We had a fantastic turnout (40+) for the Feb. 18 ANC 6B Hill East Task Force meeting on the next steps for the Eastern Branch Building. The city-owned building located at 261 17th Street SE, once a Boys and Girls Club, has been vacant since 2007. The DC Department of General Services (DGS) recently approached the ANC about plans to issue a Request for Offer (RFO) on the building. Here are the meeting highlights:
- Michelle Chin and Stephen Campbell from the planning division within DGS opened the meeting by talking about the department’s plans to issue an RFO for the building. Coming into the meeting, their goal was to get community feedback so that the RFO could be issued as soon as possible. Chin said the department was prepared to take community comments until March 18.
- Chin and Campbell briefly noted restrictions on uses for the building (zoned R-4 residential, lacks parking, not ADA compliant and takes up 100 percent of its lot) and clarified that the city would be looking to lease the building to an interested developer or development team. Potential city uses for the building have been ruled out at this point.
- When the responses to the RFO are received, a technical team at DGS will score the proposals on a variety of factors, including priorities of the surrounding community. Chin said that the review process precluded a community representative from sitting on this technical review team.
- Chuck Burger recapped the recommendations of Councilmember Wells’ Eastern Branch Task Force (Burger chaired the task force). The task force recommended uses for the building that would serve “families” and meet a number of community needs – daycare, aging and senior services, wellness and fitness and recreation to name a few. He noted that the neighborhood has changed significantly since the task force recommendations were issued in 2009 and that the community should re-evaluate the recommendations. Read the task force report and additional background on the building (pdf).
- Almost immediately, meeting attendees raised concerns about the DGS timeline. While attendees appreciated the city’s eagerness to move on the RFO, there was a general consensus that the community needed time to consider what should be top priority uses for the building. Commissioner Francis Campbell (6B10) asked why the department was in such a rush to do something. Chin and Campbell responded that the DGS planning division is actively working to find uses for city-owned surplus properties and Eastern Branch was at or near the top of the to-do list.
- Former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose voiced concern about whether the city had really taken the time to figure out what they wanted to do with the building. She questioned the expectation of DC maintaining ownership and only offering a 20-year lease in the RFO. Campbell responded that the goal was to present the development community with a “blank slate” and that DGS would be open to other lease/financing terms.
- Various attendees voiced opinions about uses for the site. Many supported the building being used for recreational purposes while others suggested private housing and daycare. Representatives from Capitol Hill Village mentioned their interest in developing “Green Houses” on the site – small, home-like skilled nursing homes that would allow seniors to age in place.
- There were divergent views on whether the building should be preserved or demolished. Some felt strongly that the building or at the very least its facade should be preserved , while others argued that a new building could be designed to be more accessible, usable and energy-efficient. DGS is approaching the RFO as an opportunity to develop the existing building.
- Burger emphasized the need to make sure that any use for the building is financially viable. The economics need to work and it is likely that multiple tenants will be needed.
- A local developer noted that developers “don’t do community centers,” and that such a public function or use should be funded by the city. Likewise, Ambrose pointed to the Hill Center at Old Naval Hospital as a model of a public-private partnership that could be replicated in this instance. When Ambrose asked if the city planned to fund Eastern Branch in the city’s FY15 capital budget, Chin and Campbell responded not at this time.
- I asked Chin and Campbell if DGS would agree to delay the issuance of an RFO until the community and ANC 6B had a chance to weigh in with formal comments. They agreed to delay the issuance by at least a month. When I asked if DGS would be willing to let ANC 6B review the draft RFO prior to its issuance, they responded that they could not share the draft RFO with the ANC.
- The task force voted to recommend that ANC 6B send a letter to DGS Director Brian Hanlon thanking his team for their community outreach and reiterating the community’s understanding that DGS will not issue an RFO until they receive formal comments from the community.
As for next steps, I plan to work with my commission and task force colleagues to schedule one or two additional community meetings to develop a list of community priorities for the building. This list will be basis of ANC 6B’s formal comments to DGS on the Eastern Branch RFO. And though we had a great turnout for this meeting, I want to make sure that we spread the word far and wide about these next two meetings (if you are interested in helping flyer, let me know).
If you attended the meeting, please feel free to post your comments and reactions below. A big thanks to all who were able to attend and weigh in. And thanks to the staff at St. Coletta of Greater Washington for hosting the meeting!