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Local Politics Complicate Hill East Development

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
People line up for a bus outside the old D.C. General Hospital, which has been converted into a homeless shelter. Located in Hill East in the middle of the Reservation 13 complex, development at the site has been politically embattled for more than a decade.

On the eastern fringe of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, not far from the banks of the Anacostia River, sits the District’s largest shelter for homeless families. It’s located on the Reservation 13 area, long home to city services typically shielded from the public eye, long targeted for commercial and residential development, and long an issue in District politics.

During a frigid spell three weeks into January, officially declared a “cold weather emergency” by Mayor Vincent Gray, about 286 homeless families took refuge in the old D.C. General Hospital.

Formerly a 482-bed facility that provided medical and surgical care and substance abuse treatment for District residents, including inmates at the nearby D.C. Jail, the abandoned hospital is at its maximum occupancy. The building, plagued by rodents as well as heat, water and security problems, also serves as an emergency shelter for adult women.

“They run full capacity virtually every night as well,” said D.C. Department of Human Services Director David Berns, whom Gray tapped in 2011 to take on the task of housing the city’s poorest families. “We have been inundated with families coming in.”

The population has been pegged at almost 1,000 people, including close to 600 children living in what was once the city’s only full-service public hospital. D.C. General sits in the middle of the Reservation 13 complex, also home to drug treatment and correctional facilities, that has been targeted for redevelopment for more than a decade in the District’s master plan for the area.

The Battle of Hill East

Although the 67-acre site, also known as Hill East, lies in Ward 7, the promise of new amenities for Ward 6 residents and prospect of opening Capitol Hill to the Anacostia riverfront make the development plan a campaign issue for D.C. Council candidates Charles Allen and Darrel Thompson, who are each vying to represent Capitol Hill and Ward 6.

Both say they are frustrated with the long-stalled status of development, the city’s failure to serve its homeless families and the seeming lack of political will to bring the community’s vision to fruition.

“The challenge is how do you fight against the politics that tends to insert itself into Reservation 13 and focus on getting the job done,” Allen said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

As chief of staff for Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, Allen worked with residents in 2010 as they sifted through developers’ proposals for developing the site. Then-Mayor Adrian Fenty promised an announcement before the 2010 primary election but kept pushing it back to the point where it “felt like a game,” Allen said.

When Gray won the election that year, he put the long-standing plans for Reservation 13 on hold. The project languished during the collapse of the real estate market. Gray tried to lure Washington’s National Football League franchise to develop a training facility on the site, but that effort fell through.

The city has since rebooted the bidding process and in September announced that it had selected a team from Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Development and Construction to develop two parcels of the plot — a sliver of the 50 or so acres targeted for development.

Negotiations with the developers are ongoing, according to Chanda Washington, spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED). The office expects to have a legislative package for the details of the land transfer ready to go before the D.C. Council by spring. From there, the project will proceed on a parcel-by-parcel basis, Washington said in an email.

Ensuring projects such as Reservation 13 move forward “so they are shovel-ready in order to create jobs for Ward 6 residents” is a top priority of Thompson’s campaign. He said he is pleased with the initial progress.

“By and large, it would be great to have a large-scale master plan unfolding for the entire project, but I think frustration has set in among a lot of community leaders and advocates because nothing has happened,” Thompson said in an interview on the project. “So I think getting something moving is the right step.”

In Allen’s opinion, moving forward on two parcels was a compromise, meant to serve as a catalyst for further development.

“I think that made sense for the market that we were in,” Allen said, but he is opposed to “chopping up” the rest of the land. “When you divvy it up 10 different ways, it means that your community benefit is divvied up 10 different ways, and you get smaller and smaller return on that as a neighborhood.”

Brian Flahaven, commissioner of local Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B, is one stakeholder pressuring the city for a plan. He has testified to the council on the community’s vision, invited city officials to present the ANC with updates, and continued to call DMPED for updates on the project’s progress.

“At this point, one could potentially doubt their commitment, but I’m going to be an optimist and say they wouldn’t have made the award if they weren’t going to move forward,” Flahaven said. “I’m hoping that the negotiations will begin, this will get in front of the council this spring, and there won’t be much more of a delay.”

What to Do With What’s Left

In either scenario — parcel-by-parcel development or bidding out the project as a whole — figuring out what to do with D.C. General and the D.C. Jail presents the biggest obstacle.

DMPED is working with the Department of General Services to determine the DGS timeline for relocating those agencies.

“We currently don’t have a timeline for that process,” Washington said.

The Gray administration’s family shelter restructuring plan calls for dramatically reducing the number of people housed at D.C. General, placing more than 100 families into more stable housing by the end of September. The goal is housing no more than 153.

Berns said the District is not on track to hit Gray’s target right now. The demand for shelter has increased “considerably more, and faster this year than what we had anticipated,” he said.

“It would be overly optimistic at this time to think that we would be able to get it down to that by the end of [fiscal] ’14,” Berns said. “I think more realistic is probably sometime in fiscal year ’15, just because we’ve had hundreds more families come into our system than what we anticipated — a 30 percent increase this year over where we were last year.”

Each Ward 6 council candidate has a plan for confronting the homelessness epidemic.

“I think we can all agree that trying to round up homeless folks and put them in a corner of the District, in a facility that should have been torn down a long time ago, is not fair and not just in any way, shape or form,” Thompson said.

He believes the city needs to take a “comprehensive approach” and suggests working with nonprofits to find the best options available.

Allen criticizes the Gray administration’s approach, saying the city should focus on putting a roof over the heads of homeless residents, “not a shelter, not a cot, not an abandoned hospital.” He emphasized that only in a housing unit can social service providers begin to deal with addictions, mental health issues and child care. “This mayor stepped back from that commitment to permanent supportive housing, and we’re seeing the results,” he said. “We’ve got families that are being put up in hotels ... [that’s] really bad for the family, and for the bottom line.”

Preliminary designs from Donatelli and Blue Skye would bring 354 residential units, including 106 designated as affordable housing, to the parcels of Hill East pegged for development.

Thompson said the inclusion of below-market-rate housing would help add to the diversity of the Capitol Hill community. “This is an opportunity, at a macro level, to have development where we’re not just squeezing in a handful of units into a market rate building,” he said.

According to Berns, the Gray administration has placed a high priority on making sure the city’s newest residential developments incorporate affordable housing. It’s all part of the long-term plan that will eventually result in more permanent options for the families living at D.C. General.

Meanwhile, closure of the makeshift shelter is likely years away.

“The space that we occupy would not stop some of the redevelopment,” Berns said. “We’re not under a severe ... mandate to get out, but certainly we’re looking at another replacement facility within the next several years. We’re negotiating when that would be.”

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