Just 90 days: Southeast community to disappear when stadium construction begins

D.C. resident Kenneth Wyban said that five years ago, he thought his “blighted neighborhood” in Near Southeast along the Anacostia River by the Navy Yard was headed for a turnaround. But now his community is approaching nonexistence.

Wyban, a retired Army officer, is one of 16 property owners whose land was seized by the D.C. government through an eminent domain clause in late October because it falls within the slotted boundaries of the proposed stadium for the Washington Nationals.

He and other area residents, who had been trying to avoid being forced out of their homes and businesses, have less than 90 days to vacate their properties, and they’ll have to settle payment disputes in court. In an area with few residents to begin with, the stadium will wipe out any type of community that existed in the quadrant’s South Capitol Street Corridor.

Wyban said that in 2000, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Norton Holmes presented the idea of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative to residents in his area. The 20-year, multibillion-dollar plan is meant to create vibrant neighborhoods, parks, trails and cultural amenities on industrial, ignored or underused land along the eight-mile waterfront stretch. Wyban said he and other community members were excited about the development that would be cropping up around them. He likened the plan to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – but then came baseball.

“We were going to grow with the neighborhood,” he said. “But now we are getting kicked out.”

Construction is likely all that will be going on in this Southeast community for a while. Bulldozers and cement trucks already line the river at the end of Half Street at the intersection of Potomac Avenue as part of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative; the city hopes to break ground on the new stadium – which will knock down residences and businesses that have been around for decades – in April 2006.

Williams believes that the stadium, in addition to the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, will expand the economic success of downtown D.C. to the outskirts of the city. The $535 million, publicly financed, 41,000-seat stadium is scheduled to open March 2008.

“The creation of the stadium will generate millions of dollars in new tax revenue and spark an exciting renaissance along the Anacostia, turning it from a wasteland of warehouses and deserted streets to a bustling, exciting corner of the city,” Williams said in a news release earlier this month.

While the construction may bring about a better neighborhood for future residents, those who have lived in the area most of their lives stand to lose everything.

Rosa Davis, a 90-year-old resident who has rented an apartment at Half and N streets for half a century, said she’s unsure about what she is going to do or where she is going to live once she is forced out in late January.

“I don’t have nowhere to go. I don’t have nobody to help. I just go one day to another,” she said. “Rent is high for me because I’m just all by myself.”

The community is located in the District’s Ward 6, which, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, is 63 percent black and has 21 percent of its citizens living below the poverty level.

Michael Johnson, who used to live down the street from Davis with his parents, has clear resentment toward the city for building the stadium in the area.

“(Screw) that baseball team. We are a nice community. We stick together. We cook out and we enjoy ourselves, but my father couldn’t even do his garden this year because he’s worried about where he’s going to go,” Johnson said while standing outside his parents’ residence. “Mayor Williams won’t even come through here. He won’t even talk to us.”

Robert Siegel, a locally elected leader who sits on the 6D Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a group that makes zoning recommendations to the city, did not return messages from The Hatchet last week. But according to news articles, his opposition against the stadium being built in his community is clear. Siegel has been entangled in legal battles over the cost of his properties on the unit block of O Street – notably his gay nightclubs Follies, Secrets and Ziegfelds. He’s been offered about $7 million for his nightclubs, which will ultimately be torn down.

The O Street strip lies where the new stadium’s first baseline will be. Lenny Davis, owner of Glorious Health and Amusement, told The Hatchet last year that the choice to build a stadium in the area was logical.

“I don’t think that it was a homophobic thing,” Davis said at the time. “I think this is an area that is ready for redevelopment.” The project would require the demolition of about 60 businesses.

An employee of Follies, who said he’s known by his nickname “Baldy,” said Siegel has spent 25 years building up his businesses and he even used to sleep inside his nightclubs before he started making a profit.

“I feel it’s unfair that they are forcing him out,” he said, adding that on the weekends his three nightclubs are packed with people who come all the way from Atlanta or Chicago to visit “gay Disneyland,” as he described it.

While Siegel may be losing his “theme park,” Wyban is losing a piece of history. His house – a gem in a rundown neighborhood – dates back to the 1890s when an area brickyard owner built it out of the bricks he made. It is the second oldest house in Southeast. Wyban said he had been working on the house for the past four years to open it as a bed-and-breakfast.

Though Wyban is being offered $1.2 million from the city for his land, he said he’s not satisfied because he can’t finish what he started: turning his home into his business. He said the city didn’t take into consideration the effect the stadium would have on people in the community before officials made their decision to kick them out.

Wyban said he has one piece of advice to tell other D.C. neighborhoods: watch your back.

“Eminent domain is like a Lays potato chip. You can’t just take one property,” he said. “Everybody better worry, no matter what side of the stadium you are on.”

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