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Posts about Truxton Circle


Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.

Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.

Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.

Public Spaces

Five new murals that add life to NoMa and Truxton Circle

New murals are brightening NoMa and Truxton Circle. Here's where you can find them.

Fresh Cut Barber Shop at North Capitol and Bates Street NW. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

One is on North Capitol and Bates St. NW, and another on the corner of Florida Avenue and Q St. NW.

Fiddlehead's Salon at Florida and Q NW.

Another is part 5x5, a DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities initiative to develop public art. It's painted on a retaining wall along First Street. Both its bright primary colors and message, "Home Is Where the Heart Is," make First and N NE, which used to be pretty bland, come alive.

First and N NE.

Two more, which Art Whino and JBG Companies collaborated to commission, help with the job:

First and N NE.

JBG has plans to redevelop each of these the two buildings, but the murals spruce them up in the meantime.

First and N NE. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

DC Public Works supports street and performance art throughout the city as a way of showcasing local artists, and in some cases as a method for preventing unwanted graffiti.

Throughout the region, murals tell stories about their neighborhoods and their history and values. Rather than letting older and unused buildings simply fall into disrepair, recreating and enlivening them with artwork makes them new again.


Plans seek to keep Mid City East affordable

The neighborhoods north of Union Station are one of the last affordable, walkable areas close to downtown DC. Can an area change for the better while keeping prices low? That's what DC's trying to figure out with the Mid City East Small Area Plan and Livability Study.

Typical rowhouses in Bloomingdale. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

As U Street to the west and NoMa to the east have boomed, the Mid City East neighborhoods of LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Truxton Circle, Sursum Corda, and Eckington remain a relatively affordable option. However, as million-dollar houses pop up, neighbors want to secure the diversity and affordability that lend the neighborhoods their character.

Since January, the DC Office of Planning (OP) and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) have been studying these neighborhoods and have released their draft recommendations for comment. The results here may provide lessons for what happens in similarly transitioning DC neighborhoods like Hill East or Anacostia, or Columbia Pike in Arlington.

The planning process kicked off in April. Through public meetings, informal office hours, and a collaboration website, neighbors have asked for a greater variety of housing and retail options, less concentration of social services, better use of vacant land and marginal land. They also want a re-think of the commuter arteries that divide the neighborhoods, Florida, Rhode Island, and New York avenues, and North Capitol Street.

Neighbors' vision as captured by an illustrator during the April 27 kickoff meeting.

Planners recommend reopening streets, preserving single-family homes

OP and DDOT spent the summer developing their respective Small Area Plan and Livability Study around the neighbors' input and released their draft recommendations September 26. OP's Small Area Plan is also based on a detailed survey of the area's built, natural, and human resources and their physical and economic connections to the rest of the District.

Based on these inputs, OP recommends focusing on North Capitol Street to take advantage of its emerging mix of creative, retail, and restaurant businesses and still-vacant lots in key locations. Among the recommendations are increases in density along the street, requirements that planned-unit developments include space for retail, and a deck over a sunken portion of the roadway between T Street and Rhode Island Avenue.

More broadly, OP would also like to open a handful of neighborhood streets to reconnect the street grid and solicit proposals to turn two vacant schools into an innovation campus.

To address neighbors' other concerns, OP recommends organizing local groups to promote preservation, walkability, and the upkeep of local parks. Through these changes, OP would promote affordable housing by giving developers incentives to build more affordable units while maintaining the current stock. But OP also recommends strengthening the zoning code "to preserve the availability of the current supply of single family housing stock" in Mid City East, which by constraining supply would seem to increase prices.

DDOT's analysis of crashes in the Mid City East area. The numbers in the yellow circles represent numbers of victims (injuries and deaths).

DDOT's Livability Study, the other component of the joint effort, further took into account neighborhood travel patterns and the state of the existing streets. DDOT's data show that crashes are no accident along the area's major arterials, with hundreds of people injured and several killed over a three-year period. DDOT proposes to improve safety by removing slip lanes and widening median refuges at major intersections and lowering speed on neighborhood-serving streets through wider sidewalks, curb extensions, and mini-roundabouts at intersections.

