But on Friday night, the family will get something of a reward for their hardship: As the Nationals take the field against the Houston Astros for Game 3 of the World Series — the first Fall Classic in the city since 1933 — Roubin, his father and his brother will be there, cheering on the home team from Section 227, along the right field line.
“We’re sitting where the plant used to be,” said Roubin, 39, now a vice president at the company.
They’ll be returning to a transformed Southeast Washington neighborhood. As a VIP list of local celebrities descends on Nationals Park for the nationally televised spectacle, they’ll stride past gleaming condo towers, trendy restaurants and family-friendly waterfront parks — the kind of urban redevelopment that D.C. government leaders promised in 2005 when they invoked eminent domain to seize land for the 41,000-seat stadium complex from the Roubins and 22 other property owners.
This group, bound loosely by circumstance, was broken apart by the engine of economic renewal. The decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in public financing for the ballpark cleaved the District along lines of race and class, with affluent areas more supportive of the project and poorer neighborhoods fearful of being left behind by gentrification.
For the proprietors of a ragtag collection of small businesses in a neglected section of Southeast Washington, outside of the gaze of the rest of the District, the prospects of displacement were the most imminent. Over the ensuing years, they settled with the city government through court arbitration, securing sizable payouts but still feeling as though it was less than they deserved.
Some relocated elsewhere, others never reopened, and a handful moved away — all supplanted so that baseball could again take root in the nation’s capital.
Although economic development had swept through other portions of the District, helping the city recover from near bankruptcy in the 1990s, it was only just reaching the outer edges of this isolated pocket when then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Major League Baseball announced a deal in 2004 to bring baseball back to Washington more than three decades after the Senators departed.
Flush against South Capitol Street SW, a five-minute drive from the Capitol dome on the west edge of the Navy Yard, the 21-acre tract in Southeast featured the asphalt plant, a trash-transfer station, car repair shops, warehouses, towing operations, a stonework restoration studio, and several adult nightclubs — a mix of businesses that, due to zoning regulations, had virtually no other place to go.
For years, the occupants of this urban underbelly operated in a part of town where city services were scant and crime was rampant. Trash piled up in vacant lots. Drug dealers and prostitutes roamed the streets.
In 1998, Kenneth Wyban, an Army officer at Fort McNair, a few blocks west, bought a home dating to before the Civil War, with six fireplaces and views of the Capitol, near the intersection of N and Half streets — now the center field entrance to Nationals Park.
Determined to renovate the property into a bed-and-breakfast, Wyban was confident that redevelopment was on the way, having noticed construction cranes nearby. It wasn’t happening quickly, however. He recalls discovering syringes in his yard and a car riddled with bullet holes parked out front.
“Let’s face it — it was not a great neighborhood,” said Wyban, the only homeowner who lived on the site. Now 70, Wyban lives in Waite Hill, Ohio, where he relocated to take care of his ailing father. He still keeps two bricks he salvaged before his historic house was bulldozed.
If the area was one that most in the city avoided, those who arrived each day to ply their trade sought to create a sense of community. Calvin Reid, the owner of Atlas Manufacturing, a steel fabrication firm that leased office space at 1339 Half Street SE, built a fence around the property to prevent break-ins. But he fondly recalled a man named Alton Majette, who lived in a rental unit on N Street and tended to an unlikely “garden of love” in an empty lot, lavishing his neighbors with bags of collard greens, lima beans and yellow squash.
Across from Reid’s offices, Patricia Ghiglino and Reinaldo Lopez, a married couple, ran their stonework restoration business from a two-story warehouse they painted yellow to make it more cheerful. From their workspace, they cut stone for some of the city’s best-known attractions: the replacement of the lions on Taft Bridge along Connecticut Avenue NW, a renovation of the lobby of the Washington Monument, and new visitor entrances at the Smithsonian Castle.
“We were there when nobody wanted to be there,” said Ghiglino, who commuted from her home near Annapolis each day with the couple’s four dogs in tow. She did not feel unsafe, though, because she befriended the private security guards who patrolled outside the nightclubs, whose space was owned by Robert Siegel, a gay activist who spent years as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, representing the community with the city government. Siegel declined to comment.
Ghiglino bristles when people suggest the area was a wasteland. Most of the property owners, she said, tried to act responsibly, even when the city government failed to clear the trash or remediate the rats.
