City Council Guides Youth Center’s Sale

Posted June 25, 2008 at 4:30pm

As the one-year anniversary of the closing of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ historic Eastern Branch facility approaches, the D.C. City Council is stepping in to ensure that the property remains a community center.

Earlier this month, the council approved an amendment to a budget measure that would make more than $2 million in fiscal 2009 funding for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington contingent upon the organization’s plans for disposal of four properties, including the Eastern Branch facility on Capitol Hill. The organization would need to assure the council that the properties will be sold to groups that will maintain them as “viable facilities to provide recreational, social, educational and developmental services to all District residents and the communities in which they exist.”

The amendment came partly in response to growing concern among some Capitol Hill residents that Boys & Girls Clubs has lost touch with the community and would not exercise proper care in screening bids for the Eastern Branch, which closed last August.

“There’s a lot of frustration in the community — frustration with the Boys & Girls Clubs,” said at-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D), who introduced the amendment. “So if they want our money — and we want to help them — then they have to sort this out.”

The Capitol Hill landmark, which provided services for children in the neighborhood for 70 years, was one of four D.C. buildings the Boys & Girls Clubs closed to cope with a multimillion- dollar deficit and enrollment slump.

“As [Boys and Girls Clubs] fell on difficult times, I think they had to make some hard decisions about how they would pay their bills,” Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D) said. “We’re trying to understand what the future is.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs cited a lack of demand for the Eastern Branch’s services as one reason the property was closed. But some residents and councilmembers took issue with that justification.

Councilmember Tommy Wells (D), who represents Ward 6 on Capitol Hill, said he sees a clear need for a community center given that kids are congregating in Spielberg Park, across the street from the Eastern Branch facility, with nothing to do.

Wells and others said there might have appeared to be a lack of demand because the Eastern Branch was often closed during the most needed hours on weekends and evenings and failed to provide meaningful programs.

“They have been underfunded,” Wells added. “They’ve not had the staff and programs they need.”

The council’s budget amendment has caused organizers at Neighbors United, one of the bidders for the Eastern Branch building, to redouble their efforts to buy the building and establish a community center.

Ellen Opper-Weiner, chairwoman of Neighbors United, plans to hold a board meeting this weekend to discuss the group’s action plan and bid amount.

“We’re reconsidering our bid because we really do want to get that building,” Opper-Weiner said. “We think it’s best for the community.”

Neighbors United, which was formed to preserve the building as a community center, wants to serve all age groups by offering sports programs, tutoring services and day care. The group has also considered partnering with local businesses such as Eastern Market Pottery Studio and Capitol Hill Computer Corner.

The community center is an “incredible opportunity to do things that very few people have done,” Opper-Weiner said. “We want to have a varied kind of experience, not just one slice of the neighborhood.”

Boys & Girls Clubs declined to name other bidders or to confirm speculation by residents in the NewHillEast Digest — an online, community listserv — that a re-entry facility for ex-convicts is interested in the property.

“I don’t want an ex-offender program anywhere close to my kids or my neighbors’ kids,” one resident from A Street Northeast wrote on the listserv. “We’ve already got the jail. I’m ready to stand up and fight it, should they move forward.”

Asked about the comments on the listserv, Mary Jane Morrow, chief financial officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs, said, “We’re not going to comment on specifics, but we are sensitive to the community’s concerns.”

Morrow said the organization has identified which offers are most credible. She could not give a timetable for when the organization expects to make a final decision.

The council will hold a hearing once the Boys & Girls Clubs has submitted its plans for disposing of the property.

“The ball’s in their court,” Gray said. He added that he doubts the organization would submit a proposal before the council’s two-month recess, which begins July 15.

But Wells said that if the Boys & Girls Clubs seeks his help, he’d be willing to work through the summer to help reach an agreement, which could involve finding a way for two bidders to share the space.