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Skyland Shopping Center Demolition

10/3/2012, 1:48 p.m.

23 Years and Counting

Mayor Vincent C. Gray joined Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander and Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry on Wednesday, Sept. 26 to begin a phased demolition of the Skyland Shopping Center, an 18-acre site at the intersections of Alabama Avenue, Good Hope Road and Naylor Road in Southeast. To many residents in Ward 7's Hillcrest community, it was a long time in coming.

"This is so exciting," said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner 7B Robin Marlin who worked with Hillcrest's Skyland Revitalization Taskforce, as the Shoe City building began to crumble after it was crunched by the claw of a backhoe. The taskforce worked with city officials and store owners to jumpstart Skyland's redevelopment for more than 23 years.

"This community understands the definition of long suffering," said Gray, 69, who acknowledged Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins and Attorney General Irvin Nathan for the project's acceleration. "When I came in office 21 months ago, I made a promise we would move the redevelopment of Skyland forward as quickly as possible, and today is further evidence we're keeping faith with that commitment."

Anchored by Walmart, the site will be transformed into 315,000 square-feet of retail that includes national-brand retailers and neighborhood shops and restaurants. Plans include 468 housing units. Presently, the site is set to be conveyed to the development team led by The Rappaport Companies, and William C. Smith & Company.

Most delays were legal, as Skyland tenants who lost businesses through eminent domain fought the actions. In 2011, seven cases were related to Skyland. Today, the city awaits one decision from the D.C. Court of Appeals.

"I don't know if eminent domain works differently in Ward 7," said Skyland taskforce member Paul Savage about D.C.'s power to seize private property without owners' consent, as National Park was built in less than two years, he said.

In 2010, the development team received approval of its Planned Unit Development application; and is negotiating terms of its agreement with the District. Legislation leading to site disposition will be introduced 2013.

While several residents are ecstatic, four homeowners on Ft. Baker Drive in Hillcrest are not. Homeowners said they will be affected by redevelopment.

"We are so concerned about the demolition that we asked the developers to buy these four homes," said Joanne Harris, a 20-year resident.

The homes sit behind trees in the back of the shopping center. Each was fortified with underpinnings, for more than $50,000, residents said. One homeowner, Cherise Cole, pointed to her tilted dining room chandelier and a slanted curtain rod above the window.

"All I know is our home is on pillars, and the soil is not sturdy and it will get damaged once the vibration begins," said Cole who moved into the house in 2006 with her husband, Ron, and two young daughters.

"I just want to make sure my home is the same before Skyland's development as after," said another resident who asked not to be named because she works for the District government, as does the last homeowner.

"We're not getting guarantees from the city or developers," Harris said, adding they have hired experts who said there will be damage.

Henry Fonvielle, president of developer Rappaport, disagreed, saying that since the development will be done in phases, damage will be minimal.

"The first phase will include the big box retail," which will be in the front, far from the homes, said Fonvielle. He said as development gets closer to the back, the smaller housing units will have a lesser impact on Ft. Baker Drive because there's a ravine "buffer" between Skyland and the homes. The first phase begins in 2013.

As Skyland becomes a "reality," these residents said they may do something drastic.

"We're going to have to take legal action against the government and the developer if anything happens to our homes," Cole said.