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More than a year after Mayor Muriel Bowser announced an ambitious plan to replace the ailing D.C. General family homeless shelter with eight smaller facilities—one in each ward—seven of those sites are on track. But the District still has not secured a site in trendy Ward 1, where undeveloped land is scarce.
Officials have sought to acquire a 9,400-square-foot lot at 10th and V streets NW for the final family shelter, but talks between the city and Suman Sorg, who owns the lot, are in limbo. Although the city’s Department of Human Services told a legislative committee chaired by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau last month that the prospective purchase of the site was at the “best and final offer” stage, officials haven’t yet been able to persuade Sorg to sell.
While the specific terms of the offer are confidential, the property is assessed at $3 million and could fetch more than triple that amount. District officials told neighbors at a community meeting in March 2016 that Sorg had asked for $11 million. She was one of four Ward 1 respondents to a city solicitation for shelter sites, yet the only whose property officials determined to be viable.
Sorg has owned the lot for more than a decade and once planned to develop condos there. She founded an architectural firm in 1986 and now works as a senior principal at design firm DLR Group after a 2015 merger with her own firm. The site consists mostly of open space but also contains a landmarked African American church that Sorg stabilized and is now vacant.
Those familiar with her work say Sorg often bides her time on contracts, waiting for ever-higher sale prices. As an architect, she found a lucrative niche in designing government-backed projects, including embassies. She was also recently a partner in a fruitless effort to redevelop Ward 1’s deteriorating Grimke School, a deal that fell through in financial negotiations.
“Suman is always looking for the next best, higher deal,” says an ex-employee of Sorg’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Calling Sorg “very shrewd” and “a grade-A business operator,” the former staffer says “she’ll be as patient as she needs to be until she gets the number that’s in her head.”
“She’s holding the cards in the sense that every day [city officials] spend negotiating with her, every other piece of property in D.C. gets developed or more expensive,” they explain. “There’s no pressure on her to sell, and there’s huge, huge pressure on the city to commit to something.”
Sorg did not respond to requests for comment, and the Bowser administration would only confirm that it hasn’t acquired the 10th and V lot, citing “ongoing negotiations.”
“The District is committed to the Ward 1 site, and we do not anticipate any delay in the plans to close D.C. General,” a DHS spokeswoman says. Officials aim to close the decrepit ex-hospital between 2018 and 2020.
Though it was presented as part of the D.C. General closure plan, the Ward 1 shelter would actually replace a closed shelter on Spring Road NW. The D.C. Council approved the current plan as legislation last May after it amended Bowser’s original proposal. Under the mayor’s vision, the District was to ground-lease property in five wards—including Sorg’s site in Ward 1, which was projected to cost about $800,000 annually for 30 years. The council objected to the long-term price tag of renting rather than owning these sites.
Last December, D.C. purchased the Ward 4 site from an affiliate of MED Developers for $4.4 million. The affiliate had bought the property in April 2015 for $3.4 million. The Ward 4 site already had an empty building on it that will be converted into a family shelter. Meanwhile, the District identified properties in its existing portfolio for Wards 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8.
The Ward 3 shelter proposal was so contentious that more than a dozen residents filed suit against the District, claiming officials had shirked neighborhood commision input in choosing the shelter site. A group of Ward 5 residents also sued the city.
D.C. prevailed in both cases, and zoning officials recently greenlighted designs for three of the shelters. Three other shelter designs were approved in 2016. The seventh—the Ward 2 shelter—is an all-women’s facility that opened shortly before Bowser announced her plan. The Ward 1 site remains the single hold-out.
Because it would replace the former Spring Road facility, the planned Ward 1 shelter is unique in that it would feature 29 two- and three-bedroom units, each with private bathrooms, as opposed to single rooms and shared hallway bathrooms at the other sites. All the shelters will have supportive services for families and contain no more than 50 bedrooms apiece.
A failed deal with Sorg would not entirely derail the District’s plan to shut down D.C. General in the next two-and-a-half years, but it would further limit the city’s extremely strained family shelter system and could make future negotiations for a Ward 1 site even more difficult. Residents might also oppose a new site. When the Bowser administration revealed the 10th and V location as its choice, some Ward 1 neighbors cried foul.
“It is easy to look at this as ground zero of gentrification, and make it right by putting a homeless shelter back in,” says Ward 1 resident Krishna Kumar, who describes Sorg as “the type to sit on a vacant lot.” “But what we need are people who are going to stay here ten years and keep on improving this neighborhood, not people who are going to be in and out in three months.”
Despite its deplorable state, D.C. General houses more than 250 families a night, while approximately 600 others are living in District and Maryland hotels, which costs taxpayers about $80,000 a day. To help alleviate that cost, the administration is seeking landlords to house families in appropriately sized buildings under two- to three-year leases.
By law, the District has the right to use eminent domain to acquire Sorg’s property. (The city last used eminent domain in a significant way in 2015 to scoop up two acres for the planned D.C. United stadium.) A community activist who has closely followed the 10th and V site, and asked that their name not be used for fear of neighborhood repercussions, surmises that Sorg “probably believes that the city will walk away before using eminent domain, as that process can get ugly.”
Bowser’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year requests $23 million in capital funds to buy land for and build the Ward 1 shelter.
Nadeau says she’s “still hopeful” about the deal’s prospects. “It’s not over till it’s over, right?” she says. “What I’ve observed is that each deal moves on its own timeline.”
And if it doesn’t work out? “I would go back and look at our inventory of public sites and reconsider their current uses,” Nadeau says, adding that she hasn’t decided whether eminent domain would be the best option.
“If I was the city, I would just pay her what she wants,” Sorg’s former staffer says. “If they need this piece, she’s inevitably going to hold out and get what she wants anyway.”