- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

Terry Lynch was at Mayor Anthony A. Williams' side when the mayor announced July 11 the Freedom Forum's plan to move its Arlington-based offices and Newseum to downtown Washington.

Mr. Williams said the move to the building that now houses the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) would boost efforts to revitalize the city's downtown district a cause championed by Mr. Lynch and the social services group he runs, the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

Mr. Lynch, 41, came to Washington as a student at Georgetown University in the late 1970s. Later, he joined late activist Mitch Snyder's campaign to combat homelessness in the District.

Fifteen years after becoming executive director of the Downtown Cluster, Mr. Lynch is still fighting what he believes is a good fight. He is credited with transforming the cluster an advocacy group formed by 36 D.C. churches after the 1968 riots into a scrappy organization that frequently clashes with city leaders.

Sometimes this puts Mr. Lynch at odds with business leaders. But lately, he's become an ally to developers who want to build more housing downtown.

For example, Mr. Lynch has led the campaign to force the city to sell the Mather Building, an abandoned, rat-infested site coveted by developers who want to turn it into apartments and retail space.

Question: The Downtown Cluster has been involved with lots of issues over the years, including civil rights and homelessness. What are its priorities today?

Answer: Right at the moment, it's job creation. There are large parts of the District where folks still don't have job opportunities.

Grocery stores are critical. We helped form the FAIR [Food Access Is Right] coalition to help bring new grocery stores east of Rock Creek Park.

We want full-service grocery stores east of [the park]. Our poorest citizens right now pay the highest prices for the poorest quality and least choice of food.

Q: Why is that happening?

A: Safeway and Giant are concentrated in upper Northwest and in the suburbs. Mom-and-pop stores control basic food stuff in many of our poor communities, where many people are paying huge markups for poor-quality goods and little selection. You have ice cream trucks going around [selling] bread, milk, toothpaste at twice the going price in parts of the city.

Q: What's the answer?

A: For two years we have asked [the city] to bundle sites for attracting new grocery stores. They have failed to do that.

Until they bundle Columbia Heights, Brentwood parking lot, sites on Georgia Avenue [and give grocers a choice on which site they would like to open a store], we will not get new grocery store retailers in the city.

Q: Do you think most businesses are interested in being good corporate citizens when it comes to dealing with social problems?

A: I think a handful are. I think many are so busy making their businesses competitive that it's very hard to have the broader community view.

Plus, we have so many folks who are new to the city. So many are not born and bred here, and so you don't have some of the philanthropy, some of the corporate citizenry you have in other cities.

This is a more transit-oriented city, and people are not committed. And where many of the haves live, they have no commitment to where the have-nots live. We need to turn that around.

Q: Is that why downtown housing is so important to folks like you and [Downtown Housing Now Committee Chairman] Charlie Docter? Is it important to get the executives out of the suburbs and back into the city?

A: Downtown housing is critical because without people, there's no civic activism. If we don't have a citizenry downtown, we will never have the quality of life and the vibrant mix of uses that have made other cities Manhattan, for example so successful.

Q: Is the tide turning when it comes to downtown housing?

A: Yes. We have a Fifth Street housing project that's moving, we have one on Massachusetts Avenue that's moving. The demand is there.

I have a broad view of downtown housing. Seventh street is ground zero for downtown housing. Mass Avenue, U Street, Logan Circle, even Wisconsin Avenue up to the St. Alban's project that's all downtown housing. Those folks who are living there, they're the people who use [and] patronize downtown art galleries, restaurants, theaters, the MCI Center.

I think the exposure downtown has gotten through venues such as the MCI Center, the restaurants, the nightclubs, the opportunities for young people to socialize has made it appealing to developers.

Q: Do you think your organization makes a difference on these issues?

A: Yes, a huge difference.

Our advocacy helped incorporate a "lifeline" rate for water utilities [for nonprofit groups]. We helped educate … Washington Gas when they wanted to use liquor stores as payment centers that is, go pay your gas bill and buy lottery tickets and alcohol at the same time.

We prevented them from using liquor stores to promote their business, to promote liquor. Why the gas industry wanted to promote liquor is beyond me.

Our member congregations are the oldest continuous institutional and community organizations in the city. They date from the 1700s. We have the long view. For 20 years, we've had the long view.

We feel we have made a real difference … in trying to hold the city officials and the business community to some sort of standards.

Q: Do you think of yourself as a thorn in the sides of folks like Mayor Williams when it comes to situations like the Mather Building?

A: I just ask them to do the right thing.

The Mather Building, unfortunately, is the source of the rat infestation in the 900 block of G Street. The [merchants there] complain to me that rats are eating into their wiring, and the business community tells me they could be generating a half million dollars in taxes from that building and housing 100 new residents. But instead, we've got a slum property.

If that's being a thorn in their side, then that's what we have to do… .

I don't know if it's incompetence [on the city's part.] I cannot and our members can no longer tolerate incompetence.

Q: If you could change one thing about "the system," what would it be? What would make your job easier?

A: I guess it would be just having city agencies do their jobs.

If city officials did what they were supposed to do that is, they have a "clean it or lien it" program [the Mather Building] should never have fallen into the deteriorating stage that it is.

The deputy mayor for economic development said they would put that building and the DOES building out to bid by March 31. Here it was July 1 and neither had been put out to bid.

If they would just do what they say they were going to do, at least you could count on that.


Terry Lynch, executive director, Downtown Cluster of Congregations

Age: 41

Education: B.S., foreign service, Georgetown University, 1981.

Background: Executive director of Downtown Cluster since 1985; managed D.C. homeless shelter, 1983 until 1985; shelter worker, 1981 to 1983.

Family: Married to Rose Marie; two children: Lillian, 6, and Camille, 4. The family lives in Mount Pleasant.

Contact: 202/347-7015

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