A long-awaited mixed-use development in Southeast Washington inched closer to completion Monday, as city officials celebrated the start of construction that will bring additional housing, restaurants and a grocery store to one of the city’s most underserved wards.
On Monday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) broke ground on a new block of retail development that will include a Lidl grocery store, the city’s first drive-through Starbucks and other attractions expected to open in the spring.
“Some projects are hard,” Bowser said, noting that the transformation of Skyland was 30 years in the making. “I am proud to be the mayor now, when we’re pulling it across the line — and I hope I’m the mayor when we’re pulling the other phases across the line.”
At 18.5 acres, Skyland is believed to be one of the largest real estate projects ever in a D.C. neighborhood east of the Anacostia River, the city’s historic dividing line. Neighborhood residents long clamored for change at the once-rundown shopping plaza, and the city used eminent domain in 2005 to remove business owners who did not want to sell.
Skyland has become home to multiple new amenities since officials first broke ground there in 2014, despite Walmart backing out of its commitment to build an anchor store. More than 60 residents have signed leases at the Crest, the first residential building to open at Skyland, and some have already moved in.
“I can well remember the day when it was just a dream to get to this point,” said D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who represents the area and pushed hard for the project when he was mayor from 2011 to 2015. “There are so many days where we thought this would never, never happen. Look at where we are now.”
Gray and Bowser were joined by other city officials Monday, as well as lead developer Gary Rappaport of McLean, Va.-based Rappaport Cos., who owns 50 retail properties totaling 11.5 million square feet in the D.C. area.
Roaming Rooster, &Pizza, Tropical Smoothie Cafe and the South American restaurant Maizal all announced leases at Skyland this year, while a CVS Pharmacy, nail salon and barbershop are already operating there. Gray noted that Lidl would become just the third full-service grocery store in his ward and the fourth east of the Anacostia River, where healthy food options are limited.
Officials say a second residential property will be included in future construction at Skyland, joining the Crest to provide more than 450 residential units. John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said 53 of the Crest’s 263 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments are reserved for those earning up to 80 percent of the Washington region’s median family income, which is equal to about $100,000. Twenty-six of the units are designated as “workforce” units for families making 80 to 120 percent of the median family income.
Brittany Ruffin, an affordable-housing advocacy lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, praised the retail and grocery additions at Skyland but said the housing units should be priced for lower-income families.
She noted that while the median income for the D.C. region is $126,000 a year, it is much lower for Black families — about $48,000, according to a study published last year. Many families now living east of the Anacostia River would be unable to afford the new housing, Ruffin said.
“We’re concerned about those in the zero to 30 percent area [of] median income, because those are the people who can’t stay in D.C. without additional housing,” she said. “We’re constantly seeing new development . . . but people who are there now should be able to live in those residences when they come.”
Tiffany Brown, an advisory neighborhood commissioner representing the area, called the development at Skyland transformative. She remembers her family taking her shopping at the old plaza as a child and how it deteriorated over the years.
While she praised the construction, Brown also emphasized the importance of holding the developers — as well as city officials — accountable for its completion.
“As a community, we have waited a long time for this,” she said. “But finally, a change is going to come.”