THEARC, a massive community center in Southeast Washington, will break ground this week on a $34 million expansion that will bring an all-boys school, a preschool, an arts center and more to an area that has long been considered underserved by such services.
THEARC, which stands for Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, opened in 2005 on a 16.5-acre site near the Southern Avenue Metro station on Mississippi Avenue SE. The 110,000-square-foot building in Ward 8 houses about a dozen organizations, including an all-girls school, a theater and Children’s Medical Center, which saw about 3,500 patients in 2014.
Construction of the three-story, 92,000-square-foot building on the same campus begins Thursday , with completion expected in 2017. Community leaders hope it will fulfill the center’s mission of offering diverse and comprehensive services in one spot.
“A lot of the people that come here to THEARC, they don't just partake in one program here, they do several,” said Nikki Peele, spokeswoman for Building Bridges Across the River, the nonprofit group that oversees the community center. “It has really allowed the community to engage in not just community development but personal development right here in their own community.”
The idea to create the community in Congress Heights started decades ago when, in 1991, development company WC Smith purchased what is now known as the Villages of Parklands apartment complex. W. Christopher Smith, chairman and chief executive of WC Smith, said the complex had 1,300 units then and was 60 percent vacant. (It now has 1,700.)
At the time, there were few community resources or retail options in the neighborhood, and the District’s finances were in shambles. The city was a few years away from being handed over to the Financial Control Board — which enabled a Congress-established panel to oversee the city’s finances — and Smith said he knew that he couldn’t rely on city funds to build the community center and provide the area’s needed services.
So WC Smith established a nonprofit organization and signed a 99-year-lease in 2001 to build the community center. The federal property is under local jurisdiction, and Smith says that Building Bridges Across the River pays $100 a year for it.
Since it opened about a decade ago, it has been hailed as a success: An estimated 85,000 people come through its doors each year, including President Obama, who delivered speeches on economic mobility and fatherhood there, and first lady Michelle Obama, who announced her healthy foods campaign with Wal-Mart there.
“The one thing we recognized was that we couldn’t look to the city to renovate the rec centers and stuff, so we felt a real need to have a center that the residents could access for health care, arts and entertainment,” Smith said. “We decided that we needed to do what we could to augment, or replace, what really should be a function of the city.”
WC Smith is kicking in $1 million to build the community center’s newest building. The center has raised $10.1 million through donations and fundraisers and is hoping to raise an additional $2 million. The nonprofit group took out a $10 million mortgage on the construction of the building, and the rest of the money is coming from tax credits.
Jacque Patterson, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative whose district includes the center, said he facilitated a community meeting to determine which services residents wanted in the new building.
The most popular request? An all-boys school. The community center houses the middle school for the Washington School for Girls, a tuition-free Catholic school. Now, the upper primary and middle school grades of the Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys will be moving to the new campus.
“Now you are addressing the whole; I think it was the missing piece that was needed. This phase completes the circle for wrap-around services,” said Patterson, whose children have long used the center. “THEARC has broadened its horizons, because if we did not, there would be nowhere else for the kids to go.”
The new building will also be home to Apple Tree Institute’s headquarters, a nonprofit group that operates preschools throughout the city. There will be an Apple Tree preschool and more health-care facilities.
There will be a black box theater in the new building to add to the center’s successful performance space, which hosted more than 355 events last year. The Phillips Collection will have a 1,900-square-foot space, where it will offer free art classes to families and young people, and there will be a gallery.
“We love that we will have a home there. We’re not just visiting, we’ll be there permanently,” said Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection. “[Duncan Phillips] founded the collection in 1921. He was passionate that art can change your life. He was passionate that art can make society healthier.”