Columbia Heights parents fear that a quietly hatched plan to build a luxury condominium complex at the site of the Boys & Girls Club used by their children could eliminate the beloved club, a community cornerstone for poor and working-class families.
In a neighborhood where gentrification has created tensions, the parents association has responded to the developer's blueprints -- which include a new youth facility -- with a battle plan.
Developer Trammell Crow and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington hope to sign a contract for the land purchase this month. The deal would provide the nonprofit organization with much-needed cash and add 140 to 240 residential units to the increasingly trendy 14th Street corridor.
The development project would replace the 22-year-old, blue and white brick building known as Clubhouse 10 at 14th and Clifton streets NW with a 27,000-square-foot facility -- more than twice as large as the current one -- with a street-front entrance, separate from the condo building's lobby.
But since a member of the club's parents association stumbled across a preliminary copy of the plan in October, rumors have swirled that the club would be shuttered permanently to make way for the new building. Many said they suspect the new facility ultimately will be used for affluent new residents of the neighborhood.
Residents have watched aging rowhouses in their neighborhood transformed from multi-unit rentals into single-family residences selling for $600,000 or more. They see the construction signs posted on 14th Street, advertising new apartments, shops and condos on parcels that have stood vacant since the riots of 1968. They say some new residents eye their children with suspicion -- or call police to report youths shuttling between the club and a nearby convenience store for snacks.
And though Trammell Crow says the condo complex would stretch the width of a city block, with the clubhouse entrance on Chaplin Street NW and the condo entrance on the opposite side of the building on Clifton Street NW, many parents cannot imagine that their youngsters would be welcome in an upscale residential building.
"They don't want the kids around there now," said Linda Edmundson, president of the parents association. She said both she and her sons have been stopped outside the club by police who told them neighbors called to report loitering or suspicious activity. "If they want to help the community, they need to do something else."
She and others have organized several community meetings and a debate with club officials on WPFW radio. They recently teamed up with Malik Z. Shabbazz, an attorney with a history of heated racial rhetoric, and plan a protest rally this month.
Officials involved with the project said they were caught by surprise when word leaked out at the earliest stages. Because plans are preliminary, they said, it has been impossible to answer such questions as exactly how many condo units will be built or what they will cost. And although officials said they have no plans to eliminate the club, they are not willing to guarantee never to do so -- as some community members have demanded -- because they want to leave their options open in case the neighborhood someday no longer needs such a facility.
"The perception is that the Boys & Girls Club is trying to pull a fast one . . . and has sold out the community, which is absolutely not the case," said Stephen J. Shaff, an architect of the proposal to offer the one-acre site to developers and a former board member of the now-defunct organization that until last year ran six D.C. clubs.
Under the current proposal, Trammell Crow would include a $3 million recreational facility in its complex, said managing partner Jeffrey J. Sherman, and pay Greater Washington at least $9 million -- and up to $12 million -- depending on how many condos are built. Sherman said Trammell Crow probably would agree to include some moderate- or low-priced residences, if the city allows construction of more than the 140 units that existing zoning requirements permit.
Club officials said that cashing in on the value of the land seemed the best way to erase its $2 million deficit and maintain its programs.
"It was never our intent to sell out and leave," Shaff said. "We felt we had an opportunity that would not only allow us to get ahead but to maintain our presence here with a much better facility."
Parents and community members said some of their opposition grows out of suspicion of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington organization. Last year it took over Clubhouse 10 and five other District facilities run by the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs. The takeover by the group, an affiliate of a national organization, allowed the clubs a respite from a life-threatening funding shortage. But the regional group now has its own cash shortages, and this year it canceled the summer camp usually run by the police organization.
At the same time, parents at Clubhouse 10 said, the Greater Washington group has stripped power from the parents association and made other unpopular changes. Some parents said computers donated to the club have been reserved for staff use. Denise Credle, the volunteer who discovered the documents about the condo proposal, said she has been barred from the club. She accused its director, Bernardo Jiminez, of closing the club to members last week so nonmembers could play soccer.
Club officials said the new computer lab is for children and should open within days. Jiminez said the club was closed for staff training, as were others across the city.
He said some African American parents at the club "feel uncomfortable because my ethnicity happens to be Hispanic" and because he has launched soccer programs since his arrival nine months ago to draw Latino youths to the facility.
But most of the fear seems to stem from changes outside the club's walls, where housing prices are soaring, retailers are flocking and upper-income professionals are increasingly willing to spend lots of money for granite countertops and great downtown views.
"The parents are convinced that this is going to be a phasing-out process," said Zein El-Amine, an activist who lives nearby and brings his 7-year-old to the club. "Building a luxury apartment for a community that's already under siege from gentrification is going to be the clincher."
Credle, who grew up in the neighborhood and has stayed involved with the club even though she and her husband, a D.C. police detective, live in suburban Maryland, said the new residences will fuel skyrocketing prices, raise property taxes for low-income homeowners and increase the speed at which renters are priced out.
" 'It's not for our kids.' That's what people are saying," Credle said. She said people are telling her, " 'Whose kids are going to be there? Because we're not going to be able to afford what you're putting there.' "