At first glance, the Northeast Washington community around Fourth Street and Rhode Island Avenue looked like a perfect place for city officials to begin implementing their long-stated policy of attracting light industry to the nation's capital.
It looked fine on paper, to the promoters of the project -- Universal Structures, Inc. -- and to officials from the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. But nobody bothered to ask the residents of Brookland, the predominantly middle-class black community in which it was to be located. There, residents had decided long ago that they didn't want the factory.
So far, they've won the first round in their fight to keep the factory off the block.A citizen group, aided by an influential and rapidly growing neighborhood church, Evangel Temple, has so far succeeded in getting a City Council committee to delay until July the factory promoters' application for a $1 million federal grant, until the firm's backers can address some of the community concerns.
For the community residents, theirs is a classic lament: They agree with the need to attract industry to the city, as long as it's not in their neighborhood.
The Brookland battle illustrates how community concerns often conflict with the overall economic development goals of the city government. It is a battle that is likely to be played out again in other Washington communities in the future, as the District government moves forward with its long-stated policy of bolstering the local economy by attracting business and industry to the city.
The area around Rhode Island Avenue and Fourth Street NE has been a primary target in the city's overall economic development strategy since the opening of the Brookland Metro station in 1978, said Raymond Skinner, chief of the area planning section of the D.C. Office of Planning and Development. Skinner said the area is ripe for development because it is zoned for industrial use and dotted with abandoned factories, because it was once a principal location for District industry until it was replaced by the area along New York Avenue.
Universal Structures, Inc. was prepared to take over three abandoned factory buildings on a 12-acre lot when the firm requested a federal Urban Development Action Grant to finance part of the $10,725,000 development project.
With the rows of deteriorating old warehouses and small manufacturing plants along Rhode Island Avenue, the community seemed right for the kind of injection of rapid economic revitalization the factory promoters had promised. A new factory would mean hundreds of new jobs for the area, and could spark a reversal of the trend of industry leaving the city, supporters said.
"The District has made a lot of promises about developing this neighborhood," said Raymond Jacob, a neighborhood resident and president of Concerned Citizens for the Betterment of the Community, which is fighting the project. "But this type of industry is not what we want."
The proposed factory would build prefabricated concrete building slabs used as the columns and the floors in some buildings. For the city, the economic benefits of the factory are clear. The project is estimated to provide 300 full-time jobs, as well as 60 temporary construction jobs while the plant is being built. Jarvis said the city also expects to collect about $853,000 a year in taxes from the plant.
But Jacob and other residents of the area said the factory would pose a health hazard because the plant would emit dust and the community is heavily populated by senior citizens in the adjoining Edgewood Terrace Apartments.
Some residents said the plant also would create excessive traffic noise, the jobs offered would be too highly technical for the neighborhood's generally unskilled labor pool and the factory does not solve the community's most pressing need -- the need for a shopping center.
Leading the fight is the Evangel Temple, a fundamentalist and socially active neighborhood church headed by a white evangelical pastor who has managed to attract a predominantly black flock and thrive in that settled black community. The church claims 2,000 members.
"The inner-city has been run over and chewed up long enough," said the Rev. John Petrucelli, another pastor in the church. "Anything that is done for the community has to be done with community input. They use tokens to satisfy the community."
"This is a case where you have a conflict between our need to create jobs and create revenue, and the legitimate community concerns," said Council Member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee. Jarvis decided after a hearing last week to delay the grant request until July.
"You're always going to have to balance the concerns of the community against the city's overall concern of attracting jobs," Jarvis said. "Each case that comes before us is going to have to be a balancing act."