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Council Revises Mayor’s Shelter Plan

By Cuneyt DilCurrent Correspondent

The D.C. Council yesterday overhauled Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to replace the D.C. General homeless shelter, giving initial approval to a new plan to relocate a number of the proposed family shelters to city-owned land and taking cost-cutting measures.

Engineered by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the approved plan would build all of the seven new shelters on land owned by the District government, rather than leasing most of the facilities back from developers as Bowser proposed originally. The chairman and mayor fought over the details Tuesday, with Bowser administration officials arguing that the changes will set back their 2018 target year to close D.C. General.

Mendelson blasted the mayor’s handling of her plan’s rollout, saying her administration spread “misinformation” and didn’t respond to “repeated and continual requests” for more project details. The chairman said that his plan would “speed up the acquisition, design and construction process” of the shelters and that he was more hopeful of reaching the 2018 completion deadline under the council’s plan.

The revised proposal would relocate shelters in wards 3, 5 and 6 to land already owned by the District. In Northwest, Bowser’s plan called for the Ward 3 shelter to be built at 2619 Wisconsin Ave. NW, across from the Russian Embassy, but the council-approved plan would place it on property that’s currently the parking lot of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 2nd District Headquarters, at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW. The Ward 1 and Ward 4 shelter locations are unchanged from the mayor’s plan, but the council’s legislation calls on the mayor to negotiate the purchase of the land or acquire these locations through eminent domain.

The drive to construct the family homeless shelters on city-owned land came after residents and some council members complained that the city would pay pricey leases on the facilities to developers. Under the mayor’s plan, the city would have leased the facilities for up to 20 or 30 years in all the wards except ones east of the Anacostia River, where the shelters were already proposed on government-owned lots. An independent real estate analysis released on Monday, commissioned by Mendelson, concluded that the proposed leases negotiated between the Bowser administration and developers for the wards 3 and 6 sites were “significantly above market.” The report, by Integra Realty Resources, also found that the city would be leasing the Ward 1 site at an above-market rate and recommended the city acquire the land.

The plan approved by the council showcased a rift between Mendelson and Bowser on the issue. The council chairman said his plan was drafted in collaboration with council members, but top Bowser aides voiced frustration that they were cut out of the process. Administration officials said they were first notified of Mendelson’s plan on Monday morning, and hours of private meetings ensued among officials. The Bowser administration accused the chairman of pushing through a plan without committing enough “due diligence.”

Tensions boiled over in a Wilson Building hallway on Tuesday afternoon between council sessions, when Bowser reportedly responded to Mendelson with an expletive, according to two reporters who overheard the exchange. “You’re a f---ing liar,” the mayor yelled at Mendelson, adding that he should know the council plan would not enable D.C. General to close by 2018.

Bowser spokesperson Michael Czin told reporters that afternoon that using eminent domain to acquire shelter land would set a “problematic precedent,” and City Administrator Rashad Young said the process could delay the closing of D.C. General. The council’s relocated Ward 6 site, aides said, could take at least three years to secure.

“We had a nine- to 14-month process that we engaged council members, including the chairman, on. ... And what we’re left with today is a plan [that] we found out about 26 hours before,” said John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff. “For that, there is a bit of frustration, that we’re not both dealing with each other at level footing.”

The council on Tuesday also took a first vote on the District’s 2017 budget, and Mendelson, in the capital budget, set aside $60 million for the family homeless shelter plan, shifting those funds from the Coolidge High School modernization.

In Ward 3, some community members had leveled complaints about the original Massachusetts Avenue Heights shelter site for months. Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh voted yesterday for the council’s plan and said she supports using the police headquarters property for the new 38-unit shelter.

At the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B (Glover Park, Cathedral Heights) meeting last Thursday, before the council’s plan went public, residents peppered Bowser with questions and concerns about her proposed Wisconsin Avenue site, including criticism that she hadn’t adequately consulted the ANC or the broader community.

One woman complained that the mayor’s aides had set up a process that would inevitably become adversarial. Several audience members objected to last week’s filing of a Board of Zoning Adjustment application for the Wisconsin Avenue site.

“Some of the people in the administration don’t seem to understand our role,” said commission chair Jackie Blumenthal when asking Bowser more generally about responsiveness to ANC concerns.

Staff writer Chris Kain contributed to this report.

This article appears in the May 18 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.