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Back in 2008, after the closure of 23 public schools, the District awarded J.F. Cook Elementary at 1st and P Streets NW to two entities: the public charter school YouthBuild, which helps kids who haven’t been successful in traditional school settings to learn trades, and the Latin American Youth Center, which planned to build apartments for 47 young people who for whatever reason couldn’t live at home.
It’s mostly the second part that many neighbors can’t abide.
Since the District’s decision, ANC Commissioner Sylvia Pinkney has led discussions with the non-profits and gotten hundreds of signatures on a petition asking that the residential component of the project be ditched. The ANC and the Bates Area Civic Association have passed resolutions opposing the lease. Though there are worries about the effect that a high concentration of troubled younguns would have on the surrounding neighborhood, Pinkney emphasizes the effect a troubled neighborhood—with drug activity on nearby North Capitol Street, etc—would have on the children.
“What we have been saying is that if this organization really cares about these young kids, that there is no way they could bring them into a huge population of at-risk adults if they are at-risk teenagers,” she said. “That does not make sense to us.” Pinkney suggested that the non-profits should instead look at empty former schools at 220 Taylor Street NE, which are now on the market for $10.2 million.
At a community meeting on Wednesday, LAYC CEO Lori Kaplan sought to reassure standoffish neighbors that the kids were used to dodgy environments, and that LAYC’s programs had helped revitalize neighborhoods like the area around its headquarters in Columbia Heights. The non-profit currently has about 60 young people in apartments across the city; this would be the first project of its size in D.C. (though the model has been successful elsewhere).
A bit about the financials: YouthBuild has a letter of intent to sign a master lease that will cost $426,000 per year, though that will be offset by the $12 million both organizations plan to put into renovating the building. Kaplan says that fundraising is almost complete—funding sources include low income housing tax credits, grants and loans from Office of the State Superintendent of Education, donations, and private sector financing.
But the lease still requires Council approval. Council Chairman Vince Gray postponed a vote on finalizing the lease for LAYC and YouthBuild to address neighborhood concerns. Though the non-profits have promised to include community space in the school, and to have their charges work on projects to improve the surrounding area, the opponents’ fundamental objection—that troubled young people will be housed in their neighborhood—isn’t going away.
Kaplan seemed surprised by the level of community resistance. “This is the first time in my 31 years [at LAYC] I’ve had to step back,” she said.