When members of the YWCA voted at a meeting last week to approve the directors' decision to sell the 50-year-old Y building at 17th and K streets NW, officials of the organization said they breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"There's a feeling of exhilaration," said Paula Jeffries, chairman of the committee that negotiated the $6.8 million contract with the John Akridge Co. The company plans to replace the present structure with an office building. "Now we know that the YWCA has a future in downtown Washington."
YWCA officials say they hope that the sale and a move to a less expensive piece of real estate, which has not yet been located, will solve the organization's financial problems, including a deficit for this fiscal year that may reach $200,000. Officials also say they hope that the vote ended a controversy that has raged for the past year in the organization normally associated more with teapots than with tempests.
Several storm clouds remain on the horizon, however.
A $10 million damage suit against the YWCA filed by the Blake Construction Co., a disappointed bidder.
A suit filed by YWCA member Beatrice Brickell to enjoin the organization from selling the building on the grounds that at a Jan. 30 meeting called to submit the sale to a membership vote, the board proposal failed to win a two-thirds majority.
An application to designate the 17th and K streets building a landmark that is being prepared by Don't Tear It Down, an organization that seeks to preserve old Washington buildings. Once an application is filed and pending, the District government usually will not grant demolition permits on the building in question.
Possible legal action being considered by Josephine Butler, a YWCA member and D.C. Statehood Party activist. Butler claims that the meeting last week was "set up in a way to intimidate people - especially staff people - whose vote was influenced by the fact that it was taken by a standing vote rather than a secret ballot."
Other members expressed resentment at the conduct of the meeting and skepticism about the financial future.
"It's unfortunate that they had to bring people in from Montgomery and Fairfax to vote against us," said Eleanor Shannahan, a founder of the Save the Y Committee. "The past tells me that if the same people remain in control of the money, the same thing will happen again. They'll go through this money just as they did before. They're just putting off the final day. The D.C. branch made a bad financial decision in 1972 by agreeing to merge its assets into the National Capital Area Y. Now it's coming back to haunt us."
The National Capital Area (NCA) YWCA, created by the 1972 merger, includes about 15,000 members in the District and in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. The K Street building now serves as both the main facility for the District branch and as the headquarters for NCA executives. The NCA directors control the assets of all the branches, although the Montgomery County branch did not have to merge its property with that of the organization. The D.C. branch turned over its building plus endowments totaling almost $1 million to the NCA-YWCA. Part of the endowment was subsequently used as collateral on a loan to build a YWCA facility in Fairfax County.
"It seems that as soon as we merged they started talking about selling our building," said Frances Stickles, an NCA board member who has consistently fought moves to sell the K Street building.
According to YWCA officials, a financial crunch that began in the early 1970s forced the organization to consider "real estate options," including the sale of the K Street property or its lease to a tenant who would construct a new building on the site and lease space in it to YWCA.
Last year, the option of renovating the K Street building was officially discarded as "financially unfeasible." At the same time, the YWCA invited bids from interested parties and received 13. In October the board authorized its real estate committee to negotiate a contract with the Blake Construction Co.
Negotiations with Blake broke down - under circumstances that are the subject of the legal dispute - and the Y started negotiating with Akridge. Last January, the YMCA board signed a contract to sell the property to Akridge.
Members opposed to the sale found a little used section of the D.C. code that said under certain circumstances members of nonprofit organizations must approve by a two-thirds majority, in voting at a special meeting, the sale of "all or substantially all of the assets of the corporation." For this reason, the contract with Akridge was made subject to ratification by the members. At a meeting Jan. 30, the proposed sale failed to win a two-thirds majority. At last week's meeting, however, the same proposals was approved by a 227-to-94 vote.