Activists Seek New Use for Hill’s Club

Posted April 27, 2007 at 4:39pm

For residents of Southeast Capitol Hill, the expected and the dreaded is now hard fact: The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington is closing their neighborhood club.

After 70 years serving the area’s children in a large, red brick building, the eastern branch simply has gotten too expensive to upkeep and too superfluous in an up-and-coming neighborhood, said the club’s CEO, Will Gunn. About half of the children who now use the eastern branch actually live closer to other branches, he said.

“We’re in a mode where we have to develop a 21st-century mind-set to serve our children,” Gunn said, “and we can’t just rely on nostalgia.” [IMGCAP(1)]

But nostalgia ranks high in this neighborhood, where some residents still remember studying and socializing in the building back in the 1950s and ’60s. And many say that there are still at-risk children in the Capitol Hill area who need the club.

“If the Boys & Girls Club had done any semblance of outreach … I think the enrollment problem they’re having wouldn’t exist,” said Will Cobb, an unsuccessful 2006 candidate for the Ward 6 council seat who has been vocal in his support for keeping the branch open.

Cobb and other residents are taking action. Their organization, Neighbors United, is working to get control of the building and turn it into a community center. It will be a financial battle: The club plans to sell or lease the building, which Cobb estimates is worth $4 million or $5 million.

Cobb said his group hopes to get private investors interested, as well as the District government. He envisions a place for everyone to enjoy, where seniors can take classes and children can study.

“We’re going to try to bridge the divides that currently exist in that community,” he said, later adding, “Our objective and goal is to make the community more than what it is. I think what we’re proposing appeals to people on either side of the equation.”

In recent years the neighborhood, which surrounds Lincoln Park, has attracted more middle-income residents. A drive through its streets reveals children playing on sidewalks, young professionals walking their dogs and senior citizens enjoying the park.

It’s a neighborhood that simply doesn’t have enough at-risk children to justify such an expensive building, Gunn said.

“We found the low-income youth has decreased substantially over the years,” he said. However, “we believe that there are still low-income students there that could benefit” from services. For at least the short term, the club will bus children to other branches.

The decision to close the eastern branch came from a study conducted of all the club’s D.C.-area branches in an effort to get out of a $1.8 million deficit and decide where branches are most needed. For months, club officials refused to tell residents whether the eastern branch was on the chopping block. Now it will close in August, and three other branches will be sold or leased. Club officials are requiring that those who buy or lease two of the branches include the clubs in their plans; the eastern branch is not one of them, meaning the property might not have any community services at all.

But Cobb said Neighbors United is already working on a proposal for the site, and Gunn said his organization prefers if community services are offered there. Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells has also voiced support for efforts to create a community center — support Cobb hopes turns into some startup money from the city.

“To me it’s an incredible opportunity, and it’s staring us right in the face,” he said.