Two Homeless Services, One SMD

The District Wants to Build a Homeless Center in SE

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49 L St SE Lot: The abandoned warehouse owned by the federal governmentís General Services Administration (GSA) at 49 L St. SE. (Photo: DC DGS)

Local leaders in the Southeast community want the District to reconsider its request to acquire the federally owned lot at 49 L St. SE for homeless services and permanent senior housing. The site sits roughly a half-mile from the District’s planned short-term family shelter facility at 850 Delaware Ave. SW in Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6D single member district (SMD) 02.

DC released a proposal for a transfer of deed for the .68-acre site, currently owned by the US General Services Administration (GSA), but neighbors argue that the city has failed to keep the process transparent and didn’t consult the local community. Though the site was rejected for Mayor Muriel Bowser’s short-term housing plan to replace DC General Family Shelter (1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE), the city reconsidered it as a site for other services and to further its “Homeward DC” homelessness prevention plan.

With the city’s homeless population growing an estimated 34 percent from 2009 to 2016 – according to the “Hunger and Homelessness” survey from the US Conference of Mayors – the mayor and city officials have made bold strides to improve homeless services and shelters in the region. That effort has garnered complaints for inadequate communication with residents.

The federal government has not yet awarded proposals for the site, but the community is reiterating its wish to be included in design plans.

The Proposal
The DC Department of General Services (DGS) first considered this single-story, 33,455-square-foot, abandoned warehouse in the fall of 2015. In the proposal sent to the GSA, DGS outlined plans for a Department of Human Services (DHS) center that would

  • house the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, currently at 920-A Rhode Island Ave. NE;
  • operate the Low-Barrier Vocational Development Center;
  • and offer Permanent Supportive Housing for seniors.

With no current plans for variances from the Zone D-5 limits – high-density commercial and mixed-use residential – DGS will pursue this as a “matter-of-right” project. It also plans to demolish the current structure if awarded the deed, and to build a roughly 123,000 square-foot, 84 foot-high, four-to-six-story facility.

The federal government put out a bid request on the site for proposals only by eligible homeless service providers, said DGS spokesperson Melissa Millar. “The facility will provide resources for families seeking homeless services, a training and educational program to increase employment opportunities among homeless individuals, and permanent supportive housing for seniors,” Millar said.

DGS added that it didn’t consult neighbors on the initial design plan because it doesn’t yet know if it will even get the property from the federal government. It will plan public meetings if it does.

Opposition: Site Not Suited for Homeless Services Alone
Residents in the community understand the city needs to care for the growing number of homeless, especially the elderly, said Mark Cuevas, a member of the Velocity Condo board of directors. Velocity sits across the street from the proposed L Street site. “I think most residents are aware of the strategy employed by Mayor Bowser, namely that all the wards should share in the care of the District’s homeless,” he said. “No one ward should be asked to bear the entire burden.”

They understand that the potential sites are limited by what the District owns, can afford, or can be gifted, he said. But the site’s suitability needs to come into consideration too. The neighborhood surrounding the GSA site is densely populated and is a high-traffic area. “Nationals Stadium, which is one block away, [can] hold 41,313 people. And with the DC United Stadium being built in close proximity to Nationals Park, the crowds will exist year-round,” Cuevas argued. “I suspect those facts alone strike most residents as compelling reasons against the proposed placement.”

Residents also don’t appreciate receiving no notice for this proposal from the mayor’s office, he said. “I can’t imagine that this will garner Mayor Bowser much support from those who have vested interests in this unique area,” Cuevas remarked.

Envisioning More Than What DGS Proposed
The District needs to provide resource centers for those facing homelessness and quality services, but the 49 L St. SE site may not offer the best location, said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. The proposal forces the city into a 30-year deal with the GSA without the possibility of adding density or changing the building’s use.

He said he supports permanent supportive housing. That’s a different model of care than shelters. And he knows that the Ward 6 community welcomes both progressive and supportive ventures. “Ward 6 is a community that has its values and priorities in the right place,” he said. “It wants to see growth and new amenities come in, but also wants to be a place for all of our residents.”

But the process has failed to factor in local residents’ opinions, he said. Why can’t this potential development mix in affordable, supportive, and market-rate housing? What about retail and community services? “It doesn’t seem there has been very much community outreach at this stage in their proposal,” Allen explained.” I still have many questions myself.”

Southeast and Southwest are expanding rapidly with retail, housing, and other developments. New developments need to match the quality of the neighborhood, said Michael G. Stevens, president of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID). “The BID has asked that the DC government achieve the highest level of design for such a facility and how best the various functions can operate on the site,” he said.

The community already has good relationships with the Child and Family Services Center at 200 I St. SE and worked with the mayor’s office to tweak the plan for the Southwest’s short-term family housing facility. They have no issues with social service centers, Stevens said. But they want to make sure the proposed development fits the needs of the users and the community.

A Failure of Transparency
This project rehashes a recurring problem residents have with the District, said incoming commissioner for ANC 6D Cara Lea Shockley (02). “The biggest issue with this project is the biggest issue we have with most projects: the District doesn’t let us know what’s going on early enough in the process,” she said. “No ANC should find out what’s going on from angry letters directed at them by their constituents.” If the city involved local leaders early on, they could better explain to neighbors the reasons for choosing the site and its proposed use, Shockley said.

ANC 6D members have met with representatives from the mayor’s office, DHS, and DGS after the proposal seemed to leak out unexpectedly, said outgoing ANC Commissioner Stacy Cloyd (6D02). The District should have taken a transparent approach. Cloyd also pointed out that the GSA hasn’t accepted or rejected the proposal yet, and so the plan is not set.

Cuevas added that other developers with vested interests in the area have approached the mayor’s office about putting together alternative proposals for the site’s use. While the office agreed to participate in the discussions, it didn’t withdraw its current application.