A round of cheers went up in D.C. on Wednesday as a construction excavator bucket -- guided by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray himself -- ripped into the cinder block wall of a boarded up Shoe City.
More than 20 years in the making, the start of demolition at Skyland Shopping Center marked a milestone in D.C.'s long-unfulfilled promise to redevelop the blighted Southeast strip mall, and many city officials hope it is the beginning of a renaissance for an area long overlooked by retailers.
(See more photos from the demolition)
It's also a big coup for Gray, whose "One City" slogan takes aim at bringing more economic development east of the Anacostia River.
"We've tried to do everything we can in these 21 months to be able to recognize that east of the river oftentimes has not gotten the kind of investment, the kind of treatment, the kind of involvement that we think it deserves," he said Wednesday.
(Watch video of Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry demolishing a vacant building)
Skyland, a 16-acre site at the intersection of Good Hope Road and Alabama and Naylor avenues, was declared a Redevelopment Zone in the late 1980s. The city seized the land through eminent domain, but lawsuits from more than a dozen landowners have tied up progress ever since.
Slowly, stores were boarded up one by one as cases resolved over the years, but the empty buildings attracted crime and contributed to neighborhood blight.
Now, just one case remains unresolved, as a landowner has appealed the land value determined by a city court. With the end near, retailers are now eyeing a development located minutes from downtown Washington that's slated for 325,000 square feet of retail with structured parking, 468 residential units and a town square. The site is being developed jointly by the Rappaport Cos. and William C. Smith + Co.
Last winter, Walmart announced an agreement with the developers to open a store at Skyland.
And Councilwoman Yvette Alexander, who represents the ward in which Skyland is located, noticed a change in attitude toward Ward 7 this year at an annual retail convention in Las Vegas.
"I can honestly say this year at the retail convention, Ward 7 was on the map," she said. "I'm here to tell you, retailers were talking business. Restaurants were talking to us, retailers ... movie theaters, everyone was talking to us. So I was really excited, and I really felt like we had a stake in this convention."
The deputy mayor for planning and economic development hopes to submit legislation to the D.C. Council by early next year that would authorize his department to sell the land to the developers. The council would also need to reapprove $40 million in tax increment financing for Skyland that was first approved in 2007 to entice tenants.