“We kept our building nice, with bright yellow paint,” she said in a phone interview from Valencia, Spain, Lopez’s native country, where they moved two years ago after a failed attempt to reopen the restoration studio in Anne Arundel County, Md. “It’s not a question of the owners. [City leaders] did not care about that part of the city.”
From rumor to reality
The rumors came first, followed by the official notice.
Roubin, then a recent college graduate, remembers his father showing up with a letter from the D.C. government in 2005: The city was seizing their land. They had 90 days to evacuate.
Less than a year earlier, after another asphalt company that leased the site had departed, the family had been persuaded by the city — which was down to a single asphalt provider — to reopen the plant with new hardware.
“We thought it was a joke,” Roubin said of the city’s eviction letter.
It was not. Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, head of Major League Baseball’s relocation subcommittee, had toured several proposed sites for the Nationals’ ballpark. Among the benefits of the Anacostia waterfront site, recalled Stephen M. Green, then serving as the city’s director of development, was that “we thought the neighborhood offered a huge economic development opportunity. But this was not about displacing people. There were very few people down there to displace.”
After a five-month assessment in 2005, city planners offered the 23 property owners a total of $95 million for their land, which two years earlier had been assessed at $32 million.
But the acquisition costs to taxpayers, once negotiations were completed, would soar far higher.
In a recent interview, Green said the city “overpaid” for the properties because the stadium was key to the area’s redevelopment. The “noxious uses” of some of the sites, he said, would have prevented growth had the city not moved to clear it all at once.
The property owners were not convinced. Change was already underway. The federal Transportation Department had begun to relocate 5,000 employees to a new Navy Yard headquarters a few blocks east, a transition that would be completed by 2007.
“It was a gold mine,” Ghiglino said. “I don’t think they overpaid. Prices kept going up.”
At an emotional D.C. Council hearing for stakeholders in October 2004, Wyban asked what happened to the other proposed redevelopment plans the city had promised over the years.
“I wonder what happened to the Anacostia River project that I took part in,” he said. “How soon our officials forget us.”
The city had assessed Ghiglino’s warehouse for $654,000 a year earlier. But after the stadium project was announced, city planners offered her nearly $1.8 million. She wasn’t satisfied. Neither was Wyban, who was offered $1.2 million for a property assessed at $241,000.
Wyban said the city failed to account for the income from a basement unit, which he rented to soldiers from Fort Myer military base, and potential future earnings as a bed-and-breakfast. He presented the city’s negotiators with a private assessment he had commissioned for $5,000 that put the value of his lot at $2.2 million.
The city’s offers paled in comparison with what properties just beyond the stadium’s footprint were fetching from private developers.
“Many of them had their life savings tied up in the businesses and properties,” said John Barron, an attorney who represented 10 owners, including the Roubins. “Many institutional uses were grandfathered in place, due to zoning, and they could not be relocated. The owners would have to leave the District or shut down. It was a Hobson’s choice.”
In all, 16 of the 23 property owners filed for court-monitored arbitration, and each would ultimately settle for more than the city had offered — though less than they had sought.
Wyban said he received $1.5 million. But after looking for another house in a red-hot seller’s market, he chose to move to Florida to care for his ailing mother before relocating to Ohio. He donated his professional-grade Viking oven and fireplace mantle to a Baltimore recycling firm.
Roubin said his family was “initially pretty bent” about being forced out. As they entered arbitration, the asphalt plant was dismantled and trucked away. It sat unused for several years as legal matters were resolved, before being reassembled in Southwest Washington after the city granted a zoning exemption.
Barron said his 10 clients, who had initially been offered a total payout of about $30 million, settled for just north of $50 million. Looking back, Roubin said he is satisfied: “When I drive down there now, knowing what it used to be, I’m happy they did what they did.”
As a tenant, Reid of Atlas Manufacturing could not cash in, but he was granted relocation assistance and moved his offices to Congress Heights. His firm also won work as a subcontractor at the ballpark, installing 480,000 square feet of composite metal deck and another 270,000 of roof scaffolding.
“We left a lot of our luck there with the Nats,” Reid said with a laugh. But his personal good fortune ran out last year when Reid, 59, closed his company, citing difficulties for minority-owned businesses to win city contracts.
Ghiglino, 68, confirmed that she and Lopez, 75, got more money than offered, but she did not say how much. In Valencia, the couple are renovating an 1870s-era apartment building in a historic area. She has not kept up with the Nationals.
“People tell me the office was right where [second] base is,” she said. “I tell them I don’t know where that is. I’m not interested in baseball.”
Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.