D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and her aides were studying the image of a shuttered charter school, projected onto the wall of a conference room, when the bad news arrived by text late last year.
The building, which Bowser (D) had hoped could become part of a new network of homeless shelters, was being bought by someone else. An aide zoomed out the image from Google Maps. The search for available property started anew.
How Bowser’s administration found sites to build seven shelters — cajoling and negotiating with landowners near U Street NW, along Wisconsin Avenue, near Nationals Park, and in blighted and industrial areas — has emerged as the central question around one of the riskiest decisions of her term.
Bowser won’t provide specifics about how she picked the locations, or identify sites that she ruled out. She’s refusing to consider changes or substitutions. Second-guessing, the first-term mayor says, would only pit neighborhood against neighborhood, delaying or derailing her effort to overhaul services for the homeless and fulfill her promise to do what her predecessors failed to do: close the decrepit family shelter at D.C. General.
The dangerously overcrowded former hospital is where the District has for a decade warehoused hundreds of families in deplorable conditions. It’s also where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared in the company of a male city employee two years ago. The girl has not been found.
Despite widespread public support for closing the building, Bowser last week incited palpable opposition among those who would be neighbors of the smaller replacement shelters. She says residents may tinker with aesthetics and landscaping, but not the locations.
Some residents have filed public-records requests to force the mayor’s administration to release e-mails and documents about how her team selected the sites — first steps, they said, to what could become lawsuits and protracted battles.
Bowser, meanwhile, is seeking power from the council to move quickly and limit scrutiny. After a majority of council members expressed initial support for Bowser’s plan, the mayor told lawmakers that the land deals had to be approved as a package. On Friday, she submitted legislation to exempt the leases from the safeguards that are typical in city procurement laws. She would also limit council review of more than $40 million in future construction on the sites. And Bowser urged the council to pass resolutions to pressure city zoning and historic preservation boards to grant exemptions to allow some of the shelters to be built.
“This whole process is completely untransparent,” said Rhys Gerholdt, who lives about four blocks from the site in Ward 5 that so far has drawn the loudest outcry.
The shelter would be made out of a reconstructed warehouse in an industrial area. It sits at the end of a dead-end street, abutting razor wire and railroad tracks. To the north, along Bladensburg Road, lies a sprawling maintenance facility for Metrobuses. To the south, auto body and paint shops.
As Bowser met with residents at a nearby church Thursday night to defend the site, the street outside the warehouse filled with the cars of patrons at two large night clubs and a strip club a block away.
B. Carlson, a teacher, asked Bowser how she could put children next to industrial pollutants that could exacerbate asthma, and young single mothers without money closer to a strip club than a grocery store.
“It’s just the worst place to put it,” Gerholdt said.
Bowser shot back that “locating sites is not easy.” She tried to keep the focus on closing D.C. General and sought to remind the crowd of about 150 people that under city law, homeless families have a right to shelter.
“If I went out to a community and I asked people to raise their hands if they wanted temporary [shelter] in their neighborhoods, nobody would raise their hands, nobody would,” Bowser said. “But as a government, I have not only the values of the community to look out for, I have a law that I have to address, and the law says I have to shelter families.”
The warehouse is owned by a limited liability corporation tied to Douglas Jemal, a major D.C. developer and landowner. The city would lease it for $2.04 million a year.
Jemal is leading a major revitalization project along New York Avenue NE known as Ivy City, where a new Nike store and organic grocer recently opened adjacent to another large homeless shelter that often houses more than 300 men.
City Administrator Rashad Young told the crowd at Thursday’s Ward 5 meeting that the city would soon close, renovate and downsize the New York Avenue shelter, which could benefit Jemal’s Ivy City project by reducing the population of homeless men who loiter there.
Bowser’s administration last year made replacing that and other shelters for single men part of the city’s master plan for addressing homelessness, but it was not clear before Young spoke that action was imminent. A spokesman for the operator of the site, Catholic Charities, said it had not been informed of any plans for closure or renovation.
A call to Jemal and calls and e-mails to his aides and agents for the Ward 5 site were not returned last week.
Asked whether the city offered to close the men’s shelter to get Jemal to host a family shelter in his warehouse, Bowser spokesman Michael Czin said no, and pointed to the plans to replace the shelter in the city’s master blueprint. “It’s straightforward,” he said.
Ward 5 Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D) has called the site “not fitting” for families. “Residents in my ward are really disappointed that they didn’t have an opportunity to engage on this plan on the front end,” McDuffie said. “This is about city planning, about equity and respect for residents.”
A similar sentiment permeated the meeting that Bowser attended in Ward 1, where the new shelter would be an apartment-style facility for 29 families at 10th and V streets, amid luxury condos and pricey rowhouses.
The site was the last of at least four that Bowser’s administration had seriously pursued in Ward 1, according to several officials familiar with the effort, including the former Hospitality High charter school at Ninth and T streets that Bowser and her staff were considering when they learned that it was being sold.
That site is back on the market, the owner said Friday.
Residents pushed Bowser’s housing officials Thursday night to explain how they chose the 10th and V site, and which other sites in the ward were considered.
“I feel so uninvolved in this process, and it gives me little faith going forward,” said Mitch, a 28-year-old engineer who spoke on the condition that he be identified by his first name only, for fear of being seen as against the homeless shelter. He has started a website called 10thandVshelter to rally residents together who have concerns about the plan.
Bowser chief of staff John Falcicchio said neighbors in upscale neighborhoods such as U Street should not demonize the families who need shelter. “What will happen there will be the same thing that happens across the street in million-dollar condos,” he said. “Parents will get up every day and get their kids ready for school . . . and try to find a better path forward for their families.”
The real estate hunt was led by the District’s Department of General Services, whose director, Christopher Weaver, said his team focused on the size of each property and proximity to transportation. The group first looked at properties that the District controlled, but only found acceptable sites in Wards 7 and 8. In the other wards, it looked to sites it could purchase or lease.
After nudging several landowners to submit proposals, the city ended up with 28 offers, Czin said. Weaver said that his department has signed letters of intent to lease the seven sites it has chosen.
“We’re very far down the road, or neither the provider nor the city would be going forward,” Weaver said. “It will lead to a lease.”
The mayor’s office listed only the owners of the properties and the proposed annual lease payments in legislation it submitted to the council late last week. The leases would be provided later but exempt from city procurement laws, the legislation said.
Bowser’s effort got a boost from dozens of members of the Washington Interfaith Network who attended last week’s meetings and said they welcomed new services for homeless parents and children in neighborhoods. A woman who lives across from D.C. General told people at the Ward 6 meeting that they should embrace the change.
“Those children give me hope. They show me what life can be when you have nothing,” she said. “I would rather be a little bit uncomfortable so those kids can have somewhere to sleep at night.”
In Bowser’s own Ward 4, opposition also has begun to simmer. Attendees at the meeting there wanted to know how the city chose a boarded-up office building at Fifth and Kennedy streets NW, near a liquor store and check-cashing business, as a shelter site. Why a location with few job opportunities, residents asked? What other sites were considered?
As Brightwood resident Nikhil Gehani, 29, stood in line for his turn at the microphone to ask a question, he grew increasingly agitated with Bowser community affairs director Charon Hines. He finally blurted out, “Just answer the question!”
“We just want to ask how they arrived at this situation,” Gehani said. “The success of this program hinges on the right facilities in the right locations.”
Abigail Hauslohner, Jonathan O’Connell, Perry Stein, Clarence Williams, Julie Zauzmer and researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.