Eastern Branch of D.C. Boys and Girls Club to Close

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

The District's oldest Boys and Girls Club will close over the summer as the organization seeks to redevelop four properties, including a sprawling parcel in Georgetown, officials said yesterday.

The Eastern Branch, a pillar of neighborhood life on the edge of Capitol Hill since 1937, will shut down after camp in August because of rising costs and declining enrollment, officials said.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, which was established for low-income youths, said it will seek development proposals for the 55-year-old Jelleff Branch off Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown. The four-acre parcel is worth about $20 million, officials said.

The organization also will seek proposals for properties in Columbia Heights and Congress Heights, although officials said they will require that any project in those locations include Boys and Girls clubs. They declined to include any such guarantee for the Capitol Hill or Georgetown locations.

Will A. Gunn, the organization's chief executive officer, said restructuring is needed to improve its finances and ensure that the region's neediest children are served. There are no longer large numbers of low-income families in Capitol Hill and Georgetown, he said.

"When we looked at areas of highest needs, we're not in a lot of those neighborhoods," Gunn said. "If we keep holding on to a 20th-century mindset in the 21st century, we're not going to be able to serve children well."

The organization, Gunn said, has not decided whether to lease or sell the properties, which he said have a combined worth of nearly $40 million. Nor has the organization decided how it wants the parcels redeveloped. Those answers, Gunn said, will emerge as developers come forward with proposals. "We're seeking ideas," he said.

Word of possible closures and deals has percolated for months throughout the 22-branch organization, which includes clubs in the District, Virginia and Maryland. In recent months, the organization commissioned a study to assess each facility's needs.

Publicly, the organization's leaders had focused mainly on the future of the Eastern Branch, causing a measure of surprise in Georgetown yesterday that Jelleff could be sold. "Losing Jelleff would be devastating. We'd lose our home," said Tom Gross, head of the Stoddert Soccer League, which uses the branch as its headquarters.

The league's 4,800 players are also members of the Boys and Girls Clubs. The league plays on 18 fields in the region, including the one at Jelleff, which "is extremely valuable to us," he said. "Every field is. There's no such thing as an unused soccer field in the District of Columbia."

In Columbia Heights, a developer halted a plan three years ago to build condominiums atop the branch at 14th and Clifton streets after neighborhood residents protested. The club had said the development deal was needed to raise money. In each of the past two years, the D.C. Council has granted the branch $500,000.

Because of that funding, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose district includes Columbia Heights, questioned the renewed interest in developing the property. "I'm not excited about this," he said. "I want to know what happened to the half a million dollars and why it isn't enough."

On Capitol Hill, many residents have braced for the closing of the Eastern Branch, where former president Bill Clinton, former NBA star Michael Jordan and other luminaries have stopped for a photo opportunity over the years. The club is especially important to older African American residents, who remember when its membership was all-white. In recent years, Eastern's membership has declined, from more than 1,000 in 2003 to 362 last year.

Gunn said that he is well aware of the club's history but that its time has passed. "It was built in 1937 and may have done a great job in the '30s, '40s, '50s and beyond, but right now, due to the neighborhood, the number of low-income kids in the neighborhood, and due to the expense, it doesn't make sense to continue in that site as presently configured," he said.

The parent organization is promising to transport Eastern's members to nearby clubs after the branch closes.

Brenda Jordan watches over the front door when she is not running her Bren-Car dance school, which has used the building since 1968. Despite months of rumors, she said, she had had hoped the club would remain open.

"I'm hurt. Now I'm going to find a new place," she said. "We have people calling every day asking about the club. People are still interested."

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