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On the morning of May 16, District officials held a meeting and site visit for developers eyeing 87,000 square feet of land at 2nd and K streets NW. The Mount Vernon Triangle site currently features a two-story garage and parking deck. It’s situated above the I-395 freeway, and has been assessed at more than $21 million in present value.
But those companies may not get to touch the site.
One day after the site visit, the D.C. Council voted to earmark the space for a family homeless shelter in Ward 6, as part of a revised plan to replace D.C. General that would rely exclusively on District-owned land. Under the Council’s proposal, the shelter would contain 50 units; the site could be used for a “health-services facility” for homeless families “and [for] an intake center to replace services” at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center.
Kenyattah Robinson, president and CEO of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District, says he got a call from Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen the afternoon before the vote, informing him that the D.C. government intended to turn the site into a shelter. Shortly thereafter, Robinson says, the Washington Post broke the news about it.
“My immediate reaction was that I needed to very quickly engage my stakeholders and our team internally and members of our board to begin to think through the information,” the career real estate professional notes. “It was a lot to digest. I was appreciative of the heads up, I suppose, [but also] I was curious as to how long this alternative plan had been taking shape. How could it have been no one else was consulted? I wasn’t quite sure if someone else was.”
Wilson Building drama ensued after the Council released and initially approved the legislation early last week. Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration has expressed displeasure at aspects of the bill, which updated a plan she rolled out starting in February. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and a majority of his colleagues contend that the new version would save taxpayers an estimated $165 million by avoiding leases. They also say it’s a permanent, rather than temporary, solution.
Bowser’s side claims the revision could jeopardize her administration’s promised closure of D.C. General by fall 2018. The legislation mandates site changes in Wards 3, 5, and 6 as well as the appropriation of property in Wards 1 and 4. (In the latter wards, D.C. could use eminent domain if the current owners of the chosen sites decide not to sell them.)
With the Council expected to vote for a second and final time on the replacement bill next Tuesday, the Ward 6 site appears to present not insignificant challenges for redevelopment into a family homeless shelter. Furthermore, some community members say councilmembers are guilty of what the opponents of Bowser’s original plan alleged against the administration: a lack of transparency in picking which particular sites to use and a failure to garner resident input.
“I was frankly opposed to anything going up at 2nd and K without being part of the process,” says Dr. Joseph Evans, senior pastor of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church at 901 3rd St. NW. “It’s not about whether it’s homeless people or not. We were not permitted to participate in what takes place literally 10 feet from my property line.”
“What we are saying is you cannot usurp a democratic process for political expediency,” he says, adding that the historically black church has occupied its location in the busy neighborhood for more than a century.
The developer gathering on May 16 followed the release of a request for proposals on May 2 seeking to transform the Mount Vernon Triangle site into something more beneficial for the District. In particular, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development sought mixed-use proposals that would include retail and recreational uses. DMPED said it’d give applicants a boost for compatibility with surrounding development and community preferences.
The RFP, though, mentioned a major caveat: Redeveloping the site could bring on a bureaucratic headache for firms:
“Due to the location and title history of the Development Parcels, Respondents’ submissions may require review and/or approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), the D.C. Housing Finance Agency (“DCHFA”), the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highways Administration (“FHA”), [the District Department of Transportation], owners of the existing parking garage under the air rights lot, and/or adjoining landowners or other parties. Respondents are particularly encouraged to work with DDOT in creating their proposed development plans in order to anticipate required local and federal reviews and approvals.”
Evans, who also serves as chair of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District’s board, was already familiar with this mess of agencies and acronyms. About a decade ago, he says, Mount Carmel with its partners tried to buy a parcel of the site to create a green space (a kind of “safe zone”) for exercise, leisure, and displaying local art. But there were “too many hoops to jump through” and it ended up not being “financially feasible” back then, he recalls.
It’s unclear whether the local and federal roadblocks to redeveloping the site would persist for the District government in the same way they might for a private company. A staffer forAllen explained on Tuesday that questions about the location’s “technical aspects” remained, like how much “load-bearing” it could support and what approval is needed.
“It is sort of a complicated site,” the staffer acknowledged.
