- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The D.C. Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to an overhaul of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to close the dilapidated homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital and build seven smaller facilities across the city to house its residents.

Under the revised plan, which was largely reworked by council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the city would buy two proposed shelter sites from their owners. Three of the proposed sites would shift to city-owned property, instead of being leased from developers. The District already owns the property for two other proposed sites.

Mr. Mendelson said his revision would significantly lower costs for the city and meet Ms. Bowser’s schedule for closing D.C. General, which has been used as a temporary shelter for more than a decade.

“It’s my belief that the [legislation] before us makes more likely the ambitious goal of having it completed by 2018,” said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat.

During the council meeting, Ms. Bowser did not specifically express support for the revision, saying she had no issue with the new sites as long as the lawmakers make residents aware of them. The Democratic mayor has come under fire for not involving or notifying the community when she introduced her plan in February, though it enjoyed notable support from city lawmakers.

Ms. Bowser did express concerns about whether the plan would meet the 2018 deadline to close D.C. General, saying “We’re not so sure about that.”

Her concerns apparently were deeper than she let on. After the meeting, Ms. Bowser could be heard yelling at the council chairman outside his office on the fifth floor of the Wilson Building.

“You’re a [expletive] liar! You know it can’t close in [2018],” Ms. Bowser yelled within in earshot of two reporters, referring to Mr. Mendelson’s revised plan.

Three of the mayor’s staffers — Legislative Affairs Director Maia Estes, Chief Of Staff John Falcicchio and City Administrator Rashad Young — were in the hallway during the confrontation.

“There was a bit of frustration today,” Mr. Falcicchio told reporters after the confrontation, noting that the council had first presented its plan to Ms. Bowser on Monday morning.

He said the Bowser administration took more than a year to develop its plan, and Mr. Young said that lawmakers had rushed their revision, adding that it will be impossible to close D.C. General by 2018.

“Chairman Mendelson won’t admit that his plan pushes beyond 2018,” Mr. Falcicchio added.

Mr. Young said the government-owned sites won’t work because using eminent domain could take up to nine years to resolve a legal conflict. He also noted several problems with the new sites in Mr. Mendelson’s plan, including not having the air rights to the Ward 6 site and parking problems with the Ward 5 site.

During the council meeting, most of the Bowser-backed lawmakers — including Yvette Alexander, Brandon Todd and LaRuby May — pushed back against the revision.

But council member Vincent Orange, normally an ally of the mayor, voiced full support for the new plan.

“Our ultimate goal has not changed. Our ultimate goal was to close D.C. General,” said Mr. Orange, at-large Democrat. “The only thing that has been changed is we have tweaked the path.”

Buying versus leasing

The new plan addresses several concerns from residents, including the high costs of leasing properties and the fact that the District wouldn’t own any of the shelters at the end of the 20- or 30-year leases.

Under Ms. Bowser’s plan, five of the seven proposed sites would have been leased. The sites in Ward 7 and Ward 8 were planned for city property from the start. But the District would have paid a premium to developers for shelters in Wards 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6, and would not retain ownership of the buildings at the end of the leases.

Mr. Mendelson’s revision dramatically lowers costs for the city. An independent assessment of the cost of leasing the site prepared for the council showed that several of the proposed leases were well above market rate. It showed the city would overpay by more than $23 million to lease the five sites under the Bowser plan.

The analysis “determined that the proposed lease would be above-market to a rather extraordinary degree” for the original Ward 1 site, and the Ward 3 lease “would be a windfall profit to either the current property owner or landlord.”

Unlike the mayor’s plan, the revision allows the city to own the sites, whose values could increase after the shelters are constructed.

“Not only are the rents for several of the proposed sites above-market, and not only does the District plan to pay for construction with the effect of enhancing the value of the asset, but then the city has nothing to show for its investment at the end of the leases,” the Council report says of Ms. Bowser’s plan.

