The District's quest to bring sit-down restaurants and big-box stores to the shopping-starved neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River has entered a new phase -- eminent domain.
The National Capital Revitalization Corp., a publicly chartered economic development firm, is seeking permission in D.C. Superior Court to buy the 1940s-era Skyland Shopping Center and several additional acres, even though the owners do not want to sell.
The NCRC wants to replace the rundown strip of shops with a larger, more modern complex that would be anchored by a Target store and include other nationally known retailers and sit-down restaurants, commodities that are almost impossible to find in the District east of Capitol Hill.
The corporation, charged with bringing economic rebirth to struggling parts of the city, has signed deals to buy about five acres of the 18-acre site and is negotiating to purchase nearly two acres more. But owners of other parcels have vowed to fight the NCRC's attempt to take over their land and in some cases have sued to prevent it.
"We've reached a point where we have to move forward," said NCRC chief executive Anthony Freeman. "We are implementing a city's vision here -- crafted by the residents, the council and the mayor."
The corporation filed late Friday to force the sale of about 11 acres owned by six different entities, including a seven-acre wooded site and a nearby strip of shops along Alabama Avenue SE. The action was still being processed in court yesterday, NCRC officials said, after which it will be sent to the property owners.
District officials and community leaders say a new retail complex would provide a long overdue amenity to those who live in Wards 7 and 8, and would help recapture some of the $400 million those residents are believed to spend shopping in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs each year.
At Skyland, eminent domain "can be used for the good of the entire community," D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said in a statement yesterday. He said the project will create 300 jobs and $3.3 million annually in tax revenue.
The NCRC has hired a development team, which has launched talks with Target Corp. The popular retailer has expressed interest in the site, NCRC officials and the developer said, but will not commit unless all the land is under the development team's control.
Going to court is "another step in the long process of getting some decent retail here for our neighborhood," said Kathleen Chamberlain, vice president of the Hillcrest Civic Association. "We've been at it for about 15 years."
Supporters of the project were buoyed by a recent Supreme Court decision to allow the seizure of private land in New London, Conn., for a waterfront complex that would include upscale housing, offices and a marina.
But the Skyland property owners, who in recent weeks proposed an alternative redevelopment plan that they would control, question whether the Kelo v. New London decision applies to their site.
Their attorneys note that, unlike the Skyland project, the properties to be forcibly taken in New London were 15 homes on 1.5 acres, wholly different than the 90-acre, mixed-use project being proposed. And because the town had not yet chosen a developer, no one private party stood to benefit.
"For every example that the Supreme Court gave that showed that the Kelo case wasn't unlawful . . . you can show the opposite situation here," said Deborah Baum, an attorney for First FSK Limited Partnership, one of the property owners.
The owners are also watching a proposal in Congress -- authored by members opposed to the Supreme Court ruling -- that would prohibit using some types of federal funds for projects that involve land taken through eminent domain.
The Skyland proposal relies on such funds, but NCRC spokeswoman Peggy Armstrong said the deliberations thus far will not keep the project from moving forward.
"We're operating under the current law. If that law should change, we'll do what we need to do to accommodate the new laws," Armstrong said.