- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2016

A proposed homeless shelter in Ward 6 has turned the Mount Vernon Triangle into the arena for a battle royale involving the D.C. Council, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration and community activists — with the federal government waiting in the wings as a spoiler.

City lawmakers want to build the shelter at Second and K streets Northwest as part of their plan to close the run-down homeless facility at the former D.C. General Hospital by 2018. But Ms. Bowser, whose own plan was overhauled by the council, said it could take as long as 10 years to secure federal approval to build on the site.

Neighborhood leaders are crying foul because neither the mayor nor the council included the community in the site selection.

“Because there was not a public process, everyone is suspicious about the council’s motivation. That’s an immediate red flag,” said the Rev. Joseph Evans, senior pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church.

The Ward 6 brouhaha has exposed deep divisions and animosity between the Democratic mayor and the mostly Democratic council, as it threatens to impede the lawmakers’ proposed schedule to replace D.C. General’s homeless shelter with seven smaller facilities owned by the city. Bubbling in the background are concerns about the rapidly changing landscape and demographics in the District — and who stands to gain from those changes.

“Gentrification is the elephant in the room. Often, African-American stakeholders in downtown Washington are not a part of processes led by its government,” Mr. Evans said at a May 20 community meeting at his 140-year-old church. “With gentrification in mind, political processes can keep interested parties out of the decision-making process.

“In this way, politics determines whose money will be at the table, and too often with gentrification in mind, the money at the table is not ours,” the Baptist preacher said.

Ms. Bowser’s plan, which she presented to the council amid widespread approval in February, called for closing D.C. General and building a shelter in seven of the city’s eight wards. Landowners and developers would have benefited from the Bowser plan, which would have directed the city to pay millions of dollars for five properties under 20- and 30-year leases. Two of her plan’s proposed sites were city-owned properties.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson ripped up the Bowser provision for leases in crafting an alternative plan that requires all of the proposed shelters to be owned by the city. His proposal includes the two city-owned properties from the Bowser plan but directs the city to purchase two sites offered by the mayor and identifies three alternative sites for the District to own.

A unanimous council this month gave preliminary approval to the plan, which Mr. Mendelson has said would cost millions of dollars less than Ms. Bowser’s in the long run.

Though she didn’t slam the Mendelson plan during the May 17 council vote, Ms. Bowser later was heard yelling at the 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],” the mayor shouted within in earshot of reporters from The Washington Times and WAMU Radio.

Subsequently, the Bowser administration has blasted the council’s overall plan for not including input from the community — a major criticism of her own homeless shelter proposal after its February presentation. Council members have since held public forums where city residents voiced displeasure with the mayor’s plan and put forward suggestions for alternative sites.

The Bowser administration has taken special aim at the proposed site in Ward 6, where a shelter would be built at 200 K St. NW behind the Carmel Plaza apartment building on top of a below-ground parking deck that abuts Interstate 395.

“Our estimate of all the things one would have to go through in order for a developer to develop on top of this site in terms of the time frame dealing with the encumbrance issues and approval issues from [the federal government] and the D.C. Housing Finance Agency could be up to nine years to get all of those things worked out,” City Administrator Rashad Young told reporters after the council vote. “Best case estimate, four to five years.”

A council source said Mr. Mendelson has heard the five- to nine-year approval estimate and doesn’t think it will affect the schedule for closing D.C. General by 2018.

The mayor’s staffers have based their estimate on a memo written last year by real estate lawyers in the D.C. attorney general’s office. The memo says the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the D.C. Housing Finance Agency would all have to approve building on the site. Also, the highway administration would need to make sure the construction wouldn’t affect I-395, which runs below the site.

Robert Marus, a spokesman for the attorney general, said the memo wasn’t intended to assess a schedule for a District-owned homeless shelter.

“Over a year ago, [the attorney general’s office] rendered advice concerning the potential sale of the District-owned property at issue to a commercial developer. The circumstances of that contemplated disposition are substantially different from the use of the government property for a public purpose,” Mr. Marus said. “As such, the previous advice is not germane to the use of the property for a purpose such as the District developing a government-owned shelter for homeless families.”

Still, Brian Kenner, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, insists that federal regulators will need to approve the construction.

“My experience is that the [Federal Highway Administration] doesn’t care much about the public purpose, as noble as it is, but rather the freeway and their transportation mandate. There will have to be approval for a project that goes above an active freeway,” Mr. Kenner said. “It’s unknown how long of an approval process it would be.”

Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox said the agency has received no construction proposal for 200 K St. NW.

“We are unfamiliar with this proposal, so we can’t say for certain what, if any, role we would play,” he said, adding that it is impossible to determine the length of an approval process without a plan in hand.

Mount Carmel Baptist Church sits next to the proposed shelter site in Ward 6, which is represented by council member Charles Allen. At the community meeting, Mr. Allen told residents that the site selection process moved too quickly for the community to be notified.

Community leaders pressed him for alternative sites, but he said all other city-owned alternatives were rejected because of financial, regulatory or zoning restrictions.

“It’s a big ward. There have got to be more alternatives,” Kenyattah Robinson, head of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District, said after the meeting.

Mr. Robinson said his group is conducting its own analysis of alternative sites to present to the council and the mayor. He expects it to be completed soon.

Mr. Evans, the pastor, had a warning for Mr. Allen about the proposed project: “I’ll oppose it, and I think I’ll be in good company. I can build a coalition around this. I don’t want to oppose you, but I will. And you don’t want that.”


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