Capital Plaza Could Have Sheltered the Hurricane Refugees
As Prince George's County, Md. residents inside the Beltway know, the Capital Plaza mall space has sat underused for several years now while its owner-manager, the Nellis Corporation, tried unsuccessfully to land a series of big stores to serve as anchors for mall development. Some of the underused space was left when Hechinger's, the large local hardware chain, went bankrupt, some when other department store chains went under. Compounding the problem, the landlord kept the mall's remaining tiny, struggling business tenants on month-to-month leases for more than two years, basically guaranteeing that no vibrant mall traffic could grow and develop. This year, they terminated even those leases.
The result: one million eight hundred thousand-plus square feet (1,805,560 sf) of commercially developed space goes begging, almost half a million square feet of it (491,650 sf) enclosed.
On behalf of the victims of the dreadful hurricane, we could have made some halfway decent lemonade from this lemon. Let's start with the most important issue: life and death. Citizens of New Orleans, Biloxi and Gulfport among other cities have been displaced and stranded with only their lives--without belongings, without shelter, without even food and water--sitting and lying on what remains of streets and highways. The cities and their terribly poor outlying rural surrounding areas have people clinging to their last half-bottles of water. These desperate American citizens do not have facilities even for sewage, much less for ordinary amenities that are usually taken for granted. Making the situation more desperate is the fact that help can hardly get to them unless it is transported by air--meaning that cargo planes and helicopters are needed. And they can hardly get out to safer havens without air transport--meaning, again, cargo planes and helicopters.
This is no time for thinking small. The Capital Plaza parking lot is big enough for helicopters to land in and is also located conveniently near the College Park airport, which serves private planes.
The mall buildings at Capital Plaza are not palatial, by any means. I am well aware that only desperate people would appreciate being sheltered what remains of a shopping mall.
But the flood refugees are desperate. And those mall buildings do have, or until days ago still had, some essentials for minimal shelter; aside from floors, roofs and walls, they have or recently had plumbing, security, even air-conditioning. The parking lot is also more than big enough for back-up generators.
I am aware that the logistical difficulties of conveying refugees to this area would be immense. But the local American Legion and countless other organizations stand ready to help, should any organizing ability be offered at any level.
Unfortunately, the Capital Plaza property has been leased by the Wal-Mart corporation, after a local lobbying campaign. And now Wal-Mart has already begun demolition at Capital Plaza. Perhaps if we move fast enough, we can intervene and can still use this space for the valuable purpose of saving lives and health.
Margie Burns, a college English instructor, lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.
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This story was published on September 2, 2005.