The Gales School, at 65 Massachusetts Ave. NW, is an extraordinary building among the city’s stash of surplus properties. The Romanesque-style structure, built in 1881, sits on a prime piece of real estate in downtown D.C., near Union Station and within walking distance of D.C. Superior Court.

Its redevelopment plans are extraordinary, too—enough to have drawn a rebuke from the D.C. Council to the mayor’s office. The Gales School currently serves as a makeshift homeless shelter for 150 men and women. But since 2000, city officials have been negotiating a deal with Safe Shores, a nonprofit child-welfare advocacy group, to give the building an extensive renovation and convert it into offices and a children’s-services center.

The terms of the lease have yet to be finalized. But earlier this month, the council passed a budget amendment, authored by Ward 1’s Jim Graham, challenging the way the mayor’s office has pursued the redevelopment. The measure demanded that the mayor submit detailed plans to the council describing the purpose and proposed terms of the renovation before any city funds are spent.

Such oversight is needed, Graham’s amendment said, because “It is clear that attempts have been made to avoid Council scrutiny on this project.” E-mails from the mayor’s office to Safe Shores officials appear to support Graham’s view, suggesting structuring the deal so that council review and an appraisal of the property could be avoided.

Lynn French, senior policy adviser in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, and Families, who has been working on the plans since February 2001, says that the deal with Safe Shores is “not a secret” and that the proposed center will benefit the city by consolidating various public services under one roof. French says numerous city agencies involved with child-abuse prevention will share the space—as will the National Children’s Alliance, Safe Shores’ national affiliate.

Handing over District property to be a headquarters for a national nonprofit is a bad precedent for the city, says Aeolian Jackson, a retired District social worker who serves on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. In April, Jackson testified against the Gales School renovation in front of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs, and Property Management. “The District does not owe the National Children’s Alliance of Huntsville, Alabama a site from which to conduct its operations,” reads her testimony. “Otherwise, it should be equally obligated to provide a site and support for the National Association for Social Workers, the National Counsel for Children…and other organizations.”

Jackson also argued that the local organization, Safe Shores, already has adequate offices in a centrally located building at One Judiciary Square, which the D.C. government leases to the nonprofit at below-market rates.

Jennifer Massengale, the acting executive director of Safe Shores, says that the center’s current facilities are, in fact, inadequate. “We’re doubled and tripled up in our offices,” says Massengale. “We need to have a stand-alone facility and a more child-friendly site.”

The District government has been looking for a new site for the D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center for years. Massengale says that proposed renovation of the Gales School will allow her organization to better serve the District’s physically and sexually abused children and handle an increased number of cases. In addition to space for more police detectives and city social works, the new digs would include a medical component currently outsourced to Children’s Hospital. “We’ll have all of the services under one roof,” says Massengale.

Safe Shores, also known as the D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center, is part of a national movement of such groups founded in the ’80s by Democratic Congressman Robert “Bud” Cramer of Alabama. Cramer, who sits on Safe Shores’ board of directors, also sits on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on the District of Columbia. Adding to Safe Shores’ sway on Capitol Hill is board member Cassie Bevan, who serves as a senior policy adviser to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

In 2002, city officials announced that the District would spend $7.3 million for the renovation project. Safe Shores agreed to kick in several million more with the help of DeLay. “This is a public-private partnership,” says French. “[Safe Shores is] sharing the cost of this because they have congressional backing.”

Critics of the deal say that there are better ways to use the property—including its current use. “The downtown shelters are very much at risk,” says Jane Ralph of the Coalition of Homeless & Housing Organizations, which organized a May 21 rally to save the Gales School as a homeless shelter. “And downtown is closest to where the services are.

“We support child advocacy,” adds Ralph. “But right now, I think office space is easier to find than shelter space.”

French dismisses the criticism as the opinions of a few individuals. “The Gales School belongs to the city now, and will continue to belong to the city,” says French. “There’s nothing being given away.”

French made the same point to Safe Shores, as recently as this past February. “Apparently, through private conversations, [Jim Graham has] been led to believe that we were transferring the Gales School to you,” French wrote to Safe Shores in an e-mail dated Feb. 10. “I assured him that we are not. (The importance of that is that if we were to actually transfer title, there is a lengthy process that goes before the Council of declaring the property surplus, justifying the sale, and justifying the price—which would have to be based on an appraisal. You will recall that we discussed this some time ago and agreed that we would not take that route.)”

“I explained that [the lease] is still being worked out by Corporation Counsel,” wrote French. “The importance of that is that if we were to give you a long term commercial lease, it would undergo the same scrutiny as a sale—and, you will recall, we decided against that, too.”

“We’re not involved with the negotiations,” says Peter Lavallee, spokesperson for D.C.’s Office of the Corporation Counsel. He says that if and when the deputy mayor’s office finalizes the lease agreement, his agency might review it.

In the meantime, Safe Shores officials are pushing ahead. In March, representatives of Safe Shores appeared before the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) to try and win approval for their renovation plans, which call for an extensive expansion of the historic building, from approximately 24,000 square feet to 70,000 square feet. On April 24, the HPRB denied Safe Shores’ request. Subsequently, Safe Shores has requested a public hearing in front of the mayor’s agent for historic preservation, who will make the final decision on whether to sign off on the construction permits. A date for the hearing has yet to be finalized.

“I’m not opposed to this project,” says Graham. “I’m not opposed to Safe Shores. But there are various rumors out there. I think we had to slow what was a galloping process and take a closer look at some of the details.” CP