DDOT's proposal for stormwater management through pervious pavement in alleys (red) and tree box filters (green).

Both OP and DDOT are stressing sustainability after heavy rains overwhelmed sewers and flooded in recent years. Although a stormwater storage tunnel for the neighborhood is already in the works as part of the Clean Rivers Project, DDOT also proposes to install pervious pavement and other green infrastructure designed to keep water from entering the sewer system in the first place. As part of its most ambitious proposal, DDOT would install permeable paving in about half of Mid City East's alleys and divert stormwater to sidewalk tree boxes on about a dozen streets.

Will the vision be realized?

Are OP's and DDOT's recommendations bold enough to keep the Mid City East neighborhoods on an inclusive, sustainable path that makes the most of nearby development while preserving local character? There are few large projects; instead, OP and DDOT want to make the best use of the area's current assets and encourage neighbors to help themselves through better resident and business collaboration.

The streetscape improvements and the North Capitol Street deck, though welcome, would not change the balance between commuters and residents along the major arterials. Intersection improvements would help bridge the gaps across Florida, New York, and North Capitol, but without a clearer plan for pedestrian and bicycle circulation and connections to other neighborhoods, moving across the area will still be difficult.

What do you think about the draft recommendations? Will they help the area achieve an inclusive, sustainable future? Please leave your ideas in the comments or stop in at OP and DDOT's office hours today between 6-7:30 pm at Big Bear Café at 1700 1st Street NW.


Events roundup: School's out (almost)

Thanks to everyone who came to our resurrected happy hour Wednesday night! Still hungry for more conversation? Over the next 2 weeks, you can learn about pedestrian safety in Montgomery County and DC, talk about the future of Prince George's and Tysons Corner, and hear about the intersection of food and smart growth.

Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Take it outside in MoCo: Tomorrow, join the Action Committee for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth for an al fresco discussion of pedestrian safety and transit at Fenton Street Market. We'll promote ACT's new website,, let kids draw their favorite ways to get to school, and chat about ways to improve county transit, like the Purple Line and BRT. Join us from 10 am to 12:30 pm at the market, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in Silver Spring.

After the jump: events in Bloomingdale, Tysons, Montgomery Village, College Park, Anacostia, and Trinidad.

Mobile design workshop in Mid-City East: If you spend time in Bloomingdale, Eckington, LeDroit Park, or Truxton Circle, DDOT and the Office of Planning want to hear from you. They've rented a ZipVan and will move around the area hosting "design on the fly" sessions all day on Saturday and Wednesday as part of a study on ways to improve pedestrian and bicycle access.

You'll find the workshop at a variety of locations, including the Bloomingdale Farmers' Market, along the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and outside Dunbar and McKinley high schools. For more details and times, visit the Mid-City East study website.

Evolving transportation in Fairfax: Learn about how the county's transportation network has changed over time at an event hosted by Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, and the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations.

It's this Wednesday, June 12 from 7:30-9:30 pm at the (very swanky) Angelika Film Center at 2911 District Avenue in Merrifield, not far from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station. For more information or to RSVP, visit the chairman's website.

The return of M-83: No, the French electronic band isn't playing here, but Montgomery County has restarted work on Midcounty Highway Extended, also known as M-83, a proposed highway between Montgomery Village and Clarksburg. The Department of Transportation and Montgomery Village Foundation are hosting a public meeting on the controversial highway next Thursday, June 13 from 7:30 to 9:00 pm at the North Creek Community Center, located at 20125 Arrowhead Road in Montgomery Village.

Get schooled on Prince George's future: Planners in Prince George's County want to encourage more walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development, and they'd like to talk to you about it. They're holding a town meeting next Saturday, June 15 at the University of Maryland from 9 am to 1 pm and will serve free breakfast. You can register here or visit their website for more information.


This month, contributor John Muller will give 2 tours of Old Anacostia with a focus on the life of Frederick Douglass, who made his home there. The tours are this Saturday, June 8 and Saturday, June 22 from 11am-12:30pm, and tickets are $25. For more info visit the event's website.

