The Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast Washington is almost dead. Shops are shuttered and windows broken. Pigeons peck at torn awnings, and someone dragged in a mattress to crash on the floor of the closed post office.
Last week, the owner of a beauty supply store scrawled a poster-size goodbye note to customers in black marker. “Thank you for 38 years,” it read, along with a happy face. And there was a pile of leftovers: “Free hair.”
This is the city’s plan: to kill the old Skyland, at Good Hope Road and Alabama Avenue, so it can create a gleaming new community in its place. A strip club and acres of pavement and decay would be replaced by sit-down restaurants and a 125,000-square-foot Wal-Mart.
Now a high-profile fight over what constitutes a fair wage has turned Skyland into a political pawn, leaving the neighborhood shifting between bouts of defiance and hard-earned fears about its future.
The D.C. Council’s vote last week to require minimum hourly wages and benefits of $12.50 for Wal-Mart and other large non-union retailers has the company promising to pull out of Skyland and two other planned sites. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who lives a half-mile from Skyland and has championed the project, has to decide whether to veto the legislation.
Some of those most eager for the development — an 18-acre site with about 480 homes and a Main Street — say they’d rather see it delayed than submit to what they see as corporate threats.
Others, such as Kevin Brown, 26, who has a looping Washington Nationals “W” tattooed on the front of his neck, voiced anger at Wal-Mart for not being willing to pay higher wages. But, he said, the area needs the boost now.
“Something is always better than nothing, then work your way up,” said Brown, who is jobless, has two children and is training to be a dental assistant. “People are looking forward to that Wal-Mart, they really are.”
At stake in the political churn are questions that could affect communities far beyond this tired corner. After decades of raised hopes and years of court battles, Skyland was supposed to embody the District’s vision for its future, a place to test the promise of the city’s renaissance in neighborhoods ravaged by double-digit unemployment and neglect.
Skyland sits in a place of contrasts. To the east are two-story brick homes with flowers out front. To the west is a boarded-up housing complex, its windows blocked with bright red panels. A couple of miles down Alabama Avenue, the St. Elizabeths Hospital site is being transformed into a new Department of Homeland Security headquarters.
Keith Lofton, 40, lives behind Skyland and has watched the center’s sagging fortunes since the 1970s. He works in human resources now, after a career as a guitarist and songwriter took him around the world playing with artists such as Wyclef Jean and Ben Harper.
“What’s really needed in this area is a lifted-up spirit,” Lofton said. A higher-end destination next door will show young people that there’s more out there, he said.
“You can beat people over the head with positive thinking all you want,” Lofton said. “The kids need to seeit.”
But Joline Mills, who rents an apartment nearby and has lived in the area for more than 20 years, said there’s a downside to the potential influx of condominiums and other development: a spike in property values.
“People who have lived in this area all their lives can’t afford it, and they’ll be forced out,” Mills said.
Mills is out of work for health reasons, but she also has concerns about the 300 promised Wal-Mart jobs and other work connected to the Skyland project.
“People who live in this community — I’m specifically talking about black people; I don’t know if you want to call it reverse discrimination, or what — but I think they should get the first dibs on jobs.”
Constance Ford-Jasper lives two blocks down from Gray on a well-manicured stretch of Branch Avenue covered by a lush tree canopy. The retired teacher said she’s tired of schlepping to the suburbs whenever she wants to buy something a little special.
“We have to travel to Virginia and Maryland for a nice place to do some decent shopping,” Ford-Jasper said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
She’d love to see the Skyland development go up. Locals need the jobs, not to mention better restaurants. But if Wal-Mart won’t budge on a higher minimum wage, Ford-Jasper said, “Let them walk. . . . We don’t need them.”
Gary D. Rappaport, Skyland’s lead developer, said people don’t understand how such projects are financed. “That’s someone that’s not educated on the big picture,” Rappaport said.
Over the dozen years that the McLean-based developer has been involved in the project, Rappaport has shopped Skyland to many potential tenants.
“This is the only major retailer that has stepped up to be the anchor tenant,” Rappaport said. “You cannot build a Skyland Town Center without the creditworthiness of a tenant like Wal-Mart. . . . We’re talking about an unknown number of years that the site will be no different from what you see today.”
Wal-Mart agreed to go to Skyland after getting pushed hard by Gray. The company said in a statement last week that the bill requiring the higher minimum wage “is arbitrary and discriminatory and . . . discourages investment in Washington.”
Last week, there was still a little life at the sagging Skyland center.
The dryers in the laundromat with a broken red “u” in its sign were still spinning, and the CVS was still dispensing medicine. Stevie Wonder blared at the makeshift barbecue stand beside a flooded part of the parking lot. Inside a shabby emporium in an old movie theater, employees of Discount Mart were still measuring curtains and displaying TVs and bug spray.
“I’ve been here for 23 years. You know I don’t want to go anywhere,” said Laura McFadden, a clerk. “At 74, you know you can’t get another job, right?”
The store’s owner lost his legal fight to prevent the city from taking and developing his property, and now he’s looking for a new space in Maryland. McFadden said she understands why the community wants an upgrade, but she has become accustomed to life in the neighborhood as it is.
“The old get older, and the young are still coming in, with their children. It’s the same thing. It’s a circle,” she said. “This is the neighborhood Wal-Mart, just not as fancy. . . . It’s Southeast Wal-Mart.”