D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray predicted on Tuesday that the contentious development of the Skyland shopping center will be underway as early as September. News of the impending construction caught its developers and occupants by surprise, but both seemed to take announcement of the project's birth in stride.The foundering Southeast D.C. shopping center has been in the government's crosshairs for more than a decade, with Washington D.C. planners dreaming of Skyland Town Center, an economic nativity centered around big box retail and new mixed-use, 18 acre community. Planning for the site began more than 20 years ago, and rather than buy out the owners individually, in 2005 the city began eminent domain proceedings against its many owners, and has since claimed title to the property with the intent of handing it over to developers to redo. But jettisoned owners, backed by property rights advocates, have fought tenaciously to reclaim their titles they say were wrongly seized.
Meanwhile, erstwhile developers Rappaport Companies and William C. Smith & Co. et al have continued to promote the expected vitality from a redesigned building despite the lapse of time and lack of forward motion. For several years promoters and the District government maintained that Target was on board, anchoring the project, lubricating capital, and ensuring success. With Target now officially out, Walmart has become the dream (potential) anchor. But with a thicket of legal challenges, no signed tenants, financing uncertain and lack of a land agreement with the District, the project seems much the same as it did 5 years ago, excepting approval of plans by the Zoning Commission last summer.
Despite the Mayor's confident prediction, the developers are sanguine, noting that much work remains even if some demolition takes place on the Mayor's schedule. "There are still eminent domain issues" says Sheryl Simeck, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Rappaport. "The next step is for the District of Columbia to own all of those parcels. We've taken it as far as we can." Lawyer Elaine Mittleman, representing several owner-tenants, agrees, and says the transfers of title were not only unconstitutional but ineffective, making demolition unthinkable. Mittleman's suits have been denied by the courts, but other suits continue to work their way through the legal dockets, and Mittleman points to a variety of ailments to the District's claim to clear title.
Still, the government might win by attrition, outliving tenants slowly driven out by uncertainty and by a neglected shopping center that becomes ever more decayed. Some tenants have paid rent to the District government, others have not done so for years. "It's a tragedy" says Mittleman. "There's no funding, no agreement, no title, no tenants. It's the opposite of economic development." Mittleman says the government has stonewalled her FOIA requests and has failed to provide answers to many procedural requests, complicating representation of the owners. Still, having seen eviction deadlines come and go, tenants remain more frustrated than fearful, and yet none seem to doubt the ultimate resolve of the government to see the project through.
The development team also includes Harrison Malone Development LLC, the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization (MHCDO) and the Washington East Foundation, Silver Spring based architects Torti Gallas, and Washington D.C. based WCS Construction.
Washington D.C. real estate development news