A Tough Sell

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

The customer is cursing. It's getting ugly. Back near the Discount Mart cash register (located far from the door, to discourage robbers), the customer is hollering something awful.

"Call the [expletive] police! Send my [expletive] to jail! [Expletive] retarded!"

She's mad, all right, thinks she's been shortchanged. And now she's heading for the door, leaving a trail of invective in this emporium stacked high with bed linens, shoes, clothing, kitchen gadgets, hair supplies, toys, electronics and more at the controversial Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast Washington.

Sam Franco rushes over. He's the owner, been here for 30 years.

"What can I do for you?" he asks the woman. He leans in, his hand on her shoulder, showing he's there for her, cares for her, though she's still sputtering mad.

David Lewis is shopping for backpacks for homeless schoolchildren. He's a loyal Discount Mart customer, comes here several times a year to shop for charitable causes. A resident of nearby Hillcrest, he doesn't want Discount Mart to close, doesn't want to see Skyland demolished, as the city plans. But while he watches the angry woman and Franco's effort to calm her, Lewis nods in their direction and says quietly, "That's the other side of the coin."

He means the other side of the debate about class and Skyland -- about the quest for a gentrified shopping experience in a previously lowbrow place.

A powerful group of affluent Hillcrest residents has succeeded in getting the city to declare eminent domain at Skyland-- a controversial move seen in no other commercial land deal in the District except the new baseball stadium. Skyland will be demolished, under the plan, and a higher-quality shopping center built in its place. Target may be its anchor. There could even be a white-tablecloth restaurant.

The Hillcrest activists say they are sick and tired of Skyland's downtrodden look, its lack of what they call quality products, its old discount stores and liquor stores and sidewalk vendors and assorted illegal or undesirable activity. The folks of Hillcrest say both they and the broader community, prosperous and poor alike, deserve far better.

But this 18.5-acre site with its hodgepodge of haphazardly arrayed shops has become the OK Corral of the District property rights battle, for Franco and his fellow merchants and property owners aren't going down without a fight. They have filed several court cases to keep their Skyland shops open, though some also are looking for new locations around the city and suburbs in case they lose the fight.

Until then, business goes on at Discount Mart. There is merchandise to move (late summer saw mountains of school uniforms). There are staff issues to manage and customer problems to troubleshoot.

As he walks his angry customer to the door, Franco talks to her gently, makes it all right, convinces her she has not been shortchanged. He's been doing this for years, trying to keep his customers happy. He's got his arm around the woman's shoulder, cooing reassuringly, "It's all good."

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