Ivy City, tired of being a D.C. ‘dumping ground,’ takes on Gray over bus depot


Ivy City resident Andria Swanson near the grounds of the closed Alexander Crummell School. (Jared Soares/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 12, 2012

On any scale, Ivy City is a 98-pound weakling among District neighborhoods. It measures only 1.7 square miles near the Maryland border in Northeast and has some of the city’s poorest residents, with an unemployment rate approaching 50 percent.

But that has not stopped the D.C. government from placing a heavy burden on Ivy City’s scrawny shoulders, making it a base of operations for large projects other neighborhoods shun, “a dumping ground,” residents say.

Ivy City is dotted with parking lots for scores of government vehicles — quarter-ton snowplows, salt trucks, parking-enforcement vehicles and school buses that belch exhaust as they rumble through the streets. Recently, when Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced a plan to build a bus depot for 65 D.C-to-New York motorcoaches in the heart of Ivy City, residents said “enough” and filed a lawsuit to stop it.

There is a lot at stake in the showdown between one of the city’s smallest neighborhoods and the mayor. Bus travel is a major boon for the city; ridership rose from nearly 2 million in 1999 to nearly 7 million in 2009, according to the District Department of Transportation’s 2011 Motorcoach Action Plan.

Those riders and other tourists spend a pretty penny in the District — $34,200 for every 1,000 who stay for a day and $93,370 for the same number who stay overnight, according to estimates in a federal Visitor Transportation Study for the National Mall and Memorial Parks that is cited in the plan.

To city officials, Ivy City is an ideal place for a bus depot as Union Station undergoes a major renovation that could take years. Under the plan, passengers on carriers such as Boltbus and Megabus would still be picked up and dropped off at the station, but most buses would idle in Ivy City until needed.

In past years, Ivy City accepted unwanted projects with little more than a grumble. But not this time. Empower DC, an activist group that filed the D.C. Superior Court lawsuit in late July on behalf of two Ivy City residents and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said it found several missteps by the city that should persuade a judge to block construction of the depot at the shuttered Alexander Crummell School, at 1900 Gallaudet Ave. NE.

At a hearing this past week, a judge appeared to sympathize with the suit’s claim that the city failed to inform Ivy City of its agreement with the Union Station Redevelopment Corp., a nonprofit group devoted to the station’s restoration, and other partners before it was completed. The judge also expressed concern over the city’s apparent failure to conduct an environmental impact assessment, as the suit claims, in an area where people enjoy sitting on their porches and many residents suffer from respiratory problems.

The suit also claimed that the depot would threaten the health of residents.

“My family has a history of asthma,” said Andria Swanson, an Ivy City resident and a complainant in the lawsuit. “My neighbor is on a breathing machine. Their trucks and school buses already drive down our streets all the time. Here in Ivy City the air quality is so bad. I can’t explain it, but sometimes I want to choke — it’s so industrial. I’d rather not sit outside.”

But the judge said there appeared to be no threat to the health of residents since the depot is only under construction and operations are not expected to begin until November.

Vincent Hoskins, deputy mayor for the Office of Planning and Economic Development, which oversaw the licensing agreement with the Union Station redevelopment group, declined to comment, because of the pending lawsuit, said his spokesman, Jose Sousa. David Ball, president of the redevelopment corporation, also declined to comment.

Established by African Americans in 1872, Ivy City was once a proud and close-knit neighborhood, home to the old National Fairgrounds, the Ivy City Racetrack and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. But over the years, jobs disappeared, residents moved out, drug traffickers moved in and blight became common.

Communities with more political clout could mobilize to fight the proposed bus depot. But Ivy City is in the middle of a political power outage. Its longtime representative on the D.C. Council, former Ward 5 member Harry Thomas Jr., resigned in January after pleading guilty to federal embezzlement charges and is serving a prison sentence in Alabama.

And while former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown met with area leaders to discuss their preferred uses for the school, he resigned in June before pleading guilty to criminal charges including bank fraud.

Residents wanted the city to convert the Crummell School into an adult education center with job training — not a depot with dozens of slips for charters such as Megabus.

The Union Station Redevelopment Corp.’s Web site says 40 bus slips available at Union Station will be slashed to 10 or 15 during a parking-area renovation that could last as long as 10 years.

A corporation fact sheet says drivers will be able to relax and shower at the depot while waiting to pick up passengers at Union Station.

“I’d rather have the kids to have somewhere safe to play” than more traffic, said Carter, who lives on Glendale Street. “Eventually one of those kids is going to get hurt in the street.” She said she is angry that exhaust flows into her home when the windows are open. “I’m one of the alumni that came out of the Crummell School. They’ve done nothing with it.”

Not long ago, Ivy City appeared to be on a small upswing, with private and nonprofit developers such as Habitat for Humanity building new homes, some costing up to $400,000.

Now, Empower DC Director Parisa Norouzi said, new home buyers are upset because they recently bought without any knowledge of the plan to add more buses. After being notified of the depot in July, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5B, which represents Ivy City, rejected it.

Community leaders said the bus depot is the latest city-approved venture they do not want. The city recently approved Ivy City as a site for Holistic Remedies, one of several medical marijuana cultivation centers in the District.

Adding to the mix: an 88-bed Youth Services Center for male and female delinquents on Mount Olivet Road and the popular Love nightclub, next to the Crummell School.

Every weekend, hundreds of clubgoers clog street parking, forcing residents to walk long distances to their homes late at night. Carter and Swanson said they have gotten little response from the city, even as parking-enforcement vehicles sit at a nearby lot.

“We’re alleging breach of contract,” attorney Johnny Barnes said. “We’re saying over the years . . . they’ve been saying we’re going to bring Ivy City jobs, opportunity, hope, a better quality of life. We’re going to do something with that school so you can have a thriving community with recreation.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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