Planners and developers in Tysons Corner will give an update on ongoing development and transportation projects at an open house this Tuesday, June 11 from 7-9 pm at Westbriar Elementary School, 1741 Pine Valley Drive in Tysons Corner.

The Historic Anacostia Block Association will hear presentations from the Office of Planning on future development in that area, including St. Elizabeth's East Campus and the Big K site, this Thursday, June 13 at 7pm at the UPO, 1649 Good Hope Road SE.

DDOT's studying ways to improve pedestrian and bike safety along Florida Avenue NE. They're hosting their first public meeting Wednesday, June 19 from 7 to 9 pm in Chapel Hall at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Avenue NE.

Join food critics and restaurateurs for "Food in the City," a panel discussion hosted by Smart Growth America on the intersection of smart growth and DC's growing food community. The event's on Thursday, June 20 from 6-8 pm at Union Market, 1309 5th Street NE. For more information, visit their website.

Public Spaces

Historic fountains rot away in a local national park

Two century-old DC fountains sit decaying and neglected in the woods of a national park in Maryland. The fountains had been missing from the 1940s until they were rediscovered in the woods of Fort Washington National Park in the 1970s.

Photo by The Great Photographicon on Flickr.

The top portion of the McMillan fountain, pictured below, was returned to Crispus Attucks park in the Bloomingdale neighborhood in 1983. In 1992 it was moved back to the fenced-off grounds of the McMillan Reservoir just a few blocks away.

The fountain was installed in 1913 at the McMillan Reservoir as a memorial to Senator James McMillan (R - Michigan), who is more remembered locally for his his ambitious McMillan Plan to beautify Washington. The fountain was dismantled in 1941, when the reservoir was fenced off from the public.

McMillan Fountain
Top of the McMillan Fountain today (left) and in 1912 (right).

Though the top of the McMillan Fountain had been restored to the reservoir grounds, a Bloomingdale ANC commissioner told me the base of the fountain was in the woods in Fort Washington along with the remains of the fountain that stood at the center of the now-razed Truxton Circle.

I went to Fort Washington in search of these discarded works of art. I asked a park ranger where the fountain was and she drew me a map, saying that it stood in the park's "dump" and partly behind a fence.

I went to the picnic area nearest the site and walked into the woods a short distance where I found a fence. Behind it stood piles of bricks and other discarded building materials.

Beside the site is a dugout that serves as the back court to Battery Emory, a concrete gun battery built in 1898 to protect the capital city from enemy ships.

As I passed through the unfenced dugout, I immediately spotted few granite blocks that served as the cornerstones of the base bowl. Though they are strewn about the ground, a 1912 photograph can help us identify what pieces went where.

McMillan Fountain Cornerstone
A cornerstone sitting on the ground (left) formed part of the fountain's bottom basin (right).

The elements of the fountain were stacked like totem pole. The bottom element features carved classical allegorical heads from whose mouths water gushed into the carved bowls below.

McMillan Fountain base
Fence material and tree debris cover the carved granite (left) that stood as the fountain base (right).

The next element of the stack is the fluted base to the top bowl.

McMillan Fountain collar
Upside down on the ground (left) is the fluted base for the top bowl (right).

Several other large granite stones are stacked and marked with numbers, presumably to help in reassembly.

McMillan Fountain pieces

The site also contains the rusting remains of the fountain that stood at Truxton Circle, which formed the intersection of North Capitol Street, Florida Avenue, Lincoln Road, and Q Street. The circle was built around 1901 and the fountain installed there originally stood at the triangle park at Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street in Georgetown.

Truxton Circle stood at Florida Avenue, North Capitol Street, Q Street, and Lincoln Road from 1901 to 1940, when it was demolished to aid commuter traffic.

A newspaper at the time described it as one of the largest fountains in the city. The circle was removed in 1940 to ease the flow of commuter traffic. At that time, the fountain, which may date to as early as the 1880s, made its way to Fort Washington to rust in the woods.

Truxton Circle fountain Truxton Circle fountain bowl rim
The metal pedestal (left) held up the fountain bowl whose rim rusts in pieces on the ground (right). Notice the classical egg-and-dart pattern.

The fountain was also noted for the metal grates that stood near its base. Now these grates sit rusting in the woods.

