Flanked by giant murals of lions with gnashing teeth, a DJ stands at what was once a church altar, mixing bossa nova with a techno beat. Six hundred people are crammed inside the psychedelic room for a Bloody Mary festival, with more than 100 liters of vodka waiting to be drunk.
The former 130-year-old church near Nationals Park has again morphed into a nightclub on a recent Saturday — this time before noon.
But D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) sees the spot differently — as the best place in Southwest for 50 homeless families, who will live in a dormitory-style building that will share a wall with the thumping events space known as “The Blind Whino.”
It’s one of seven family homeless shelters Bowser hopes to build in neighborhoods around the city to replace the dilapidated megashelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, if the D.C. Council approves.
Bowser has touted the Ward 6 site as an opportunity for an arts venue to flourish side-by-side with “dignified” housing for homeless families.
But hundreds of pages of documents obtained through a public records request by The Washington Post reveal some unusual negotiations between the city and the private owners of the site, which the District seeks to lease at a cost of more than $82 million over 25 years.
The current property owner, Stephen Tanner, wants to continue use of the events space next door for private events, which were held 140 times last year and often involved one-day liquor licenses, documents show.
The city has also agreed to allow Tanner to occupy a private condominium that would be carved out of the public shelter for his personal use, according to the documents and interviews. That term has not been publicly disclosed by the city.
And even though city leaders have pledged to ban smoking in or near the shelter for homeless families, Tanner’s attorney has been discussing with city officials exactly where his client could smoke cigars on the property, the documents reveal.
In addition, Tanner is in the process of selling the property containing both the Blind Whino and the would-be homeless shelter to a new corporation, 700 Delaware LLC, involving one of Bowser’s top donors, Bryan “Scottie” Irving. That new company would be positioned to benefit from a significant spike in the land’s value as a result of the shelter deal with the city.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the documents raise new concerns about the mayor’s decision to lease private land for new shelters rather than to build them on public property.
Stacy Cloyd, a lawyer who serves on the local advisory neighborhood commission, said her neighbors can’t understand why the city selected the site on Delaware Avenue SW.
“From the very first night the mayor’s office told us about this, the first question we asked is, ‘What about the Blind Whino?’ ” Cloyd said. “We’ve been asking, don’t they know this place can be rented out for parties and events? How is that going to fit with very young children attached to it?”
Under a letter of intent signed by the city, Tanner and 700 Delaware LLC, the District would pay the company to lease the seven-story facility, with the price of constructing it factored into the lease. The plan assumes the city will win a zoning variance, something Tanner had once sought to develop the site.
An analysis by the D.C. Council shows the lease and zoning changes would immediately increase the worth of the property from its current assessed value of $1.8 million to almost $30 million on the open market because of the guaranteed income stream from the city’s lease and the fact that once the lease expires, the landowners would own the facility built with tax dollars and could convert it to private housing.
That rapid escalation in value has already occurred at another site proposed by the mayor as a homeless shelter. The owners of that site, in Ward 2, had purchased it for $5.95 million in 2013. After the city signed a 25-year lease for the property, the owners sold it for $28.5 million — more than four times the original investment and before any homeless people moved in.
At the spot where the Blind Whino is located, Irving is the registered agent for 700 Delaware LLC. He, his family and businesses have donated more than $38,000 in either direct contributions to Bowser’s campaigns or to a political action committee created last year on her behalf, records show. In February, Irving traveled with Bowser to Cuba as part of a trade delegation. He did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Bowser’s spokesman, Michael Czin, said city officials chose the sites for the homeless shelters based on size, availability, proximity to public transportation and other practical concerns. “All of the sites were chosen on their merits,” he said, noting that the city had issued a request for proposals.
City records show that Irving’s Blue Skye Development and Construction had tried and failed to buy the Delaware Avenue site last year. This time, his company partnered with Varsity Investment Group LLC for the capital to buy the property, said Forest Hayes, an associate director with the city’s Department of General services who signed the tentative lease for the site.
Reached by phone, Donnie Gross, a Varsity managing partner, said his company was not working with Irving’s firm.
Tanner, the current property owner, said in an interview that the proposal would benefit homeless families and the arts community.
“Artists are being kicked out all across Washington, D.C., and I’m a longtime resident of Ward 6, and this project is not displacing anybody,” Tanner said. “This is not for some neighbors, but for all neighbors. . . . I can only imagine the story if this was getting built and all of the artists were getting kicked out.”
He declined to discuss the sale of his property. Emails show that 700 Delaware LLC paid a deposit to Tanner, but no sale has yet been publicly recorded.
According to blueprints circulated among city officials and developers — but not made public — Tanner’s condominium would be built on the third floor of the new structure. It would be positioned above a new museum space for artists and below four floors of new 3-and-4-person studios for homeless families. Tanner’s condo appears to occupy the same amount of floor space as living quarters allocated for four families.
Tanner said he would pay to construct the condo but said he didn’t know how much it will cost. He also indicated he would not pay for the condo property.
“Why would I pay for something I already own?” he said.
Regarding smoking, Tanner said the emails referred to smoking cigars in an area outside the Blind Whino where patrons already smoke. A city spokesman said Tanner would face no restrictions on activities inside his condo, which could include smoking or, under city law, even growing marijuana, even though home cultivation is now banned in other public housing complexes in the city.
At community meetings, Christopher Weaver, the head of the Department of General Services, said Tanner had agreed to significant restrictions on operations at the Blind Whino once the shelter is built.
Weaver, whose agency negotiated and signed the tentative lease, said that the events venue will not be able to obtain a liquor license.
But Tanner said that whether liquor could be sold “hasn’t been settled.” Ian Callender, who runs an events firm that helps operate Blind Whino, said he understood that the facility could largely continue to operate as it does now, usually closing down major evening events by midnight.
The former Friendship Baptist Church, built in 1886, sat abandoned for 20 years before Tanner invited Callender to make an art display out of the church. The plan for a three-month exhibit, however has grown into a thriving events venue over the past three years, with more than 1,000 inquiries for future bookings in recent months, Callender said. He said the Blind Whino pays Tanner 20 percent of what organizations pull in on events and uses the rest to support an artists’ nonprofit organization.
The neighborhood advisory commission for the area surrounding the property is asking Bowser to consider three other sites within a half-mile, all owned by the city and closer to Metro stops and bus routes.
Cloyd, the advisory neighborhood commissioner, said the notion that the city stipulated that the Blind Whino will not get a permanent liquor license didn’t seem to be much of a concession. “They don’t have one now and have events all the time,” she said.
Robert Hall, head of a condominium association whose members, many of whom are senior citizens, have homes that surround the proposed shelter site on three sides, said neighbors are willing to fight the project through the zoning approval process.
“We’d oppose a Ritz-Carlton on that site. It just isn’t appropriate for a seven-story structure,” he said. “Our residents would walk out of their front doors and literally run into this wall that would block out the sun.”
Hall and others say Callender has tried to be a good neighbor. But even some artists don’t see how the Blind Whino would work with a homeless shelter attached.
Rosina Teri Memolo has displayed photography at the Blind Whino. “This whole thing seems crazy,” she said.