The latest proposal for the old Providence Hospital site -- a 162-unit subsidized housing complex for senior citizens -- will be debated tonight by Capitol Hill residents at a community forum sponsored by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B.
Like previous proposals for the 2.4-acre site, bounded by 2nd, 3rd, D and E streets SE, the proposed Providence Place project has aroused strong feelings both for and against.
"Providence Place would help serve the need of elderly people in the community for housing. It would also be an aesthetic asset and neighborhood resource," said the Rev. Richard Downing of the Capitol Hill Group Ministry (CHGM), a coalition of 16 neighborhood churches, which proposed the housing complex.
"Providence Place is the wrong project at the wrong place at the wrong time," said Brian Furness, who lives on 2nd Street across from the site and helped lobby for the Congressional appropriation that turned the site from an eyesore into a park last year.
In 1973, Congress bought the land -- site of a hospital from Civil War days until 1956 -- for $1.4 million from developers Max Bassin, Dominic F. Antonelli Jr., Kingdom Gould and Morton W. Noble. The developers had tried unsuccessfully to have the site rezoned -- first for a high-rise and later for a parking lot.
The legislation authorizing the purchase specified that the site be used for the John W. McCormack Page School and dormitory, and that the only permissible interim use would be as a "green park."
"If I had a choice, it would stay a park. But I made my peace a long time ago with the idea of the page school," Furness said.
In 1977, when Congress held hearings on an appropriation to turn the site into a staff parking lot, local residents reminded the committee of the existing law. The parking lot proposal died.
The next year neighborhood activists successfully lobbied for the $375,000 appropriation that turned the site into a grassy park crisscrossed by paths.
The housing complex proposal stems from a series of meetings in 1977 between representatives of the Architect of the Capitol and the Coalition of Community Organizations (COCO), set up to deal with Congressional expansion plans. At one meeting, representatives of the architect invited suggestions from the community for use of the site, in case the page school idea were shelved. The Capitol Hill Group Mnistry, a member of COCO, came up with the housing proposal.
In August, 1979 Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) introduced a bill (HR 5135) to transfer the property to the District of Columbia without cost, on condition that the housing complex be started within three years.
"It strikes me that a housing project for senior citizens, close to the Capitol, would be an excellent use of this property. It is no secret that the Congress has displaced hundreds of senior citizens' housing as it has grown over the past few years," said Pepper in introducing the bill, which has been referred to the Committee on Public Works and Transportation.
Ironically, discussion of the proposal has revived some interest in building the page school -- a project that had tacitly been considered dead. Rep. James Abdnor (R-S.D.), a member of the public works committee, said at a recent hearing that he was distressed by the living conditions of the pages and would work for an appropriation to build the school and dormitory.
Currently, most pages, who are high school students from all parts of the United States, live in rooming houses. Some have been victims of crime.
"Congress should decide whether or not to build the page school," said a spokesman for the Architect of the Capitol, who maintains the park. If the school is not built, there are no plans to put a congressional office building on the site, said the spokesman, and "it is our position that the site is beyond the limits of congressional interest and should revert to the D.C. government." The spokesman cautioned, however, that this position may change when the Master Plan for the U.S. Capitol is completed later this year.
According to Norman Mol, head of the Capitol Hill Group Ministry, the project would cost "in excess of $5 million." Mol said the group would seek building funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), along with rent subsidies for persons with annual incomes under $12,600.
If HUD funds are not granted, the group would consider seeking private financing, Mol said. The buildings, according to Mol, would be three stories in addition to a basement level, and would include communal gardens, dining rooms and recreational space. The scale and design of the units, according to Mol, will be planned to harmonize with the surrounding neighborhood, which is a historic district.
Some neighborhood residents, however, fear that the project may eventually turn into a high-rise.
"Recent HUD regulations emphasize modest design for such projects," said Phoebe Bannister, who until a short time ago served as advisory neighorhood commissioner for the area. "The design they're showing us may not be economically feasible. We may end up with something like St. Mary's Court."
St. Mary's Court is a Foggy Bottom high-rise housing complex for the elderly, built by the Epsicopal Diocese of Washington with HUD assistance.
Bannister said that there is already a great concentration of subsidized housing in the area and that the greater need is for "more open space."
Bannister added that the community had serious doubts about the ability of the group ministry to build and manage a well-run housing complex and questioned the need for the project.
"Most of the elderly in our area are homeowners. They need assistance, but perhaps other kinds of assistance, such as tax relief," said Bannister.
"There is a great need for this kind of housing -- and for all housing -- in the District," said James Clay, an official of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.
Clay said the District government would support the housing proposal but added that "this kind of project has to be applied for on a competitive basis from HUD."
A representative of HUD and a District housing official will attend tonight's forum and answer questions from the community. Officials of the Capitol Hill Group Ministry will make a presentation on the proposal and community residents will be invited to make statements for or against Providence Place. The forum is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at St. Peter's Church, 313 2nd St. SE.