The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Skyland Town Center will have Wal-Mart, apartments by 2016

If all goes as expected, this will be reality in 2016. (The Rappaport Cos.)

I go to a fair number of angry community meetings. It’s nice, once in a while, to go to a happy community meeting, which is, for the most part, what last night’s community update on the Skyland Town Center project was.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) himself showed up at the Francis C. Gregory Community Library, less than a mile down Alabama Avenue SE from the Skyland site, to tell his Ward 7 neighbors about progress on the star-crossed redevelopment project. The newsiest bit: Developers Gary Rappaport and Chris Smith for the first time shared a fairly precise timeline for bringing the first retail and residential components of the project to fruition.

Whatever your feelings on the government taking private property to put to higher economic use might be, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling last month on the last of several eminent domain cases filed by Skyland property owners means there is more clarity than ever on how the project will proceed. It’s not coming soon, exactly, but now there’s a relatively concrete timeline.

Assuming all goes as planned — and that’s quite an assumption given the 20-plus year history of the redevelopment scheme — site work could begin in March 2014, with the Wal-Mart open by late summer 2016 and the first 260 residential units delivering later that year.

A few obstacles remain: There is still a possibility that the plaintiff in that final eminent domain case could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court sometime before March, though the Kelo v. New London precedent, among others, makes a high court review unlikely. In the coming months, the D.C. Council will have to pass a land disposition and tax increment financing deal, and the D.C. Zoning Commission has to modify an already approved planned-unit development package to reflect some changes to the project, including the elimination of an underground parking garage. (Still, 1,400 above-ground spaces will remain.) Neither process is expected to be particularly contentious. Once that happens, Rappaport will have to consummate a lease with Wal-Mart and finalize his construction financing.

While residents shared a few concerns about the construction process, jobs and business opportunities, and Wal-Mart’s business record, several neighborhood leaders said they were pleased to see real progress.

Gray has made Skyland redevelopment one of his top economic development priorities, pushing city lawyers to wrap up the eminent domain litigation and playing hardball with Wal-Mart to get them to commit to the site. He was clearly happy to bask in the moment Thursday night.

“To be able to now say these are dates set in stone, this is a major milestone,” he said, adding that he was pleased by the turnout and the community’s abiding interest in the project: “I’m amazed people still have the perseverance.”