Late-night maneuvering gives Harris building to UDC for community college

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; B01

The slash to the streetcar program wasn't the only big change to the city budget made in the middle of the night.

Via little-noticed language that first appeared in budget legislation released after 2 a.m. Wednesday, the Patricia R. Harris Education Center in Ward 8 would be removed from the city's real estate portfolio and transferred to the control of the University of the District of Columbia for use as a campus for its newly established community college. The move, along with other budget provisions, awaits a final council vote next month.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) included the transfer hours before Wednesday's initial vote on the fiscal 2011 budget at the behest of council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

"I'm one of the strongest supporters of UDC on the council," Barry said late last week. "Launching this community college, I've always insisted that we have a campus east of the river in Ward 8." Barry added that he approached Gray about including the transfer in the budget "three or four days ago."

It isn't the first time the council has used the city budget to appropriate a shuttered school building for UDC's use. Last year, the council took Bertie Backus Middle School -- located on a valuable site near the Fort Totten Metro station -- and handed it to UDC for its community college over the objections of mayoral officials, including City Administrator Neil O. Albert.

Gray, who is running for mayor, has made his support for UDC and its new president, Allen L. Sessoms, a prominent part of his education platform.

Harris, like Backus, was closed in 2008, among the 23 D.C. public schools shuttered that year. Since then, the 358,000-square-foot building near the city's southern tip has housed a variety of city agencies, including training facilities for the fire department and for the child-welfare agency. The nonprofit group Sasha Bruce Youthwork occupies space at Harris, as does UDC, which has a lease there for the community college's workforce development programs.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin and Robin-Eve Jasper, director of the city real estate office, lobbied council members ahead of the budget vote, urging them to hold off on the transfer, but was unsuccessful.

Work has already started at Harris on a physical agility testing facility for fire department recruits, a contract that recently passed council review. If the transfer goes through, Jasper said, work might have to stop, and an undetermined amount of taxpayer money could be wasted.

"It's a shame we didn't have an opportunity to work with UDC on this," Jasper said Thursday. "We could have given them some information and suggestions that might have been helpful in their consideration of their options."

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who as head of the Government Operations Committee oversees city real estate dealings, also learned of the move hours before the vote and started asking questions. "At that point, it had a certain momentum I was not able to stop," she said.

Cheh raised concerns about the process used to make the transfer. "It's not the best way to proceed to make a decision like this, especially because this doesn't seem to be an emergency," she said.

Said Barry, "It's aboveboard. The [budget legislation] is public. We voted on it in public. If anybody didn't read it, that's their problem, not mine."

It's unclear why the transfer was included with the budget. On a day when Gray criticized the Fenty administration for what he called inadequate planning for its $1.5 billion streetcar program, there was little indication much planning went into the Harris transfer. Even within UDC, there seems to have been little knowledge of the plan.

University spokesman Alan Etter indicated that a facilities executive wasn't aware of the building's transfer, just the existing lease to house the workforce development programs. Shortly afterward, Etter called a reporter back to say that Sessoms knew of the transfer.

"Dr. Sessoms is thrilled for this new property, and we're going to fill it up with the proper resources," Etter said, adding that early estimates peg renovation costs at $21 million -- money that has not yet been identified in UDC's capital budget.

In an interview, Barry floated the idea of a more extensive community college campus in his ward on the more Metro-accessible St. Elizabeths Hospital site within a decade. An interim renovation of Harris, he estimated, would cost as little as $6 million.

Barry said he moved quickly on the arrangement because he didn't trust the mayor's office.

"The mayor's sneaky," Barry said, raising the prospect that Adrian M. Fenty (D) might have auctioned the building to developers.

Sean Madigan, a spokesman for Fenty, said there have been no plans to remove Harris from the city property inventory. Any move to do so, he added, would require council approval.

UDC has to deal with a newly burgeoning real estate portfolio. The university's flagship campus in upper Northwest is undergoing a $86.8 million renovation, and UDC recently entered into a lease for 88,000 square feet of downtown office space to house community college classes.

The community college also is advertising classes starting in the fall at Backus, which requires renovations. Etter said the council approved funding for the work Wednesday. UDC, he said, is "hoping to accelerate construction as much as possible."

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