First Phase of Skyland Town Center to Open by 2016
On January 3, community members packed Francis Gregory Neighborhood Library for an update on the long-awaited Skyland Town Center. Although the demolition process began during the fall, it was only after years of litigation and push-back from business owners and some neighbors. However, the development team, led by Gary Rappaport of the Rappaport Companies and Chris Smith of WC Smith, reported that they now have a tangible time line. They expect to break ground by March 2014 and open the Walmart, along with the development's first residential building by 2016. This was welcome news for many residents, including the area's ANC Commissioner, Dr. Zina Williams. “My constituents have been waiting for the last twenty years,” she said.
Eliminating Legal Hurdles
The audience, which included Mayor Vincent Gray and Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, received more good news thanks to DC Attorney General Irvin Nathan: the city won its last eminent domain case. Last month, a three-judge panel for the DC Court of Appeals rejected landowner Mary Rose Greene's claim that the city inadequately compensated her after seizing her seven acres for the Skyland Town Center project. Rejecting the city's original offer of $943,000, Greene and her appraiser argued that the land was actually worth $9.56 million. When the case went to trial before the DC Superior Court in May 2011, the jury sided with the city and DC increased their offer to $1.85 million. Although Greene has 90 days from the decision to appeal to the US Supreme Court, Nathan believes that is unlikely. With the litigation phase essentially over, the city can move forward with the project.
With selected demolition underway, most of Skyland's present businesses are in the process of relocation; however, cable provider RCN will have the most challenging move. The Washington Business Journal reported in March that the city reimbursed the company $4.25 million to cover costs for disconnecting and reconnecting equipment, purchasing and installing new equipment, and rebuilding their operations building nearby. The city hopes that the RCN building will be vacant by May.
Jose Sousa, a representative from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), says that while completing litigation is a major accomplishment, “...several steps still remain ahead of us, but the end is in sight.” In addition to relocating tenants, the city must negotiate deals including the land disposition agreement and construction and use covenant. Then, the city's chief financial officer has to re-underwrite the project. Finally, the council must introduce and approve land disposition legislation so that the project can be formally turned over to the developers.
What to Expect From Walmart
According to Nina Albert, the Community Affairs Director for Walmart, the chain plans to open a Supercenter, meaning that the store will have a full-service supermarket, pharmacy, and vision services. This could create competition for the nearby Safeway located at the Good Hope Road Marketplace, which, Mayor Gray says, could be a “good thing.” When the Walmart opens, customers will notice that there will be less parking spots than its suburban counterpart; the finished product will have 1400 above-ground commercial parking spaces, as plans for an underground parking area were scrapped.
Despite the many perceived benefits to having the store in the neighborhood, there are still some negative feelings against Walmart. Albert replied that frequently heard critiques, including claims that Walmart isn't labor or environment-friendly, are not accurate; in fact, the chain donated $21 million in community benefits and $3 million in grant money to city-wide non-profits. Walmart also has the highest employment retention with its competitive wages and health care benefits. “We're finding that the more people learn facts about us, the more they see the value in bringing a Walmart store to their community,” said Steven Restivo, another representative from the chain.
The meeting also gave residents a chance to voice their concerns about the project. For instance, one resident from Fort Baker asked how construction could affect the neighborhood. “Fort Baker has four houses that will be impacted,” Dr. Williams explained. “Those houses are built on silt, so their structure could be in trouble.” Anticipating that concern, Rappaport said that they will document potentially impacted houses before and after construction and videotape them during construction to check for damages.
Another concern discussed during the meeting was how traffic and pedestrian safety would be affected, considering that Skyland is located on the intersection of Good Hope Road, Naylor Road, and Alabama Avenue. After completing traffic counts and studies and meeting with the DC Department of Transportation, the developers plan to improve five signals and add two more, as well as add safer crossing paths for pedestrians. Also, the Metropolitan Police Department will be working with DMPED to create safety measures for the area while it is still in transition.
“Since our 2002 selection as the developer of Skyland, our partnership has worked regularly with a number of stakeholder organizations including ANC 7B and ANC 8A to create a project that realizes the community's vision for a redeveloped Skyland,” said Sam Rank, Senior Project Manager at Rappaport. “We are very proud of the community relationships we have built over the last eleven years.” Dr. Williams pledges to continue this relationship with the developers, not only as the ANC commissioner, but also as part of a special task force. “We will be meeting monthly and we will keep the community updated,” she said of the task force. “That's going to be the big thing right now: keeping the community involved.”
Councilmember Alexander, who says she will do what it takes to move the project forward, is also asking for the community to stay involved. “Between development, demolition, and this meeting, many residents have been involved at some point.” She suggests Ward 7 residents to give input regarding which retailers they would like to see or taking advantage of job opportunities during the development and construction processes. In the end, she says, “I look forward to the ground breaking and the ribbon-cutting ceremony.”