Ms. Bowser’s plan would cost about $27 million per year in leases alone and more than $800 million over the next 30 years. The Mendelson plan calls for the District to move three of the proposed sites to city-owned land and obtain the land for the other two sites either through purchase or eminent domain.

During the council meeting, only Ward 7 member Ms. Alexander questioned how eminent domain might affect the schedule to close D.C. General by 2018.

Eminent domain “could prolong the plan far beyond 2018,” she told Mr. Mendelson.

But the chairman rebuffed her argument, saying eminent domain would be used only as a last resort and the plan is more time-efficient than Ms. Bowser’s original.

The new plan would cost about $100 million up front for land and construction. The council analysis says it would save the District about $165 million total over the terms of the proposed leases — from 20 to 30 years, depending on the site.

Location, location, location

Residents opposed some of the original shelter sites for costing too much or not being able to provide basic services to homeless families.

The Ward 5 shelter would move from the proposed site off Bladensburg Road to one owned by the city, likely pleasing opponents who said the proposed industrial area is not a safe place to house homeless families. The site is near a strip club and a Metrobus repair station, and lacks basic amenities like public transportation, a grocery store and a pharmacy.

The final location for Ward 5 is being negotiated, but it could either be the former D.C. police building on Rhode Island Avenue NE or a city-owned building in the Eckington neighborhood.

The Ward 3 site will move from a Wisconsin Avenue lot to a District-owned parking lot near the Second District police station and the Sidwell Friends School.

The Ward 6 site would move from the land it would share with the Blind Whino arts space to a city-owned lot near Second and K streets NW.

“I believe this new site will work,” said council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat. “We are taking a major step.”

The shelters in Wards 1 and 4 would stay at the sites that Ms. Bowser proposed, but the city would buy the properties or acquire them through eminent domain. The Ward 1 location would cost the District about $7.5 million and the Ward 4 property about $3 million.

Money, money, money

Ms. Bowser’s plan was not funded in the fiscal 2017 budget request. The new plan, however, is funded for the first year. But how the council found the money for the initial $100 million to buy the properties and build the shelter could be controversial.

The plan, which is funded in the council’s latest iteration of the fiscal 2017 budget, would take about $50 million from Coolidge High School that was earmarked for modernization in Ward 4. The total cost for revamping the high school could reach about $174 million over the next few years.

Council member David Grosso, the at-large independent who heads the education committee, approved the Mendelson plan, saying that the school’s renovation wouldn’t happen in the next year so the money would sat unused. He said Coolidge High would be modernized, but funding would come in the fiscal 2018 and 2019 budgets.

“There is no doubt Coolidge High School is in need of a full modernization,” Mr. Grasso said in a letter Monday.

Michelle Lerner, spokeswoman for D.C. Public Schools, said the school system would work with Mr. Mendelson and Mr. Grosso to update Coolidge High’s modernization plans.

“We also want to ensure that Coolidge High School receives full funding so the school receives a timely and complete modernization,” Ms. Lerner said.

Mr. Grosso also said the funds that Coolidge would have received in that first year weren’t ready to be spent because it has not yet been decided how the school will be revamped.

“Without the feasibility study and a determination of what will happen with part of the facility, how can the project truly move forward?” he said.

Council member Brandon Todd fought the proposed funding, saying it isn’t fair for students in his juridiction.

“For this council to say to Ward 4 students that we are going to have you bear the brunt for the whole city I think is unconscionable,” said Mr. Todd, Ward 4 Democrat. “I don’t support how we’re funding today’s measure.”

Mr. Mendelson said the money for Coolidge’s construction would be fully funded in coming years because it will take at least a year to finalize a design.

“It’s completely reasonable to have the construction budget in [out years],” the chairman said.

After an initial study on the site is done in June, DCPS will need to go back to the community to review the findings and make a final decision about what to do with the high school.

“Given the amount of planning that still needs to take place for this project I do not believe that $59 million will be expended on Coolidge in fiscal year 2017,” Mr. Grosso said. “But we are going to continue to [fund the modernization] in the budget over the next three years. This is a win-win for everybody.”

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