A new grocer might go unnoticed in the nation’s capital’s affluent neighborhoods — a small addition to a spectrum of grocers that span a range of tastes and price points. Some prefer Trader Joe’s to Wegmans or Costco to Safeway, but these choices are rarely discussed in terms of neighborhood livability.
Much of Southeast Washington doesn’t have that luxury. For more than a decade, not a single new supermarket has opened in the city’s poorest 7th and 8th Wards, even though dozens have sprung up in the neighborhood west of the Anacostia River. And so dozens of people lined up in a parking lot along Good Hope Road SE Saturday morning to celebrate the groundbreaking of the store that will complete the road: a Lidl grocery store in the unfinished Skyland Town Center development.
The store itself won’t open until later this year — until Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was a ceremonial mound of earth that had been sunk by a shovel. But his promise was enough to draw crowds to the Section 7 site, where many had their hopes up. It’s a store that could begin to change the Southeast’s reputation as a “food desert,” where many residents shop for groceries in gas station and convenience store aisles.
“People who live in this ward deserve to be treated like everyone else in the city,” said Carrie Thornhill, a 78-year-old community activist who has pushed for a grocery store in Skyland for decades.
What’s at stake, he says, is that it’s not a convenient place to store produce and paper towels.
“We want everyone to understand that this is part of the conversation about social justice and equality and civil rights,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”
Thornhill, along with Bowser administration officials and developers, are hoping the long-delayed Skyland project will turn a corner with the opening of three stores this year: Lidl; Roaming Rooster, an upscale fried chicken vendor whose food truck offerings were popular in the pre-pandemic downtown area; and drive through Starbucks. Construction on the massive development, which will include hundreds of residential units and 17 acres of retail, is slated to begin in 2018 and be completed in 2026.
It’s Bowser and DC Councilman Vincent S. Gray’s (D-Ward 7) luxury condos east of Anacostia are part of an effort to attract mainstream amenities with boutiques. Gyms, stylish restaurants and cafes where $4 coffees – at least before the pandemic – clustered in the commercial districts west of the river.
Founded in Germany, the Lidl supermarket chain has expanded to more than 30 countries, and it opened its US headquarters in Arlington in 2015. The Skyland site will create 45 new jobs, Bowser said, with wages starting at $16.50 an hour and health care and retirement benefits.
Getting there was not cheap. John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said Skyland secured a $56 million investment, about $40 million of which came in the form of tax-increment financing bonds that allow the city to borrow. against expected development taxes.
“People are saying, ‘Does it take that kind of investment to bring retail to the 7th and 8th wards?’ asks,” Falcicchio said in an interview at the groundbreaking on Saturday. “Yes, and it’s worth every penny.”