Southeast resident Sarah Boyd passes by the Penn-Branch Shopping Center every day, but she rarely window-shops. The strip shopping mall, located at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Branch Avenues SE in a tony section of Ward 7, offers the typical urban mix of goods and services: a liquor store, a nail salon, a carry-out joint, a CVS, and some doctors’ offices upstairs. Safeway left the lower level years ago, and an independent market took its place for a short time. Now nearly 40,000 square feet of retail space remain fallow.
Boyd, a board member and past president of the Penn-Branch Citizens Civic Association, has no shortage of ideas on how to fill it. “The shopping center needs a little sock place, a little restaurant, a coffee shop,” she suggests. “We need places in our community to congregate. The mix of stores no longer reflects our community. It’s run-down.”
The shopping center finally has a new tenant scheduled, but Boyd won’t be ordering an iced mochaccino any time soon: A welfare office run by the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) is in the process of becoming the center’s anchor tenant.
DHS’s move to Penn-Branch, say Boyd and her neighbors, is one component of welfare reform they could live without. Last month, members of the Penn-Branch Commercial Development and Revitalization Committee met to brainstorm on ways to attract upscale shopping to their retail corridor. When they discussed their priorities with mall management, committee members found out their efforts were for naught. Over the summer, the District had signed a 10-year lease to house a consolidated income maintenance administration (IMA) center at Penn-Branch, which in the era of changing welfare as we know it, translates into a welfare office.
The middle-class communities of Penn-Branch, Dupont Park, and Hillcrest reacted in a fit of NIMBY pique. “The IMA center will cause an influx of activity that will destroy the peace and tranquility we now enjoy as long-time homeowners…[and] has the potential for loud music, loud talking, drinking, arguments, fighting, increase in crimebreak-ins, theft, etc.,” reads a letter sent by Dupont Park Civic Association President Barbara Morgan to D.C. Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett. A flier notifying residents of a meeting with Barnett announced in bold letters: “Are you aware of the problems being brought to our community?”
And the “problems,” according to residents, are not welfare recipients per se. “The greater story would be that middle-class black folks don’t want to deal with their own,” notes Boyd. “But that’s simply not true. We’re fighting to create jobs in our community….This is not economic development for us.”
Most Washingtonians who live west of the park rely on myth and prejudice to form their views of life east of the river. In the 1980s, for example, reputable sources like DC-101 DJ Doug “Greaseman” Tracht helped cement stereotypes of Anacostia as a crime- and drug-infested netherworld. On his popular drive-time program, the Greaseman was careful to document every last drive-by shooting in neighborhoods that his listeners had never seen. “We know what people think of Southeastwe hear it on the radio,” says Boyd. “We want them to know that we have great people, a great community.” Indeed, the Greaseman’s old faithful might be surprised to see that many of the red-brick colonials surrounding the Penn-Branch Shopping Center resemble those found in neighborhoods like Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase.
The new DHS installation at the Penn-Branch Shopping Center, on the other hand, has no counterpart in the city’s elite ‘hoods. The welfare office now under construction will consolidate three smaller IMA centers at 1325 Independence Ave. SE, 5929 East Capitol St. SE, and 2818 Alabama Ave. SE. The new facility will determine eligibility for Temporary Aid to Needy Families, food stamps, and Medicaid for 13,000 clients as well as providing job counseling and resources.
Preliminary plans for the office include a waiting area with a capacity of 75 people, a guard room, and a “food stamp cage,” a 10-by-8 cinder-block room that will include a metal door and bullet-proof glass capable of stopping a bullet from a 9 mm handgun.
Few residents of the surrounding community, say the center’s opponents, are eligible for the services offered at the facility. They point out that only 20 percent of the new facility’s client base lives in the areas immediately surrounding the shopping center, and they employ 1990 Census data to back up their argument. In Census Tract 99.2, which includes the neighborhoods of Dupont Park and Penn-Branch, the median household income is $59,574. Only 282 out of 3,275 residents receive any form of city or federal public assistance.
That’s in stark contrast to census Tract 93.3, which has a median household income of $19,036, in which the East Capitol Street welfare center is located. More than one-quarter of its residents, 838 out of 3,143, receive public assistance.
“We’re getting dumped on again,” Barbara Morgan told Barnett and DHS director Jearline Williams at a packed community meeting two Wednesdays ago. Even though the neighborhoods of Penn-Branch, Dupont Park, and Hillcrest are upwardly mobile by any definition, they still host more than 50 community-based service facilities. “We have communicated to you that we don’t want to be inundated with people from other wards. We’re not trying to be rude,” Morgan noted at the meeting.
DHS Director Williams interpreted the statement and other community concerns as classic NIMBYism. “As I understand it, your concern is that you would have low-income people coming into the community,” she said.
When faced with that allegation, the opposition resorted to hair-splitting. “While we do oppose the relocation of the IMA Center to our community, we do not oppose the people receiving these services,” Morgan wrote in the letter addressed to Barnett. The letter went on to list the ills that the neighborhood will suffer from if the center makes Penn-Branch home, among them destruction of property values, lessening of security in the shopping center and surrounding neighborhoods, and elimination of incentives to attract and retain stable homeownership.
“We are sick and tired of serving people in our neighborhood,” Roscoe Grant, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, declared at one point in the evening meeting. “If only 20 percent of our residents use the facility, where do the other 80 percent come from?”
Grant and his neighbors are victims of their own success. The residents of Penn-Branch and Hillcrest value the stability and safety of their community, and so, apparently, do DHS and the city’s welfare recipients. DHS, for example, decided to close down the East Capitol Street benefits center because of “neighborhood criminal activities,” according to a DHS memo.
The whole misunderstanding, says Grant, could have been avoided if only the city had adhered to a city code requiring District officials to give 30-day notification to the affected advisory neighborhood commission and the surrounding community upon opening of a new facility.
The community would have gladly alerted the city to the many problems that already exist in the shopping center. “First of all, the escalator has been broken for 15 years,” notes Paul Savage, a longtime community activist and head rabble-rouser for the Williams for Mayor campaign. Savage knows whereof he speaks. Williams’ Ward 7 base is located in the upper level of the Penn-Branch Shopping Center. When it rains, the parking lot doesn’t properly drain, and a huge puddle forms. Savage also points out that the building contains significant amounts of asbestos.
If hazardous materials aren’t enough to scare DHS away, neighborhood activists are hoping to block the move by questioning the contractual maneuvers behind it. Though JC Associates manages the property, a familiar name appears on the lease as a sub-landlord: Yong Yun, a crony of Marion Barry’s who was sentenced last year to perform 300 hours of community service and ordered to forfeit $172,000 to the government for making a false statement on a bank loan application. According to a report released by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, the going rate for retail space in the Penn-Branch Shopping Center was $17 per square foot at the end of 1996. The District signed its lease for $19.50 per square foot, a 15 percent increase. That means the District will spend more that $7.7 million to leasenot ownthe property.
And when they stop and think about it, opponents insist Penn-Branch is a bad idea for welfare recipients, too. The shopping center is far from any Metro station and is accessible by only a few bus lines. It is a monumental journey from the neighborhoods serviced by the old IMA centers to Penn-Branch by public transportation. “So then we were told a lot of these people will have their own transportation,” says Morgan. “If they break down, how will we get them out of the community?”
Both DHS officials and Barnett say they will revisit the contract in the next few weeks. “It is consistent with our priority for improved customer service, but we take the concerns raised by community residents very seriously,” says Madelyn Andrews, a DHS spokeswoman. “We will review these issues, consider our options, and determine what we will do next.”CP