Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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The year was 1997, and the occasion was momentous. D.C. officials, the Ballou Senior High School Marching Band and then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo were on hand as hundreds lined up to celebrate the opening of a 56,000-square-foot Safeway on Alabama Avenue in Southeast. The long-awaited amenity would anchor the Good Hope Market Place, the largest retail development in Southeast in decades.

It was a big day for Ward 7.

But 20 years later, Ward 7 remains the second biggest food desert in the city, a condition rooted in that long-ago ribbon-cutting, which once held so much promise.

A dispiriting 11.3 percent of the District is a food desert, according to a recent report from the D.C. Policy Center, and almost a third of that area is in Ward 7. So a recent story from East Of The River News describing substandard conditions at the ward’s only other major grocery store—also a Safeway, at 322 40th St. NE—is worthy of attention. The story details long lines, poor service, and stale produce. In other words, Safeway could use some competition in Ward 7, a glaring need that has gone unmet for too long largely because of politics. 

When Safeway opened its Alabama Avenue store in 1997—the 40th Street NE store had opened to similar fanfare, in 1988—it recognized that neighboring Skyland Town Center was destined for revitalization, so company officials negotiated a covenant with the city that prevented an additional grocery store from opening there. In 2011, as the city and its development partners were negotiating with Walmart to bring one of its superstores to Skyland, Safeway reminded them about the covenant. Safeway lobbyist Bruce Bereano, a friend, fraternity brother, and fundraiser of then-Mayor Vince Gray, came in from Maryland to represent the store’s interests. (Bereano, politics watchers may recall, was convicted of mail fraud in the 1990s and disbarred for improper campaign contributions.)

But on the other side of the table was Walmart lobbyist David “The King” Wilmot, another Gray fundraiser, who had a property interest at the site of one of the other stores Walmart was planning—and who, in an odd twist of fate, happened to be co-hosting a fundraiser with Bereano for former Councilmember Michael A. “Piece of the Piece” Brown, who later went to federal prison for taking bribes. 

With Gray’s lobbyist friends opposing one another by day and raising money for his political allies by night, Skyland plodded along, with Walmart at one point bullying Gray into vetoing a living wage bill. That is, until December 2014, when Gray left office amid a flurry of groundbreakings and announcements after losing his re-election bid to Muriel Bowser. Among them was a press release celebrating a signed lease between Walmart and Skyland development partners—one of whom is another friend of Gray’s: Chris Smith, of William C. Smith & Co. 

Meanwhile, Safeway’s covenant loomed. 

Greg Rhett, a former project manager with the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development under Gray and a community organizer with a member of the Skyland development team, says Ward 7 residents had high hopes for Gray but that he did not deliver for them. He recalls Gray bragging about all the cranes in the sky across the city but says those cranes were building for the benefit of people other than residents of his own ward. “Think about this,” Rhett says. “He had to go down Pennsylvania Avenue every day to get to work, and not one set of cranes sprouted up on this side of town on his watch.”

Says Stan Jackson, president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, “I use the word ‘intentionality.’ You have to think creatively to incentivize major change.”

Others fault Gray for not enticing Walmart to put a store in Ward 7 as a binding condition of opening stores elsewhere in the city and for not reconciling Safeway’s effective monopoly, particularly given his allies on both sides of the grocery store divide. “He had the power to call his friend Bruce Bereano and muscle him on Safeway, and he coulda gone to Walmart and said, ‘Let’s be clear, I gotta deliver for folks in Ward 7,’” says one local developer who requested anonymity to avoid angering Gray, now the Ward 7 councilmember. 

LL notes that Safeway and Bereano contributed $4,500 to Gray’s re-election and constituent services funds between 2011 and 2013.

Even after Gray touted a lease between Walmart and the Skyland developers on his way out the door, a grocery store in Ward 7 other than Safeway was hard to envision. That is, until the Bowser administration struck a deal with the grocery chain in late 2015 to eliminate the restrictive covenant at Skyland. “The covenant predates us, but one of the first things we did when we came in was to work with all parties to get it lifted,” says Joaquin McPeek, spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner

So what did it take to get Safeway to release its grip on Ward 7? And why didn’t Gray do it when he was mayor? Under Bowser, the city agreed to pay the grocery chain $900,000 a year for fours years, with the first payment deferred until 2019. The second question is harder to answer. Gray would not comment for this story.

Of course, on Bowser’s watch, as Gray was quick to point out at the time, Walmart withdrew from Skyland in January 2016 as part of a “broad, strategic review” of its project portfolio, a blow to Skyland’s viability that further doomed Ward 7 to a lack of food options. In an email, Safeway spokesperson Beth Goldberg says the company plans to answer consumer dissatisfaction by bringing in veteran managers to implement new scheduling technology, staff training, and improved product assortment at both of its Ward 7 stores. The company is also scheduling a meeting with Gray to hear his constituents’ concerns. Bereano does not currently represent Safeway, she says.

Kenner, former chief of staff to Gray’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, says Skyland is back on track, with a first phase set to deliver 260 residences and 80,000 square feet of retail. He points out that Safeway once appeared ready to defend its covenant in court. “My job was to get Skyland moving, and I did that,” says Kenner, deflecting questions about the Walmart lease at Skyland that Gray had announced. 

A William C. Smith spokeswoman says it’s unlikely that Walmart will ever build a store at Skyland but could not provide specifics. Gary Rappaport, of Rappaport Cos., was “unavailable” to comment for this story, and neither Bereano nor Wilmot returned calls. 

Once the first phase at Skyland is done, Kenner adds, the city and its developers can finally lure a grocery store tenant to the town center, which could take several more years. 

For now, though, Ward 7 will have to wait—as it has for decades.

This post has been updated.