Antwan Williams, 19, was pulling from his newly established real estate lexicon. A community land trust, he explained, is when a nonprofit organization is formed to manage a piece of property on behalf of the community.
Then, there are “assets” and “stakeholders.” And he quickly learned that he can’t build anything for the city without getting “community input.”
Williams just completed the laborious process of helping to submit a $61 million proposal to redevelop the city-owned Crummell School in his Northeast Washington neighborhood into a recreation center, with some affordable-housing and retail components as well.
It’s a project he and his older brother dreamed of, even advocated for, when they were kids in the Ivy City neighborhood looking for a safe place to play basketball. But the long-shuttered property has remained tangled in political fights.
Last year, Williams’s brother, Percy, was shot dead at the age of 20 just a block away from the school, a killing that remains unsolved.
Now Antwan Williams is determined to finish what they started as a way to preserve his big brother’s memory and create a legacy of his own.
“Once my brother got killed, we realized we had to do something for the neighborhood, something for the kids to be safe, something that the neighborhood can be proud of us for,” Williams said. A local advocacy group, Empower DC, has helped the youth partner with an established development company.
The Crummell School, a registered historical landmark that opened in 1911, has been closed for decades, and residents in Ivy City — a largely poor and black 1.7-square-mile neighborhood near the Maryland border — have long wanted the city to do something with the building.
Growing up, the Williams brothers were part of Empower DC, participating in an after-school program for Ivy City youth where they pushed the recreation center. They met with community leaders, testified before the D.C. Council, and a then-12-year-old Percy was photographed with former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).
After Percy Williams’s death, Empower DC said the city had failed the young man, and it created a handful of paid fellowships in his honor. Antwan Williams was hired for one, and six other young Ivy City residents, most of whom were friends with Percy, filled the other spots. One of the fellows had advocated for a recreation center alongside the brothers eight years ago.
“[Percy’s] death changed me. It messed up my sense of security. It let me know you ain’t really safe unless you’re at your house,” said the fellow, Willis Little, 19. “Life’s too short nowadays, you gotta do the right thing.”
Percy Williams, according to his friends, was a towering presence and the leader of the group, encouraging everyone to hit their potential. He and his brothers had to grow up fast. He was the middle of three sons — Antwan is the youngest — born to a drug-addicted mother who died in 2010. They were raised mostly by their father, who had other children and died in 2012 of pancreatic cancer.
“Ivy City is always going to be Ivy City,” Williams said. “It’s always going to be my home.”
Antwan Williams,who graduated from Roosevelt Senior High School in 2014, and the other fellows have been recruiting neighbors to attend community meetings about the Crummell School project and gathering neighborhood input. They’ve met with D.C. Council members and other officials.
In April, the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Development called for developers to submit proposals to reimagine the Crummell School property, which is in the 1900 block of Gallaudet Street NE. The request called for respondents to include a community center. The city also wants the site to have some retail and, if there’s housing, at least a portion of it needs to be affordable.
Last week, the city approved three proposals for consideration, including the one submitted by Empower DC. The city says it plans to make its selection in the fall.
Empower DC partnered for the project with WC Smith — the development company in the city that is behind the massive THEARC community center in Southeast Washington and the Villages of Parklands apartment complex near the center. DC Habitat for Humanity is also teaming with Empower DC and WC Smith. If selected, the community land trust would have ownership of 50 percent of the more than 2-acre property — including the Crummell School building — and WC Smith would take ownership of the rest.
Dallas-based Trammell Crow also submitted a proposal, and Stonebridge Carras and Jarvis worked together to submit one as well.
“This community has gone far too long without recreation,” said Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents Ivy City. “We’re not at the finish line yet, but we’re making progress.”
A few years ago, the city had wanted to use the Crummell School site as an overflow parking lot for private buses serving Union Station.
Residents say the city has long used Ivy City as a dumping ground for projects other neighborhoods have rebuffed, and with the help of Empower DC they sued the city to prevent the buses from coming. In August 2015, after much litigation, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that the city would craft a new plan.
That announcement came at a critical time for Ivy City, which, like much of the District, is undergoing a development boom. Luxury apartments, bars, fitness studios — even a rock-climbing gym — have opened, or are slated to open in the underserved neighborhood. But residents want to ensure that the Crummell School isn’t used solely to attract new, wealthier residents, but rather to serve the people who have been waiting many years for its redevelopment.
“It will only get my support if it gets what the community wants,” McDuffie said.
Williams, Little and two others working for Empower DC — Tony Crews, 18, and Burke Davis, 20 — say they’ve all felt the changes in their neighborhood and want to galvanize their neighbors to feel invested in what happens to the Crummell School. They collect community surveys and pass out fliers while wearing their “We Are Ivy City” T-shirts.
“It felt like we hadn’t had enough awareness for our cause,” Williams said. “Even our neighborhood didn’t want to come out to testify at the council, so we had to think outside the box.”
Last month, the group released a polished music video filmed in their neighborhood called “Ivy City Needs a Rec,” in which they rap about how they want to be remembered and why the community needs this recreation center.
“We believe unequivocally that these young people from Ivy City, a poor black neighborhood in Northeast D.C, know more about how to solve their community’s most pressing challenges than all the professors at Georgetown, than the mayor of the District of Columbia, than any of us in this nation, if we allow them to exercise leadership themselves,” someone says at the start of the video.
“They got $200 million for the streetcar, but they can’t put a rec on my block,” Williams raps later in the song.
Empower DC and WC Smith’s proposal for the site would bring to the neighborhood a community center, a 1-acre park, 123 units of affordable housing, a community health clinic and retail. The final plan isn’t exactly what Williams envisioned, but he said they had to make compromises.
“We wanted it 100 percent for the community because we felt it was ours,” he said. “But we had to come to some agreements and meet people halfway.”
The process seems to have helped focus these four recent high school graduates on their own next steps. Williams is starting to look into college. Crews, who at age 9 testified before the D.C. Council about a recreation center, said he is considering a career in community activism.
“I’d do this full time if I had a chance,” he said.