An emotional crowd packed the gymnasium of the Boys & Girls Club in Columbia Heights the other night -- but there was no cheering there as officials outlined plans to sell the place to a developer who plans to build condominiums.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington maintains that it desperately needs money from the sale and that the new development will include an even bigger youth facility along with the condos. Neither statement made much headway with skeptical neighborhood residents, who reacted with angry questions and accusations.
By the end of the meeting Wednesday night, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) took the microphone and revved up the audience of 100 or so by vowing to fight the proposal.
"Condos cannot be built on this location," Graham said. "We will not support this project as it has been presented."
The tensions have been simmering for nearly a year, jeopardizing plans by developer Trammell Crow to buy the property at 14th and Clifton streets from the nonprofit organization. The proposal calls for a luxury condominium complex that could include 140 to 240 units. The project requires city zoning approval, Graham said.
Negotiations are under way, and Trammell Crow has proposed including a $3 million recreational facility in the complex. The developer also would pay Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington at least $9 million, and up to $12 million, depending on how many condos are built.
Longtime anxieties about gentrification and new fears of rising property taxes have fueled community anger over how the proposal has been handled. Opponents questioned where more than 150 youths involved in programs at the two-decade-old facility would go during construction.
Two of the club's board members tried to reassure residents that their goal was to build a better organization for youths, not to sell out for upscale condominiums. "As a board member, I intend to serve this community forever," Kenneth S. Slaughter said.
Patricia G. Shannon, president and chief executive of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, said in an interview that any deal for the property always included an expanded facility and millions in cash for the group.
The organization operates more than two dozen clubs in the District, Maryland and Virginia. Last year, it took over the Columbia Heights clubhouse and five other facilities in the District that had been run by the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs, which had money problems. But the Greater Washington club has financial issues, too, Shannon said.
She said that the proposal has been "caught in the crossfire of gentrification" and that unless a deal infuses millions of dollars into the organization, "this club will close." She said the loss of needed money could affect thousands of children across the region.
But community members said they have been kept in the dark about planning.
"If you hide stuff from us, we're going to have trouble trusting and believing anything you say," said Linda Edmundson, president of the club's parents association.
"What I would like to see is you put your intentions into a written commitment," said Teri Janine Quinn, 28, a resident.
Anger in the gym swelled into irate shouts at times. Residents raised hands and even clutched at the microphone to confront Boys & Girls Club officials.
"This is a critical battle. . . . You should put a nail in this sale," said Malik Shabazz, a lawyer and community activist with the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. "This plan, to me, looks like a scheme. This is impossible."
Graham's public stance drew raucous applause, as he added that he would oppose applications for zoning changes.
Marie L. Karl, a senior vice president for Trammell Crow, told residents that the developer has not finalized any sketches for the proposal but would make those available once they were completed, perhaps within 30 to 45 days.
"We have every intention of showing you our plans when we get there," Karl said. "We're not there yet."
After the meeting, Karl expressed surprise at Graham's statements.
Graham told those at the meeting that he will talk to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) about finding city funds to support the clubhouse in Columbia Heights. He said he needed more details about the club's financial woes.
Officials from Trammell Crow and the Boys & Girls Club said they still hope to complete the sale. They said they will shift from making presentations before large groups to smaller meetings with community leaders.
Reflecting on what took place, Jeffrey J. Sherman, managing partner of Trammell Crow, said that "emotions tend to get in the way of logical interaction" in large group settings.
And he said the officials learned another lesson.
"It's best that we spend more time listening and doing a better job of explaining ourselves," he said.