In a last-ditch effort to keep control of a small shopping center and adjacent land that have been in their families for decades, a pair of property owners tried mightily over the last two months to persuade city power brokers on a new vision for redeveloping Skyland Shopping Center.
The attempt failed late last week, when the District's publicly chartered National Capital Revitalization Corp. went to D.C. Superior Court to force those two owners, and four others, to sell.
But the property owners may have influenced what ultimately will be built on the 18-acre site at the intersection of Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor Roads SE.
Their proposal, to add apartments with sweeping views of the Washington Monument above a street-level row of shops, could be incorporated into the NCRC's plans for a large retail center, anchored by a Target store and featuring sit-down restaurants and nationally known stores that are nearly impossible to find on that side of the Anacostia River.
"Housing could be a viable addition to the program," said Anthony Freeman, chief executive of the NCRC. "It makes sense for us to look at it, after we've acquired the site."
The revitalization corporation has signed contracts to purchase about five acres at Skyland, mostly parking lots, empty land and an old postal facility. It is negotiating for several small, additional parcels.
Freeman had planned to go to court June 1 to force the remaining owners to sell. But he delayed the action for several weeks after D.C. Council members who had been briefed by the property owners asked the NCRC to hear them out.
The alternative plan was hatched by David Burka, property manager for First FSK Limited Partnership, which owns a portion of Skyland including the space occupied by Discount Mart, Fletcher's Beauty Salon, Spin Cycle Laundromat, Foot Locker and two carryouts, among others. Mary R. Greene, who owns seven wooded acres adjacent to the shopping center, expressed support for Burka's plans, and Burka told city officials he was working with four smaller property owners as well.
Burka assembled a high-profile consulting team, including Geoffrey H. Griffis, an urban planner who chairs the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment; and lawyers from Pillsbury Winthop Shaw Pittman, who represent developers in the NCRC's large Wax Museum project.
Together, they sketched out a half-dozen development scenarios that added hundreds of apartments to the NCRC proposal, created opportunities for underground parking, and chopped up the big-box anchor into a multi-level shop or several smaller stores.
"Why are we doing a single-level, strip-mall mentality in an area that can accommodate, should accommodate, something a little more urban?" Griffis said.
Neighborhood residents said they were leery of working with the existing property owners, who, they said, had not been responsive to their concerns in the past. "We tried to get them to upgrade the area and they were flat not interested," said Vincent Spaulding, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, who formerly chaired a task force on Skyland.
Officials at the NCRC said their proposal, too, would offer urban-style streetscapes, pedestrian walkways and attractive civic gathering spaces. But they said the big-box store was key to attracting restaurants and additional national retailers.
The project had always been envisioned as strictly retail, NCRC senior development manager Ted Risher said, because residents of Hillcrest and other nearby neighborhoods for years have clamored for better shopping opportunities.
But the city's sizzling housing market, and Mayor Anthony Williams's ongoing push for new housing and new residents, may mean that apartments would be a good addition, city officials said.
"Certainly residential is not offline -- if it would fit and the community would want it," said Stanley Jackson, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
Spaulding said community groups would not support housing at Skyland if it meant less parking for the retail establishments or if it would otherwise make retailers lose interest. "Our concern is maximizing our retail opportunities," he said. "Folks out here are just starving for retail."
The NCRC and Burka's group exchanged a series of increasingly tense letters throughout May and June. The NCRC wanted Burka to show financial breakdowns of how he would finance his project, feasibility studies, and lists of interested developers and banks.
Burka said he could not provide such information unless he knew the NCRC was willing to pursue the joint venture. He also said the deal would require the NCRC to give up control of planning the project, and that the corporation's already-inked deal with a development team would have to be thrown out and rebid.
"We gave Mr. Burka and Ms. Greene plenty of opportunities to deal with us. We were prepared to negotiate on terms, we were prepared to negotiate on price," the NCRC's Risher said.
"They haven't produced anything, except for letters asking us for more time."
Now, the dispute is likely to be decided in D.C Superior Court, when a judge hears the revitalization corporation's petition to force the property owners to sell for the assessed value of their land.
Burka, Greene and their attorneys have said they will continue to fight. Burka said Skyland is fully leased and does a good volume of sales, albeit mostly of cheap food, alcohol and discount goods that never make it into the Sunday circulars.
"Skyland does a lot of business because it serves the community," Burka said.
His attorney, Deborah Baum, said the property owners' willingness to attempt the redevelopment themselves could make it difficult for the NCRC to triumph in court.
"How can they say that taking this property from private owners . . . is necessary to achieve a public purpose," Baum asked, "when they [the owners] are willing to do it themselves?"
Depty Mayor Stanley Jackson said housing may be a part of Skyland plans if the community supports it.