Longtime Hillcrest resident Earl Williams says observing a construction site is a lot like watching paint dry. Nonetheless, residents in Wards 7 and 8 are curious about the work underway along Naylor Road and Alabama Avenue SE, on Phase I of Skyland Town Center – a mixed-use development project that for decades promised to deliver retail, restaurants, housing and more to Southeast.
So much so, there’s even a livestream.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the Hillcrest community that it’s finally coming to fruition,” says Williams, who leads the city’s Skyland Town Center Task Force, a group of community representatives who work with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED).
The Skyland Town Center project, which broke ground last year, was conceptualized nearly 30 years ago as a large Ward 7 revitalization effort. 468 apartments would sit above 340,000 square feet of retail space perfect for any neighborhood must-have: a grocery store, fitness center, shopping outlets – even a CVS.
But legal entanglements over property acquisitions, as well as a sudden decision from Walmart in 2016 to back out of opening a Skyland store, set construction years behind schedule. Now, the project’s developers, Rappaport and WC Smith, anticipate they’ll finish Phase I, which includes 84,000 square feet of retail and 263 apartments, by summer 2020.
“Losing Walmart threw a wrench in development,” explains Jarnell Swecker, Rappaport’s vice president of marketing, “but we felt strong about development, so we moved forward with the first phase. Future phases are still in discussion.”
Development Update for Phase I
Last month, the Skyland Town Center Task Force and project developers hosted a construction update meeting at the Skyland Workforce Center to announce step-by-step progress in building. Soon, residents will see improvements in the intersections at Good Hope Road, Naylor Road and 25th Street SE, while developers are getting close to topping out. “That means we’ve reached the top of the structure. That’s a milestone,” says Swecker.
Williams said residents have questions about nearby traffic, though they mostly want to know which retailers are coming to Ward 7. Some are in disbelief the project has even made it this far, given the decades-long planning process.
“When you work on something for this long, you’re kind of jaded,” explains Williams. “Kids have been born, gone to college and moved out of their parents’ homes since this was first envisioned.”
CVS, the only retailer to have signed a lease, is currently operating on a temporary site next door. It’s slated to occupy 10,000 square feet, while Rappaport is still working on populating the rest of Skyland.
“Residents are traveling outside of the neighborhood to have a shopping experience. We’re trying to bring more options to residents to help enhance their lifestyle and make how they’re currently shopping more convenient and enjoyable,” says Swecker.
“We had three sit-down restaurants in Ward 7. We don’t have a place to go and shop and do things that other areas of the city have,” notes Williams.
Williams is also hopeful the project will offer more jobs to residents in Wards 7 and 8. The Skyland Workforce Center, located near the property, offers training and certification in construction. According to the center’s website, over 3,600 local residents have used the center’s services since it opened in late 2014.
Williams says no layout has been developed of the property’s housing, though the complex will offer 30 percent of its units at affordable rates. (The affordable-housing median income for Ward 7 is $35,160). A March 20 Skyland construction update states the apartments will enjoy amenities like a club room, fitness center, swimming pool and grilling stations.
Support from the District
Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent C. Gray has been involved in city-led efforts to bring Skyland east of the river for nearly 15 years – both on the DC Council and during his term as mayor from 2011 to 2015. Then-Mayor Gray helped secure the property via eminent domain, a policy authorizing the government to acquire private property for public use.
“There were hearings on it back when I became a councilmember. Even prior to me becoming a councilmember,” he recalled. “I’m ecstatic that this has come to fruition.”
While most of the onus falls on developers Rappaport and WC Smith to secure financing, the DC government has offered support to help push through development slumps. Following Walmart’s departure, the DC Council authorized an $18.75 million tax-increment financing package, on top of a $7 million grant from Mayor Bowser’s office.
Nonetheless, Walmart left a hole on the property and pushed back plans to develop a large lot on Naylor Road, known to developers as Block 1. Its future, as well as additional phases of development, is undetermined, with no fixed completion date or retailers committed to moving in. However, developers assured they are seeing the project through, despite delays, and will continue to update community members.
Rappaport’s CEO “is committed to this project,” declares Swecker. “We’ve got to get it done with quality retail. It’s a passion for the neighborhood, and it’s about building personal relationships with community members.”
“I don’t have any doubt. They are very experienced developers,” says Councilmember Gray, when asked about next steps. “We hope there will be a grocery store, maybe an office building.”
Developers and the Skyland Town Center Task Force hold meetings every quarter at the Skyland Workforce Center to offer construction updates and answer resident questions. The next meeting will be held Wednesday, June 26. For more information, visit www.skylandtowncenter.com.
DC’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development could not be reached for comment.