From left, Chris Smith of W.C. Smith developers, Mayor Vincent Gray and cuncil member Yvette Alexander toss shovels of dirt at the groundbreaking for the new Skyland Town Center. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Karen Williams has lived in her Southeast Washington neighborhood for years, but she has still not gotten used to one thing: driving from her home in Hillcrest to Maryland or Virginia just to purchase clothes, household items and other basic items.

But as she stood at the intersection of Alabama Avenue and Good Hope and Naylor roads just down the street from her home, she could finally see change coming. The dilapidated shopping strip known as Skyland Shopping Center, in Ward 7, will soon be a new, gleaming mixed-use development, complete with a Wal-Mart and other amenities long missing from this part of the District.

“This shopping center will allow us to shop in our own neighborhood, sit down at a restaurant in our own neighborhood,” said Williams, who is president of her neighborhood’s civic association. “We had a desert over here: a desert of retail, a desert of opportunities. This development will close the gap between us and other areas of the city.”

It was a sentiment shared by hundreds who attended a ceremonial groundbreaking there on Wednesday: The planned development at Skyland is slated to be one of the largest real estate project in a District neighborhood east of the Anacostia River. Specific plans for a better Skyland have been in the works for more than a decade and span three mayors.

The significance was not lost on several longtime civic activists and politicians assembled at the site. D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) said the completion of the shopping center will have more benefits than just being another shopping area close to home. The last hurdle before construction begins is for the Wal-Mart lease to be signed.

“This means that people will take pride in their community,” she said. “There is still a lot of stigmas associated with being in Southeast Washington, and this allows us to build the community up.”

The event was headlined by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who made Skyland’s redevelopment a centerpiece of his campaign in 2010. Even as he deflected questions about his latest troubles — on Monday, federal prosecutors alleged that he knew of and was complicit in a “shadow campaign” waged by a former supporter — he talked passionately about how important the development is to the ward he lives in and once represented on the council.

“Folks have been waiting for three decades for something to be done at Skyland,” Gray said. The 18-acre site is slated to include 315,000 square feet of retail development, 480 homes, a main street and sit-down restaurants. Developers hope to open its first phase by 2017.

“It feels wonderful to have fulfilled a promise,” he added. “We said that we wanted to get this done. We made the promise for a very long time, and we are getting it done.”

Indeed, for many, Skyland’s redevelopment is about more than just bricks and mortar. After decades of raised hopes and years of court battles, the site was supposed to illustrate the city’s vision for a balanced future — where the promise of the city’s renaissance in neighborhoods ravaged by unemployment in the double digits neglect could be realized.

And it has been a long time coming. The city has pumped tens of millions of dollars into developing the site, getting the property and attracting retailers through subsidies. Skyland’s developers, selected in May 2002, have spent additional money to develop the site and buy land. Lead developer Gary Rappaport, of McLean-based Rappaport Cos., owns 50 retail properties totaling 11.5 million square feet in the area.

Then, last year, the project was threatened when the D.C. Council voted to require minimum hourly wages and benefits of $12.50 for Wal-Mart and other large non-union retailers. The retailer threatened to pull its plans for Skyland, but Gray vetoed the bill.

Residents of Ward 7, particularly well-heeled Hillcrest, said it was worth the fight and the money invested. But many of the residents have maintained that they want to make sure there are upscale amenities available for all residents of nearby neighborhoods.

“Hopefully, this shopping center will have high-quality stuff, said Paul Savage, 75, a longtime activist and resident of Hillcrest. “We have to wait and see what the mix will be. There are a lot of high-quality neighborhoods [east of the river]: Hillcrest, Penn Branch, Randle Highlands, Dupont Park. Based on our years of civic engagement, we should have more.”