Groups Vie for Naval Hospital

Foundation, Art of Living Center Both Seek Lease for Landmark

Posted January 20, 2004 at 3:59pm

As Nicky Cymrot, president of the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, ticked off the names of the group’s board of directors at a recent community meeting, the roll call read like a veritable who’s who of the Capitol Hill establishment. It includes a city councilwoman, a former chief of police, and numerous business and civic leaders.

The foundation — one of two nonprofits vying for the chance to renovate and lease the dilapidated Old Naval Hospital at 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE — wants to see the Civil War-era structure transformed into the Hill Center, which would house the Southeast branch of the D.C. Public Library and include space for community groups’ activities and offices. As part of the Hill Center, the adjacent carriage house would be transformed into a privately run cafe. The foundation has also suggested that the library’s current digs at Seventh and D streets Southeast could eventually be incorporated into the center.

But despite the A-list board and lineup of heavyweight supporters — ranging from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — the foundation’s Hill Center is far from a shoo-in, said one prominent advocate of the hospital’s rehabilitation.

“If it weren’t for the people they have on their board they wouldn’t even have a chance,” said Friends of the Old Naval Hospital President Greg Richey, pointing to their project’s yet-to-be-realized $8.8 million funding requirement and proposed structural alterations, which would add a community access structure to the hospital’s west facade.

“We don’t have anything on hand,” Cymrot conceded, quickly adding: “We are talking to folks both in Congress and other places and at the National Trust for Historic Preservation about what would be appropriate” in terms of funding.

Cymrot hopes to eventually procure about $4.5 million from Congress for the Hill Center, though she declined to elaborate on the precise sources of that funding, saying only that $1.5 million is included in the omnibus spending bill pending in the Senate and about $1 million could come in the form of transportation enhancement monies.

Given the cost of the undertaking, the foundation is counting on its deep roots in the community — nearly all of its board members are veteran Hillites — and the support among residents for the idea of a library and community center to help drum up additional financial support for the project among the Capitol Hill community, to the tune of $1.7 million.

The group also hopes to receive $2 million from the city for the construction of the library space, with an additional $3 million coming from unspecified private and public sources.

“I think what gives us the advantage is it is entirely community based. One hundred percent of what we are proposing is community use. There is no true community center on Capitol Hill,” said John Franzén, an Old Naval Hospital Foundation board member.

But Jacqueline Sales — president of a second group also seeking to win the lease, the D.C. chapter of the Art of Living Foundation, an international organization with ties to the United Nations — said that although some space would be set aside for the chapter’s administrative needs, about 88 percent of the building would be dual use, available for both Art of Living and community purposes.

“We really have the same goals to provide a community gathering place for the residents of Capitol Hill and the residents of the District of Columbia,” Sales said, emphasizing that Art of Living also believes the facility should serve as “a community center for Capitol Hill.”

The India-based Art of Living Foundation, founded in 1982 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (no relation to the musician) encompasses a broad array of programs ranging from supporting the development of rural areas to helping “promote tolerance among terrorists” and reforming prisoners, Sales said. (In April 2002, one jailed al Qaeda operative reportedly refused bail to complete an Art of Living course.)

The group intends to use the facility as the headquarters for its D.C. chapter, where it will conduct courses in stress management, yoga/meditation and alternative health therapies. It would also include space for community activities, exhibits related to the hospital’s history and a health food cafe.

“It’s the kind of facility that could be located in a lot of different places anywhere around the world or around Washington, D.C.,” Franzén said of the Art of Living’s proposal.

A D.C. Office of Property Management-initiated selection committee — comprising representatives from five District agencies and a nonvoting community member — is currently reviewing the two proposals with a decision likely by the end of March, said Aimee Occhetti, special assistant to the director of property management.

The successful applicant will receive a 20-year lease with the option of renewing the lease for an additional 20 years.

Some residents who attended a recent community meeting questioned the relevance of an Art of Living center at the hospital given both community and library needs.

“We need a library more than we need yoga classes,” said Phyllis McClure, a resident of Capitol Hill for more than 30 years. “There are a lot of organizations who want a presence in Washington and are looking for space and [the Art of Living] strike[s] me as an outfit … [who] happen[ed] to trip across this RFP, this opportunity to put in a bid.”

“When it comes to pleasing the residents and being good civic citizens I think the Naval Hospital Foundation would have an edge in that area,” added Kristen Miller, who lives just south of the hospital on Ninth Street Southeast and backs the Hill Center. “It’s the same as any small town … your neighbors know what you are doing so there’s that pressure that would not necessarily be as great when you have people coming in from other parts of the city.”

But despite such sentiments, the Art of Living Foundation counters the fact that its project is both cheaper and entirely privately financed will prove decisive.

“I think it is going to come down to finances. I didn’t hear that they have the money,” said Sales, noting that her group’s $5.25 million project is already fully funded.

“This is a straightforward decision — go for the entity that doesn’t strain the government,” agreed Hill resident Brad Kading.

And even those who favor the Hill Center proposal, such as McClure, said they harbor doubts the city would come through with the necessary funding given its track record.

“The way this city just in general treats the libraries compared to sports stadiums and other things — if they are relying on any money from the D.C. Library Board, I just wouldn’t trust them,” she said.

In the end, the choice may come down to a matter of balancing logistical viability with community sentiment, said Richey, who also serves as the ex-officio member of the selection committee.

While the Art of Living Foundation doesn’t “have the ties that the Hill Center people have” to the Capitol Hill community, Richey said, “a lot of people are very skeptical about the ability of the library to operate and maintain a building like that because their funding is the first to be cut.

“They each come with a different advantage. That’s what makes it so difficult,” he said.