The Maryland orchard farmer and his family have owned their parcel of land in Southeast Washington since before the Great Depression and lease it to an auto repair business.
The retired Army sergeant major bought his 19th-century house in the same neighborhood six years ago for $161,000, thinking it was "a nice fixer-upper" to settle down in. Since then, he has spent about $50,000 on renovations. Nearby, a Fairfax hospitality company has owned a square block for more than a half-century. During those years, it has been the site of the company's largest warehouse.
Those property owners are among the more than two dozen individuals and businesses that control the 20-acre site on the banks of the Anacostia River where the city wants to build a baseball stadium. And the District government will have to negotiate with them during the coming months if Major League Baseball decides to move the Montreal Expos to the nation's capital.
A preliminary list prepared by the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) shows that the four square blocks needed for the ballpark are composed of 65 parcels of land owned by 28 individuals, businesses, limited liability companies and trusts. The list, prepared last year, puts the assessed value of the largely industrial area at $24.7 million. But city officials say that the figure has been rising rapidly with a robust real estate market and that their plans allow for spending as much as $65 million to acquire the land.
Most of the dozen property owners interviewed last week said they are reluctant to sell their holdings but think they are somewhat helpless and resigned to having to do so if Washington gets a baseball team. They said they would try to negotiate the best price for their land, aware that the District has limited resources and is prepared to use the right of eminent domain to force a sale.
That authority can be used to eliminate blight from a neighborhood or facilitate a project considered to be in the public interest. Land-use attorneys said the threat of eminent domain was used to assemble land for MCI Center and, to a lesser degree, the new Convention Center, which was built mostly on property that the city acquired years earlier.
"This is a tough squeeze, one of those unfortunate things in life you get caught in," said Ken Wyban, 55, who purchased a federal-period home in the unit block of N Street SE in 1998, shortly before he retired from the Army. His house, one of the few residences in the area, sits on the northern edge of the proposed stadium site, which is bounded by South Capitol Street on the west, First Street on the east, N Street on the north and P Street on the south.
Wyban, who has made such improvements as adding central air conditioning and heat, said his real estate agent previously told him he could get $600,000 for the property. If he is forced to move, he might live near relatives in Cleveland or Tampa, he said, because he might not get enough money from the city to find a comparable house elsewhere in the District.
"I had planned on staying right here for a while," Wyban said. "I knew this neighborhood was going to get better, and I wanted to be a part of it . . . as a long-term investment."
"The city would lose a good citizen who picks up needles, crack vials, condoms and other [trash] off the streets around here," he added.
City officials said disruptions such as the one Wyban might face would be the exception in a gritty part of the District made up mostly of vacant lots, towing operations, bus and taxi depots, nightclubs, adult entertainment establishments and recycling, asphalt and printing plants. There are only a handful of brick rowhouses.
But roots run deep in the neighborhood, where many properties still are in hands of families that bought them several generations ago. Some owners recall when such streets as Cushing Place were little more than dirt roads in what looked more like a rural outpost than the prospective multimillion-dollar home of a sports team.
Richard Biggs, 59, who owns a 135-acre orchard in Mount Airy, Md., inherited 17,000 square feet of land in the 1000 block of South Capitol Street SE about 20 years ago with his sister. Their grandfather purchased it in the 1920s. Although their grandfather lost his trucking business during the Depression, he was able to hold on to the property, which Biggs now leases to an Aamco transmission shop. The business is about three years into a 10-year lease.
"It is a nice income. It's substantial and our tenant pays every single month on time," Biggs said.
Biggs noted that he grew up in Montgomery County watching the Washington Senators, who left in 1971, and that he favors the return of baseball to the District.
"I wouldn't mind selling to help make that happen if the price is right and fair. The stadium location looks good to me," Biggs said. "But I have a lot to learn first. I'm a farmer, and I'm busy right now picking apples and pumpkins."
Land-use lawyers and real estate analysts said it will be difficult to decide on a fair market price for land on the stadium site.
"It's going to be hard . . . because there has not been any demand for it, and now all of a sudden there is demand," said Jayne Shister, senior vice president at the Cassidy & Pinkard brokerage firm. "So how do you value it? At what it was worth yesterday, or what it's going to be worth tomorrow? It's going to be very heavily negotiated, I'm sure."
Shister said that while eminent domain is a powerful tool, it "slows you down a lot" because property owners can challenge the process in court. And given the goal of constructing a ballpark in three years, she and others said, the city probably will try to reach agreement with as many of the landowners as possible.
Robert Siegel, 54, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who lives in an apartment on one of the 11 pieces of property he owns on the stadium site, had to give up assets in the District 26 years ago because of eminent domain and dreads the idea of experiencing that again.
In 1978, the District acquired a building he owned on Ninth Street NW as part of the land it needed to build the old convention center, Siegel said. He purchased the building -- in which he lived and had opened a restaurant -- for $54,000 but pumped an additional $100,000 into the first-floor eatery.
"They only paid me $86,000, and that was it," he recalled. The District's plan to acquire the land for a baseball stadium, he said, "sounds like another rip-off in progress."
Siegel said he stands to lose his apartment; his various businesses, including an adult amusement arcade; and his ANC post, because he will have to move.
"Not one person from the city has had the decency to talk to any of us," he said. "My plans were to retire at 60 and not now. The adult-oriented business can't go just anywhere else in the city because of zoning restrictions."
William Martin, 91, is relieved that he won't have to negotiate with the city. Last month, he was able to sell his property on South Capitol Street SE to a corporation. He said the land had been in his family since the mid-1800s, when his grandfather bought it and used it for a home across the street from his brickyard.
Martin said he had been trying to get rid of the vacant land, which is slightly more than 3,000 square feet, for about four years.
"I'm glad to get rid of it, frankly, even though I'm not sure [the baseball stadium] will happen," he said. "There was no income from it, and it was costing about $1,000 a year in taxes."
Guest Services Inc., the hospitality management company, is one of the largest landholders in the neighborhood. The block where its warehouse has been for more than 50 years would be part of the stadium's left field. Part of the warehouse is leased to a federal agency.
"We have never really thought about selling the parcel of land, but I guess all you can do in these situations is ask for fair market value for the property," said Robin Thurman, Guest Services's vice president of business development.
Les Ulanow, 50, whose family owns 46,000 square feet of property on two parcels of land in the unit block of N Street SE, said the family would be willing to sell both pieces even though only one sits in the stadium's footprint. The other parcel, he said, could be developed for bars or restaurants adjacent to the sports facility.
One reason the Ulanows are interested in unloading the property is that in February, the family sold the recycling business that has been on the parcels for 46 years.
"Besides the emotional attachment, there is really not much reason for us to stay there," Ulanow said. "Let's face it, the recycling business is not really the kind of business the city planners want there.
"It is industrial and does not fit in with the vision of a waterfront community or, of course, a baseball stadium," he said.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.