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By the end of September, Wilson Reynolds had finally run out of patience.
For months, the Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commissioner had pressured a landlord to make building improvements on two properties with broken locks, homeless squatters, and gang graffiti in the hallways.
An occasional shoddy repair was made. But thus far, the tenants “hadn’t seen anything that could give them a reason to think, This was different, this hadn’t happened before,” says Reynolds.
The solution: a cleanup with tenants and neighbors at both buildings, 2359 and 2401 Ontario Road NW (which are mostly composed of Hispanic immigrant families). The Oct. 27 event was funded by the ANC.
“People had radios going, they were laughing and dancing and painting and talking.…There were kids there; there was soda and juices and water and coffee and bagels in the morning, and a hot meal at lunch. People worked so hard,” he says. “I thought it was a great day.”
Not for the buildings’ landlords, apparently. For all Reynolds’ efforts, owner Ontario Partners LLC (a part of Philadelphia-based NWJ Companies) awarded him with a lawsuit, declaring his calls to action “nothing more than self-aggrandizing stunts to fulfill his political ambitions.” The complaint, filed on Nov. 1, requests $100,000 in punitive damages, saying the cleanup’s supposed work and repairs were not performed in a professional manner. Ontario Partners owns three quarters of the property, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit doesn’t surprise Reynolds; it’s just another twist in a saga involving myriad e-mail exchanges from District agencies and offices, landlord excuses, and a trail of maddening discoveries. Until last spring, Reynolds knew very little about the two non-descript brick Ontario buildings, which sit a few blocks behind Adams Morgan’s famed 18th Street bar strip.
At first, the problems seemed like standard, yawn-worthy ANC business. Early May, Reynolds began to receive complaints from neighbors and a developer about a major rat infestation and trash buildup problems in the alley behind the side-by-side buildings.
On May 25, representatives from several D.C. agencies and new buildings in the neighborhood met with Brian Kroker, a representative from NWJ Companies, and a representative from Ontario’s property management company, Green Street Property Management. After this meeting, the parties agreed on a set of expectations, including plans to improve a building retaining wall, install more outdoor lights, and realign a busted walkway, among other things, says Reynolds.
And he thought they would get done.
“I mean: I’m dealing with adults here,” he says.
When people reconvened for a progress report in early September, representatives from NWJ and Green Street chose not to attend, says Reynolds.
Several goals from the May 25 meeting were fulfilled, says Reynolds, but Green Street’s effort was the bare minimum. Another neighboring developer volunteered to install surveillance cameras in the alley and draw up plans to fix the rear retaining wall and build new fences. Green Street failed to repair an outdoor path, and the company ignored Reynolds’ suggestion to install a security gate for the residents-only trash pen, which had previously been a magnet for illegal dumping, says Reynolds.
In an e-mail sent to the Washington City Paper, Kroker stated that his company was acting responsibly: “We have made substantial improvements to the property and continue to do so. In addition, we have cooperated fully with the city and will continue to do the same.” He declined to comment on the lawsuit.
By the follow-up September meeting, a new set of problems was identified at the Ontario buildings. ANC commissioners started learning of ignored service complaints and botched “fixes,” says ANC Chairman Bryan Weaver. One 2401 resident says the top of her bathroom door frame leaks every night around 7 for months at a time. The problem goes away for stretches of time, but it inevitably returns, and the plumbers sent by Green Street just make small tweaks that, in the long-term, do nothing. (The resident requested her name not be printed.)
But the true downfall of the buildings can be sourced back to one major problem: broken locks. In 2359, for example, the basement door and front door locks broke, and groups of nonresidents, including homeless people and truant teenagers, started using the stairwells as a refuge to hang out, smoke pot—party, basically, says resident Barbara Salinas.
“Mostly you’ll see guys drinking; you’ll find condoms, food, vomit, shit,” she says.
Roughly four years ago, gang graffiti—like fuk ms—and other tags from local crews began appearing in the halls and the stairwells, says Salinas. Similar problems occurred in 2401, says Weaver.
In her opinion, the neglect sends a clear message: We don’t care about you, and we want you out.
Weaver has seen this scenario before in Adams Morgan.
“To me, it’s just such an old school intimidation technique,” he says. “Everything around them has been developed in the last five to 10 years. People are just sitting there licking their chops about what they want to do with that building.”
On the day of the cleanup, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham came face-to-face with this drama. After touring several apartments and common spaces, Graham encountered one rather unwelcome “tenant”—a homeless man sleeping at the top of the stairwell of one of the buildings—and woke him up.
“I asked him how long he had been there and etc., etc.,” says Graham. “And did he come every night? Yes he did. And was he comfortable? Yes he was.”
Afterward, Graham said he was “100 percent” behind Reynolds’ efforts.
Two days after the cleanup, Reynolds received an e-mail from Catrina Jones, assistant attorney general in the Office of the Attorney General, informing him that the building ownership had complained about the paint job.
Upon hearing this, Reynolds sent off an e-mail to a Green Street representative on Oct. 31:
It has come to my attention that you reported paint being on the floor. Be happy to put a crew together to come to the buildings and clean-up. Just let me know.
The next day, the buildings’ owners filed their lawsuit. On Nov. 21, Reynolds’ attorney, Doug Parker, filed a motion to dismiss it, citing a statute in the District code protecting individual ANC commissioners from liability for actions taken as elected representatives.
Both Ontario buildings are currently being investigated by the multiagency Nuisance Property Task Force, according to Alicia Washington, chief of the Neighborhood and Victims Services Section in the Office of the Attorney General.
Ontario’s lawyer, Richard Luchs (“The Painmaker,” 1/20/06), with the law office of Greenstein, DeLorme & Luchs, declined to comment.
For his part, Reynolds seems more disgusted than outraged about the lawsuit and the ongoing ordeal at 2359 and 2401 Ontario Road. He says he has no regrets about the cleanup.
“Everyone talks about Ward 1 being the most diverse ward in the city. We don’t have any one clear majority ethnic-wise and economically. Well what does that look like? And how do you keep it? And how do you lose it? This (situation) is a clear blueprint how to lose it.”