District’s ward redistricting would split ‘Hill East’ neighborhoods

Race, class, identity and parking — such are the volatile ingredients in the District’s ward redistricting, a contentious decennial tradition now playing out on the D.C. Council.

The most controversial portion of a draft plan released this week would split the “Hill East” neighborhoods — between Capitol Hill and the west bank of the Anacostia River — between two wards. Previously, most of the area had been included in Ward 6, home to Capitol Hill and Southwest. Under the plan, that ward’s residential areas east of 17th Street would fall into Ward 7, most of which lies east of the river.

Ward 6 residents are unhappy.

“It’s about you being able to get what you need,” said Sondra Phillips-Gilbert, an activist in the Rosedale neighborhood, which stands to move to Ward 7. “Who wants to belong in a poor ward? I’m black; I don’t.”

Other Hill East residents have other, less emotional arguments, but the passion brought to drawing of ward lines is not new.

“Redistricting is the issue that gets people the maddest,” member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who co-chaired the redistricting panel, said at a Thursday council meeting. “Generally people are civil in dealing with other issues. When redistricting comes, they lose that.”

New census numbers presented this problem to lawmakers: Ward 8 is now smaller than allowed under District law, while Ward 2 is larger. In between those two are wards 5 and 6, meaning at least one of them had to absorb the changes. Only Ward 6 changed appreciably.

The challenge facing lawmakers pales in comparison to redistricting a decade ago, when seven of the city’s eight wards were outside legal limits. That effort incorporated several controversial moves, most notably moving Ward 4 across Rock Creek Park for the first time, picking up a portion of the Chevy Chase neighborhood.

The changes this time are less drastic, but the rhetoric remains heated. Several residents testified in hearings and posted to message boards about potential changes to residential parking zones, which have traditionally been tied to ward lines. And activists marched down East Capitol Street on Tuesday, calling on the council to keep Hill East together in Ward 6.

Brian Flahaven, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents part of the area scheduled to move to Ward 7, said the new lines would “hurt the collective voice in the neighborhood.” And, he said, there was a matter of neighborhood identity: “We consider Hill East part of Capitol Hill,” Flahaven said. “We’re right next to the neighborhoods; our community organizations work well together.”

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has denounced the proposal in withering terms and accused his colleagues of insensitivity to community demands. “They took more than they needed, and there were no hard and fast rules,” he said. “There was no real principle followed.”

In a small but significant victory for Wells, who decried the effect a split would have on efforts to improve the neighborhood’s schools, the drafters carved out the blocks containing Eastern High School and Eliot-Hine Middle School to remain in Ward 6.

But after the plan was released Wednesday night, he used his Twitter account to share one resident’s comment that Evans sought to “drop any area that isn’t lily white and filthy rich” — a reference to moving the Shaw neighborhood, Ward 2’s least affluent, to Ward 6 to make up for Hill East’s loss.

Evans called the comment “ignorant” and said Wells should apologize. “He needs to grow up,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say. His personal attacks I think are beneath the council.”

Wells also accused Evans on Thursday of gerrymandering his boundaries to incorporate large development projects, including the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and a project to be built over the Center Leg Freeway south of Massachusetts Avenue NW. At Thursday’s meeting, Evans said he found those comments “snarky.”

“There’s no one in this government who worked harder to get the convention center built than myself, and I think it’s appropriate to keep it in Ward 2,” he said.

In another controversy, council member Marion Barry (D) had called on his colleagues to expand his Ward 8 across the Anacostia River for the first time since lines were drawn in the 1970s. He appealed to a need to create more racial and economic diversity in the city’s poorest and most heavily black ward.

To bring Ward 8 into compliance, the draft plan would add to it a portion of Ward 7 south of Naylor Road SE, reuniting the Fairlawn neighborhood in a relatively uncontroversial move. But that had Barry threatening to “talk to a lawyer” about challenging the plan.

In Thursday’s meeting, Barry demanded a chance to speak. When Co-Chairman Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) refused to recognize him, Barry talked over him. That sparked a verbal back-and-forth, during which Evans quickly called a vote, then adjourned the meeting.

A public hearing on the draft plan is scheduled Wednesday evening at the John A. Wilson Building. The full D.C. Council will vote on the plan in a few weeks.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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