- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

East Capitol Hill residents have collected more than 1,000 signatures from neighbors to petition Girls and Boys Town of Washington to scrap its plans to build a home for neglected children in their Southeast community.

Neighborhood leaders who appeared on the "Metro Talk" radio show on WTEM-AM (980) and WBIG-FM (100) yesterday morning said the home's future site, at Pennsylvania and Potomac avenues, was not a safe environment for the at-risk children.

The $5 million complex would be near the Potomac Avenue Metro station, an area that neighborhood leaders say is a known open-air drug market.

"That neighborhood is a terrible place for this program to be placed," said Ellen Opper-Weiner, vice chairman of the Southeast Citizens for Smart Development, the group of residents opposed to the facility.

"It's difficult as it is controlling crime in the neighborhood," Ms. Opper-Weiner said during the broadcast. "We're just concerned whether this is a good place to place vulnerable children."

Neighborhood opposition would not surprise the original group's founder, the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest who in 1936 had to form his own village on the outskirts of Omaha, Neb., so he could operate a home for troubled boys. The reason: No one wanted such a home in their community.

Father Flanagan's struggles were featured in movie classic "Boys' Town" (1938), starring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney and Henry Hull.

"Father Flanagan's idea of helping children of different races and different religious backgrounds was considered to be a radical statement on his part in that time," Tom Lynch, a manager of the Hall of History at the Boys Town USA facility in Omaha, said yesterday.

It took Father Flanagan almost five years to get residents from Omaha to accept his 90-acre project, which currently houses 550 girls and boys.

Girls and Boys Town of Washington paid $8.2 million last March for the 88,000-square-foot tract in the Southeast neighborhood to construct four Victorian town homes to house up to 40 abused and neglected children. Construction is expected to begin April 1.

Girls and Boys Town operates a similar complex in the 4800 block of Sargent Road in Northeast, which has had several run-ins with neighbors since it opened. Residents have complained about trespassing and excessive noise by Boys Town youths.

Officials at Girls and Boys Town, who declined to appear on yesterday's radio program, issued a two-page statement. "We believe their middle-class neighbors are discriminating against these low-income kids," wrote the group's site director Constance Washington.

"Our mission is Father Flanagan's and we are sure he would want us to move forward. And, that is exactly what we are doing."

Girls and Boys Town officials said the location is one of the best sites they could find. "This is a good location because we want to preserve family relations where possible, and this is easily accessible by public transportation to allow family visits," Miss Washington wrote. "Moreover, it is close to the children's original neighborhood."

The homes planned for the Southeast neighborhood would provide a surrogate family, headed by a married couple and assistant who live in the homes and work for Boys Town full time, group officials have said. Most of the children in the homes will be from Wards 6, 7 and 8 and will attend neighborhood schools.

Neighborhood leaders have been fighting for a year to stop the building of the complex, which they fear will house delinquent children. Residents also are upset that they weren't told of the group home's plans to come into their community. They said no hearings or meetings were held.

"Father Flanagan's group is not what it used to be," said Will Hill, SCSD's founder and chairman. "Boys Town came into our community like a thief in the night."

Neighbors said the development usurps one of the last spots for a commercial or retail business, hurting revitalization efforts. "We're concerned that this will foreclose any future economic development," said Patricia Harden, a social worker and a SCSD member.

City officials urge Girls and Boys Town officials to work with the Southeast community as they begin to break ground.

"Boys Town has a legal right to build on the site on Capitol Hill," Des Brasie, a special assistant in the city's Office of Planning and Economic Development, said in a statement that aired during the show yesterday.

"No city monies are involved in this project," Mr. Brasie said. "But there is nothing the city can do to prohibit the Boy's Town project from happening. They are zoned for the property and they have raised private funding for the project."

The neighborhood residents said they would try to work with the group officials if contacted. "They will have a lot of work to do if they want to work with us," Ms. Harden said.


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