Fountain grates Grates from the Truxton Circle Fountain

If you want to see the fountain remains for yourself at Fort Washington National Park, go to picnic area C. Beyond the end of the parking lot is a restroom building and behind that is the fountain "graveyard." A fence encloses part of the site, but you can enter through the large gap down the hillside.

Rather than tossing aside our city's artistic patrimony, we should aim to restore these treasures to the neighborhoods from which they came. Public art is part of what differentiates cherished neighborhoods from unmemorable places.

These works remind us of the accomplishments and civic-mindedness of generations past and urge us to carry on the tradition of civic improvement for generations to come.

Cross-posted at Left for LeDroit.


Ward 5 needs more, smaller ANC's

The Ward 5 Redistricting Task Force recently began the process of deciding if and how to redraw the ward's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs). The task force should create more ANC's with fewer Single Member Districts (SMDs) in each.

SMDs are the individual districts that make up each ANC. Each SMD serves around 2,000 constituents. Commissioners are unpaid, non partisan, and elected to 2-year terms.

Every ward has their ANCs arranged slightly differently. The most common set up is 4 or 5 commissions with fewer than 10 SMDs in each. For example, Ward 7 has 5 commissions, each consisting of 7 SMDs.

Currently, Ward 5 has only 3 ANCs, each with 12 SMDs. This is problematic because each covers a large geographic area, encompassing a wide range of neighborhoods with vastly different characteristics and needs.

Current ANC boundaries.

A more responsive system could be created by revising ANCs to be based on historic neighborhood boundaries, future economic development prospects, and common-sense issues of geography. This would improve local governance by ensuring that commissioners were voting on issues that they were engaged in and would impact their constituents. It would also make it easier for interested citizens to attend meetings and get involved in local government.

ANC's should comprise neighborhood clusters that are near each other and have similar densities and zoning characteristics.

For example, ANC 5C includes some of Ward 5's most densely populated neighborhoods along the North Capitol Street corridor, sparsely populated areas around the Armed Forces Retirement Home, and most of Catholic University. These neighborhoods have little in common and cover an area almost 3 miles from north to south.

This variation is problematic when the whole ANC votes on something that will in reality only impact a few SMDs. The controversy over Big Bear Cafe's attempts to secure a liquor license pitted commissioners from miles away against supportive commissioners from the neighborhood.

Issues can also arise when commissioners deal with changes or challenges from areas outside their borders that do not affect the larger ANC. For instance, the Eckington and Truxton Circle neighborhoods in ANC 5C are located very close to development in the newly branded NoMa neighborhood. They have to deal with related economic development and housing issues that will have little impact on 5C commissioners from farther north.

Many of the problems inherent in ANC5C's makeup could be solved by reducing its size and moving its northern most SMD's to another commission. A better, smaller ANC 5C could look like this:

Image by the author. Click for interactive map.

Similarly, the neighborhoods of Trinidad and Carver-Langston in ANC 5B, located north of Florida Ave and Benning Road, NE are part of the rapid economic development based around the H Street corridor. But ANC 5B stretches for miles towards the Maryland border. It includes the National Arboretum, and has several SMDs clustered around Rhode Island Avenue, NE.

These areas have different economic centers and geographies. It makes little sense for them to be involved in each other's parochial decisions.

These issues can be solved by creating a smaller ANC representing Trinidad, Carver-Langston, Ivy City and Gallaudet University:

Image by the author. Click for interactive map.

As currently constituted, several of Ward 5's economic corridors, historic neighborhoods and institutions are split between multiple ANCs. This makes it difficult to create coherent and effective policy.

Catholic University, the surrounding neighborhood of Brookland, and its main street of 12th Street are currently split between three ANCs. The nearby Rhode Island Avenue corridor also touches three separate commissions. Creating one ANC to encompass Catholic University, Brookland and neighborhoods to the north and south of Rhode Island Avenue, NE would allow local leaders to make smart decisions about the future of this area without undue outside influence.

Image by the author. Click for interactive map.

These examples do not form a complete plan for redrawing Ward 5's ANCs. But they do show that the existing commissions can be broken down in a more logical and effective manner.

