 16 years, the couple have owned and worked out of this building at 1338 Half Street, a block east of South Capitol Street in the Navy Yard section of Southeast Washington, a stone's throw from the Anacostia River's west bank.
But within weeks, they'll probably be gone, forced out against their will. A new baseball stadium is coming to this part of town, and the District government has ordered about two dozen property owners to make way.
"This shows we have such little control over our lives," Ghiglino said. "You can make plans and project your life, but events happen that disrupt your life. The difficult thing is to accept and acknowledge that you do not have total control."
Even as the D.C. Council continues to argue over the stadium's political merits, other parts of the city government are moving forward with the property acquisition. The city seized the titles to the land last fall. Unless the stadium deal gets bogged down in arbitration between the city and Major League Baseball, the property owners will probably all be moved out by the end of March.
Two weeks ago, the District government filed a Superior Court motion that, if affirmed by Judge Joan Zeldon, could force out the property owners, who collectively own about 14 acres, by Tuesday. The site comprises large industrial businesses, including a trash transfer station and an asphalt plant; smaller businesses, including car repair shops and adult entertainment clubs; and a few residential properties. While there have been some hints that the city may give the owners more time, anywhere from a few days for some to a couple months for the large businesses, the clock is ticking.
Most property owners are not leaving without a struggle. About two-thirds, including Ghiglino and Lopez, are fighting in court to retain control of their property or to win more money from the government.
Although the fight over money could take months, even years, to resolve, most land-use experts said they expect the judge to reject property owners' claims that the government's seizure of the land is unconstitutional or otherwise illegal. The stadium could be built even while the fight over money continues.
"There is one of two things I can do," said Joe Lukaesko, who has owned a car repair shop at 1318 Half Street SE since 1970. "If I do not find a new place by the drop-dead date, I'll have to store everything and keep looking. Then, if I do not find a place within a month or two or three, then I'll just go to Acapulco."
Lukaesko was half-joking. But his uncertainty was shared by others. M. Roy Goldberg, an attorney who represents the trash-transfer station, said his clients have not found another location in the city. Owners of a bus parking lot that has been leased to Metro have fought unsuccessfully in court to keep their property. The asphalt plant might be relocated to a site at D.C. Village in Southwest, but that move could cost more than $1 million and could take a couple of months. The city is offering some relocation payments, but the amounts are under negotiation.