City Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) yesterday criticized the YMCA's abrupt closing of the Anthony Bowen building as "callous to the needs of youth" in the Shaw neighborhood and called on the YMCA board to rebuild the historic center or find a new site for it nearby.
But Thomas B. Hargrave, chairman of the board of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, said the search for a new Bowen site will be city-wide and not limited to the Shaw area. He said the YMCA will expand services in Shaw, but gave no specifics.
Citing safety and fire code violations, the YMCA board of directors voted Tuesday to close Bowen, the first black YMCA in the country and the only remaining neighborhood "Y" building in Washington available and affordable to youngsters.
In addition to its new $5.3 million downtown building, the YMCA maintains an "outreach center" at Benning Road NE, which runs recreational and education programs at scattered sites. The downtown building costs several hundred dollars a year in annual membership fees and allows youths to use the facilities only on weekends when accompanied by adults.
"We are not abandoning Shaw," said Hargrave, "We are not closing the Anthony Bowen YMCA, we are just trying to find somewhere that is safe." He said several Bowen "outreach" programs were already being held in rented or donated space at churches and schools. Most of those programs, though, are located outside the immediate Shaw neighborhood. Hargrave said they would be expanded to compensate for the closing of the building at 1816 12th St. NW.
The four-story Bowen building has a gymnasium, a drop-in center with a game room and other meeting space. Its swimming pool and upstairs floors were closed years ago.
Clarke, whose ward includes Shaw, called the closing a "significant loss" both to the children and the long-time Shaw residents, who see it as a source of neighborhood identity in an area that has lost many businesses and institutions over the years.
Clarke said he was particularly upset that the YMCA provided no phase-out time so that substitute facilities could be found for activities like basketball and other games. The building was closed Tuesday afternoon, the same day the YMCA board made its decision.
Vincent Thorne, Bowen's director, said he spent yesterday looking for new space for offices, meeting rooms and a gymnasium. Space for a gymnasium would be "difficult to find," he said.
Hargrave said the deciding factors in closing Bowen were a Feb. 6 city fire inspection that found some 50 fire code violations, and a report by YMCA board member Marion Johnson, a building contractor, who estimated that even with $75,000 in repairs, the 73-year-old building would still be a fire hazard because of its deteriorated wood interior.
Hargrave said the YMCA has "struggled" to keep Bowen open, spending $52,000 on capital improvements in the past five years and continuing to fund operating deficits at Bowen. The center operates on $100,000 in United Way money, plus about $25,000 in private donations.
But Bowen's 18-member management committee unanimously opposed the shutdown and does not believe the building is a serious fire hazard, according to Bowen board chairman, William H. Rumsey, who is also director of the D.C. Department of Recreation.
Rumsey said that just last month Bowen's fire insurance was renewed by the District of Columbia Property Insurance Facility, indicating that the fire danger was not that serious. He estimated $5,000 could have paid for necessary repairs.
In the past, Clarke said, when neighborhood facilities like Shaw Junior High and Dunbar High School closed, the community was informed and given a chance to participate in plans for new buildings. By contrast, he said the YMCA had done a "disservice" by providing no warning. Hargrave said yesterday that the YMCA, which has $500,000 earmarked to buy land for a new center, is looking at sites throughout the city. He said Shaw may not be the best location because young professionals with few children have been moving into adjacent neighborhoods and, in 15 years or so, the general area "could become the new Georgetown." Therefore, he said, if the YMCA seeks to serve a wide range of children, including the poor and those from single-parent households, it might best be located elsewhere.
Clarke disputed that rationale, saying it would in effect "punish" a neighborhood. He said the neighborhood has already suffered real-estate speculation, which has forced some residents to move out.