By Guy Taylor
Residents and business owners rallied Friday in Southeast against a District-backed plan to replace a decades-old shopping center with new and more high-quality stores and restaurants.
Though many residents in the community support the revitalization, opponents of the plan, including those who attended the rally at the Skyland Shopping Center, said they fear being left with nothing if the city's plan languishes or fails.
"The government should not be allowed to take our property," said Rose Rumburg, owner of Skyland Liquors and a lifelong Southeast resident "They're saying [the plaza] is a slum and blighted. It's definitely not that."
District leaders, she said, have been unclear about what will happen to the conglomeration of existing stores in the center, in the 2600 block of Naylor Road, which includes sub and pizza shops, a small grocery store, a hair salon and an auto-parts store.
What's worse, Miss Rumburg said, is that the D.C. Council has authorized the publicly chartered National Capital Revitalization Corporation to exercise eminent domain over the shops to bring about the redevelopment.
Information posted on the District's Web site says the corporation will "relocate current tenants," and the Skyland redevelopment will be "a 240,000 square foot, high-quality retail center ... co-anchored by a discount department store like a Target and a supermarket."
However, some residents say there's no evidence Target or any major store is seriously interested.
"They've got no commitments from any business to come in," said Helen Higginbotham, who lives on Naylor Road and yesterday circulated a pamphlet she had written: "Eminent Domain, An Abuse of Government in Hillside."
Some Skyland business owners said they have retained legal representation, and lawyer Elaine Mittleman said she filed a lawsuit in July claiming the manner in which the District is trying to use eminent domain is unconstitutional.
Opponents of the plan also said existing owners and tenants likely could not afford to have storefronts in a new center and that the ripple effect would be the entire neighborhood, east of the Anacostia River, would become too expensive for residents.
"They want to take it from the black people," said Joeann Thompson, 48, a resident of the 2500 block of Naylor Road who said she learned of the plan yesterday. "They should leave it just the way it is."
Among the supporters of the plan are community leaders who say the eminent domain legislation is a justified way to bring about revitalization.
Kathy Chamberlain, chairwoman of the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission and vice president of the nearby Hillcrest Community Civic Association, said the community "pressured the City Council to pass the legislation because there is no other way to accomplish this redevelopment."
"We've been trying to work with the business owners [at Skyland] for years," she said. Mrs. Chamberlain also said some Skyland merchants will be invited back to the new shopping center.
"They're not all banished," she said. "It will depend on what types of retail will work. Perhaps one of the hair salons would be invited to come back, for example."
Mrs. Chamberlain said one of the problems with the shopping center is that it has many different owners and no central management. "And we've had a lot of complaints from members of the community ... about loitering, public drinking and public urination," she said.
Mrs. Chamberlain also said residents have complained about a club in the shopping center that attracts an "unwanted element" to the neighborhood.
"We deserve retail opportunities that are of a better quality than what's up there now," she said.
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