Truxton Circle school and youth housing in doubt
A proposal from two local nonprofits to turn a vacant school building in the Truxton Circle neighborhood into a unique charter school could die unless the DC Council votes on Feb. 1 to approve the building's disposition.
One unique aspect to the project is that it will include 20 housing units for selected at-risk young people.
The plan has raised ire from neighbors who say the area has more than its share of social services. But supporters point to the same nonprofits' record of being a positive force in Columbia Heights to show that Truxton Circle stands to benefit from their presence.
The former John F. Cook School, located on P Street NW near North Capitol Street, has been sitting empty since 2008. A big vacant building is certainly not an asset to a neighborhood that is seeing the beginnings of revival.
The District government made the building available for applications to use it as a school once again. The winning bidders were the Youth Build Public Charter School (YBPCS) and its parent organization, the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC).
YBPCS envisions expanding the school it currently operates at 14th Street and Columbia Road NW in Columbia Heights into the first floor of the Cook building. The school serves people ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of traditional high schools, but want to turn their lives around by learning a trade while earning a General Education Degree (GED). The school would continue to operate at traditional hours.
LAYC would operate housing on the second and third floors of the building, federally funded through Section 8, for a self-selecting group of 20 young homeless people looking to turn their lives around. Applicants for housing would have to pass drug tests and meet a very rigid schedule to get accepted. While living at the facility, social workers would help each resident one-on-one, and residents would be subject to continued testing for drugs and other risks.
In Columbia Heights, LAYC and YBPCS engage in community policing and maintain good relationships with area business owners. Many credit the nonprofits for contributing to the neighborhood's revitalization, in addition to turning young people's lives in a more healthy direction.
The Fenty Administration approved the transfer of the school to YBPCS and LAYC in 2008, giving the DC Council until February 1, 2011, to vote to put the final stamp on the transaction. YBPCS President Mark Jordan insists that his school has complied with every law and regulation and has made efforts to involve the surrounding community in its plans, including offering to include space for community meetings and arts programs. Jordan feels that there has been more than ample opportunity for public input.
Some neighborhood leaders, however, feel that the school's move is being forced upon them without due process. Heading the opposition is Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) Sylvia Pinkney, in whose Single Member District the school sits.
Pinkney and fellow Commissioners Bradley Thomas and Ronnie Edwards offered LAYC & YBPCS three alternatives: no sale of the building, sale with no housing allowed, and sale with only five housing units allowed. None of these are acceptable to the nonprofits, which see these as meaning "don't build it." LAYC & YouthBuild are willing to provide community meeting and arts space, and to include more diverse demographics as tenants in the housing portion.
The nonprofits hosted a community forum in the Cook School parking lot in October, and a listening session at Big Bear Cafe in December. They intended these simply as opportunities for interested neighbors to learn the facts and share concerns in a collaborative manner. Some opponents, though, saw these as having plans forced upon them. One opponent went as far as to ask Big Bear owner Stu Davenport not to host the December session.
One ANC 5C Commissioner believes that the nonprofits suffer from poor public relations, saying that school leaders did not approach the Bates Area Civic Association (BACA) or the ANC until very far along in the planning process. BACA approved in March a resolution opposing the project, but LAYC & YouthBuild's later efforts convinced some members to support the school's disposition.
Architect's rendering of the expanded and renovated school.
Image from Wiencek & Associates via City Paper.
Many opponents of the project feel that more Section 8 housing would add to Truxton Circle's problems, citing the negative effects the neighborhood has witnessed from the high concentration of social service agencies nearby. Some supporters see these opponents as inflexible NIMBYs whose views are colored by their sour attitudes towards the Fenty Administration.
The opposition from three civic associations and the ANC may have contributed to the delay in the D.C. Council's final vote. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. has not taken a firm position, despite that every other Councilmember appears to support the sale. When asked, Thomas has only made vague references to flaws in the process. Supporters say that the project fits right in to Mayor Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown's emphasis on building more affordable housing.
If things had gone differently, the school could have begun construction by now, with classes to begin this September. However, the persistence of misinformation and mistrust between the project's backers and its critics may mean rapidly-changing Truxton Circle may lose this opportunity to have a venerable building being once again being put to a noble use.
If Council doesn't vote on Feb. 1, the nonprofits, which have everything in place except the title to the school, will be forced back to the drawing board. And the Cook School will remain unused for the foreseeable future.
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