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Ellington Neighbors Air Construction Complaints

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Staff Writer

Construction to renovate the Duke Ellington School of the Arts began in December 2014 and is slated to wrap up this summer. For residential neighbors in the surrounding community of Burleith, the end can’t come soon enough.

Neighbors within a few blocks of the 3500 R St. NW school say their streets have been besieged for the last two years with construction workers illegally parking in residential zones and contributing to traffic backups when they move their vehicles to different spots throughout the day. More recently, residents say, workers have been arriving as early as 5:30 a.m. and making noise before their legally permitted 7 a.m. start time. Other complaints have cited construction workers urinating and changing their clothes in public, using profane language and littering.

Regarding the parking issues, the Department of General Services — which hired contractor Sigal Construction — arranged at the start of construction for workers to park off-site at RFK Memorial Stadium, spokesperson Jackie Stanley told The Current. But some residents say that arrangement doesn’t seem to have taken hold.

Stanley also said that the agency expedited construction of the school’s parking lot to allow contractors to park there, and in the meantime has encouraged workers to “vanpool” to the site. Attempts to reach Sigal for comment were unsuccessful.

Sherri Kimbel from the office of Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans and Ed Solomon of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) have served as de facto liaisons between the neighborhood and crews from Sigal. Responding to the noise complaints, Kimbel said in an interview that the crews have a legal right to prepare their trucks before 7 a.m. as long as they don’t start construction until then. And she said some of the noise, disruptive as it is, is unavoidable.

“We’re aware of it, we’re meeting on it, we’re talking about it, we’re trying to get things resolved,” Kimbel said. “You don’t want to do anything that would seriously slow down the project because then it’s going to drag on longer.”

The massive renovation is expanding Ellington’s arts facilities with a new theater, additional classroom space and other upgrades. The project’s current budget of $177 million has exceeded the original estimate by nearly $100 million.

Neighbors are also frustrated that the Department of Public Works and the Metropolitan Police Department haven’t done more to keep workers in check. The public works agency reported in an email to neighbors last month that it has issued more than 400 citations for illegal visitor parking passes in the neighborhood since October, but residents suspect many more exist.

Neighbors’ original agreement with Sigal said the construction company would bus in its workers from a parking lot at RFK Stadium, rather than having them bring their cars directly to the site. Neighborhood leaders say they’ve had little success in pushing Sigal to adhere to that portion of the agreement. Instead, they say, workers display visitor parking passes that appear to be forged, with longer expiration dates.

The issues go beyond additional cars on tight residential streets. Dan Herlihy, who lives on 35th Street less than a block away from the school, told The Current that his parked car was recently damaged when a Sigal construction worker backed into it while turning around to secure a parking spot. Earlier, he said he saw what appeared to be a domestic dispute between a male worker and a woman at the corner of 35th and R streets NW.

“This has been a problem since construction started and Sigal has given us lip service about working with the community the entire time,” Herlihy wrote in an email.

The issues were mentioned at the Feb. 27 ANC 2E meeting as well. In general, residents are supportive of the renovation and happy that their neighborhood will again boast the flourishing arts school. Still, they’re frustrated with the day-to-day issues.

“I’ve been screaming the entire time. My face is blue,” one neighbor told The Current.

Another, who asked to be identified only by his first name Dave, said he moved to Burleith right around the time construction began. He expected a noisy couple of years, but what’s happened has far exceeded his initial concerns.

“We made a decision knowing there would be construction here,” Dave said in an interview. “What we didn’t bargain for is the potential that a construction company is not abiding by the rules of the road, that they’re not abiding by what’s agreed to by the residential neighborhood, and they may be violating D.C. law.”

This article appears in the March 8 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.