Bowser’s administration had proposed a lot next to events space Blind Whino in Southwest as its candidate for the Ward 6 family homeless shelter, but faced pushback. Asked to comment on the logistics of the 2nd and K street NW location, a spokesperson for the mayor said in an email: “We have serious concerns about whether the required federal reviews and approvals could be completed in time to meet the schedule of closing D.C. General by 2018.”
“As was detailed in the solicitation, there are federal agencies and external stakeholders that will have to review and approve the project,” the spokesperson continued. “We believe many of these entities will have to review and approve whatever eventually ends up on the parking deck no matter if it’s built by the government. It is currently impossible to determine what timeframe this will take for all approvals.”
According to the mayor’s office, executive officials were aware that the Council was considering the Mount Vernon Triangle site as an alternative to the one in Southwest when DMPED held the RFP meeting for developers. But “neither the Chairman or the councilmember confirmed that 200 K was selected until the Monday prior to the first budget vote.” Over the past week and a half, the executive and Council have had “several conversations” about the new plan. Additionally, DMPED has advised potential site-bidders that “more information will be available after the Council acts.”
What the details might be—and whether the Council’s shelter plan gets amended next week—is anybody’s guess. On Wednesday, Robinson said the community improvement district had “actively engaged with [Allen] and his staff over the last five days to coordinate discussion on this project,” having met with the councilmember and other stakeholders in Mount Vernon Triangle last Friday. Evans says he called for that meeting, which was not open to the public at large.
It did, however, attract many neighbors of the 2nd and K site: AIPAC, Madrigal Lofts, Sonata Condos, the Wilkes Company, Bible Way Church, and Bush Construction, which owns the Carmel Plaza and Museum Square apartments.
“We don’t think that the [proposed] use promotes the highest and best use of that site,” Robinson says, speaking on behalf of his own group. “We’re doing research within our office and we plan to [advise] the councilmember on alternative locations that could be more development-ready and suitable than this site…This isn’t about changing legislation or saying ‘not in our backyard’—this is about having a conversation and making sure the perspectives of our stakeholders are heard and understood. It would be unjust and inequitable if [their views weren’t] considered.”
That sentiment has persisted across the District throughout officials’ unrolling of the D.C. General replacement plan. On Thursday night, some residents at a meeting in Ward 3, where the Council has now proposed a shelter on the site of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Second District station at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW, reportedly voiced frustration—yet again—about the site-selection process. Councilmember Mary Cheh plugged for the plan’s benefits to the needy.
Carl Roller, the chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C, which contains the MPD bureau, said on Monday that he was “optimistic” about the event, despite witnessing some residents criticize councilmembers in neighborhood listservs. “There are a lot of questions that the community needs answers to, and they’re reasonable questions,” Roller, who lives a couple blocks from the site, said. “But I’m also hoping people will reserve judgement until we have all of those answers and information… While there will still be the usual level of some anxiety about change coming to the neighborhood, I am generally supportive of the concept.” He noted he saw a “qualitative difference” in the process.
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie has scheduled a similar community meeting for Friday night. The Council’s revised legislation authorizes one of two shelter sites in his ward, at 326 R St. NE or 1700 Rhode Island Ave. NE. McDuffie—who railed against Bowser’s originally proposed site in an industrial zone—has said he prefers the latter, which was previously MPD’s Youth Division building.
During last week’s vote on the plan, Allen said he was “very proud” of the Council’s work. He alluded to the possibility of the new Ward 6 site featuring bigger units and other development, given that it’s larger than the Blind Whino site. If the Council’s plan goes through, District leaders and advocates for the homeless say hundreds of families will benefit from dignified housing and wraparound social services that will put them on the path to more stable living situations.
But Pastor Evans says he was “surprised and disappointed” by the Council’s reworking of the plan, which “blindsided” Bowser. He points out that Mount Carmel supports three homeless shelters in the neighborhood through financial and other means, emphasizing that individuals in need should be connected to education and employment.
“We want homeless people to be housed—that is the goal of any Christian organization, in my view,” Evans says. “The problem is that this Christian organization was not treated as an institution nor as anchor of Mount Vernon Triangle. Therefore, the process assumed we didn’t have a voice and we didn’t have an opinion.”
“As an African-American leader of an institution, I can’t let that go.”