Renovation Raises Concerns

Residents Troubled By Crime at Prospect Center

Posted March 2, 2004 at 2:11pm

Faced with significant delays in the rehabilitation of Capitol Hill’s only self-contained school for children with disabilities, a group of stakeholders recently began meeting to ensure that work on the now-empty structure — a draw for a variety of illicit activities over the past year — is quickly concluded.

Two years ago, the Prospect Learning Center at 920 F St. NE was shuttered and its 150 first- through eighth-grade students relocated to the Douglass School in Southeast for what was supposed to be a 270-day Army Corps of Engineers project to replace the building’s exterior panels, the heating and cooling system, windows and roof. The Corps has an agreement with D.C. Public Schools to handle renovation work at some facilities.

The Corps awarded the $1.6 million project to a Norfolk, Va.-based contractor, THR Enterprises Inc., in November 2002, and work commenced soon after. (Due to funding shortages, the roof was not included in the Corps’ contract with THR.)

The school’s windows were removed in April 2003, but disputes with D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs over building permits as well as turnover in THR’s staff slowed progress, said Corps program manager Mike Rogers, and it was six months before work proceeded on the site. The absence of windows coupled with a leaky roof contributed to interior water damage, he noted.

“There’s blame to go around here,” Rogers said. “The Corps has some blame here and the contractor has some and some of the city agencies involved in issuing contracts have some of the blame as well.”

But District 3 school board member Tommy Wells disagreed, laying the responsibility squarely on the Corps’ shoulders. “I’m really angry with the Army Corps of Engineers. … I’m not giving them another dime,” Wells said, though he noted that DCPS would see the project completed, including the construction of a new roof, even if it means taking money allocated for repairs at another school. But Wells, who said the Corps failed to ensure that the school was properly secured against the elements, added that he believes the Corps is responsible for fixing “any part of the building where weather elements ruined stuff inside the school.”

“The building is worse than it was when we moved the children out,” asserted Ray Bryant, D.C. public schools chief of special education reform, who said the displacement had hindered the District’s goal of keeping disabled students in the public school system.

“It has left them in a temporary holding facility that isn’t central to the city,” with many parents opting not to have their children bused to Douglass, he added, estimating that enrollment had dropped by about 50 since the closure.

Meanwhile, the dilapidated, 60,000-square-foot structure, which stands next to the newly completed Sherwood Recreation Center, has proven a draw for a variety of illicit activities, ranging from drug dealing to prostitution, said ANC 6A Chairman Joe Fengler. Last October, a nonfatal shooting, believed to be drug-related, occurred on the sidewalk adjacent to the school, further raising neighborhood concerns.

Finally, in late December, after pressure from a group of 10th Street residents, ANC 6A and Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), the school system authorized the Corps to place an 8-foot tall chain-link fence around the school’s perimeter as a temporary security measure.

Annie Mitchell, who lives just across the street from the school, said that prior to the fence’s construction groups of men could frequently be seen drinking alcohol on the school’s steps and that she suspected drug use in some cases.

“It’s slowed it, but it hasn’t stopped,” added Fengler, noting that he still sees groups of people congregated on school grounds.

At the same time, said Fengler, individuals residing at a row house across the street from the school are believed to be connected to some of the more violent activity that has occurred in the neighborhood, including the October shooting.

Late last month, two men were shot in the 10th Street Northeast row house’s basement, also over suspected drug-related issues, said Lt. Ronald Netter of Police Service Area 510, who noted that enforcement had been stepped up in the area around the school.

More than one resident, citing personal safety fears, declined to discuss the situation on the record.

The activity at the property has attracted the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has scheduled meetings with the row house’s owner in an effort to abate the nuisance.

And, after residents expressed concerns at last week’s Ward Six Neighborhood Citizen Summit, Mayor Anthony Williams (D) agreed to return next week to view the property and meet with neighbors, said mayoral spokesman Tony Bullock.

“The situation across the street is injurious to efforts being made to Prospect Learning Center, so we want to fix the problem at 10th Street and continue renovations,” Bullock added.

ANC 6A, in conjunction with school board member Wells, last month convened the inaugural meeting of a working group — which included representatives of the Corps, the learning center and the school system — to facilitate greater oversight of construction progress at the school.

The Corps now estimates a completion date of June 30 — nine months later than the initially projected date of Sept. 27, 2003 — with the school system expected to bid out and award a contract for roof replacement within the next month and a half.

But residents and local officials are skeptical that the new target will be met.

“I have no faith this will be done,” said Wells, adding that he is instead focused on getting the facility open for the 2004-2005 school year.

“I’m still very skeptical,” said resident Erika Fitzpatrick. “I’m having to rely on the promises that the officials make and hope they can come through.”