The three ANCs in Ward 5 are vast. The current setup does not make participation in local politics easy for anyone, but it is especially problematic for seniors, people with small children and those without cars or easy access to transit.

Ward 5 isn't the only ward considering more, smaller ANCs. In Ward 1, which is currently divided into 4 commisions, ANC 1A and 1B each have 11 commissioners. 1B would now grow to 13 commissioners if its borders don't change. Kent Boese has proposed adding a 5th ANC in Ward 1, giving each 6-9 SMDs.

Creating smaller ANCs will make it easier for regular citizens to get involved in local affairs. This line of thinking appeared at the first task force meeting when members suggested that citizens will be more likely to attend meetings if they know it will be a short trip from their house.

The Ward 5 Redistricting Task Force has a chance to improve governance and get more people involved when making their recommendations. They should move forward by creating more ANCs and decreasing the size of the existing commissions.

Their next meeting will be held on Wednesday, August 24 at the 5th District Police Station, 1805 Bladensburg Road NE. Visit the Ward 5 Redistricting Task Force's blog for more information.

Public Safety

For a safe park, the best defense is a good offense

A small central DC playground park that has been plagued by drug dealing and other illicit activity for decades is about to undergo renovation. Once it's done, neighbors must take ownership and make the park into a safe and welcoming neighborhood asset once again.

Photo by the author.

A sharp tension came to light at a community meeting Monday night between the desire to make Florida Avenue Park (located at the southwest corner of Florida Avenue and First Street NW) a pleasant place to let children play, take part in a game of basketball or checkers, or enjoy a sunny afternoon—and wanting to make it unwelcoming as possible to vagrants, alcoholics and drug dealers.

The park, originally designed and built in 1977, is abutted on two sides by a public housing cooperative of similar vintage. Across First Street on its east side sits a liquor store, some of whose customers frequently consume its merchandise in the park. Because of neighborhood organizations' work with the Metropolitan Police Department, the past two months have seen a spike in arrests made in or near the park.

Solely based on its appearance, Florida Avenue Park gives off a completely different vibe from nearby Crispus Attucks Park. It is completely surrounded by a tall black wrought-iron fence, with a gate on the east end towards First Street and one on the northwest end towards Florida Avenue. The gates are locked nightly between 9:00 PM and 6:00 AM.

Inside is a basketball court (which is well used), two mostly plastic children's' play structures (not as well used), and a wide pathway lined with simple painted benches (often used by loiterers). While lines of mature oak trees on all three sides provide it with a shady canopy, the concrete, the fence and the overall uninspired utilitarian design make it not as welcoming a space as it should be.

Florida Ave. entrance on Monday night. Photo by the author.
The park was closed last week for renovations which aim to revive the space. Construction—funded by a $1.2 million grant from the DC Council—is slated to last through November 15. ANC 5C and the Hanover, Bloomingdale, and Bates Area Civic Associations were involved in the design process. The latter has even established a subsidiary, Friends of Florida Avenue Park, which will work with the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to maintain and plan activities for the newly-refurbished space.

DPR staff who hosted Monday's meeting drove home the message that this kind of community activism will be key to making the park a success. But most of the concerns attendees aired dealt with how to keep certain kinds of people out, rather than how to bring more families with children, young people and seniors in.

Current plans call for the gate on the east end to remain permanently locked, to prevent liquor store patrons from easily accessing the park. But this caused some to worry about being trapped in that corner (where a play area for children ages 2-5 will go) by a threatening person with only one way out. As a solution, one attendee suggested a revolving gate that will allow people to exit, but not to enter—which does not square with the idea of eliminating aesthetic barriers to a welcoming public space.

Other attendees wanted to make sure the park would be well-lit, that metal armrests would be placed on the new benches to discourage sleeping, that surfaces wouldn't be painted but would also be graffiti-proof, and that the perimeter fence be double-fortified to prevent forced entry after hours.

Park interior, just prior to renovation. Photo by the author.
But when it came to actually making the park fun and useful for kids and adolescents and desirable for adults, DPR and the project's landscape architect had more ideas than the attendees. Though the tall fence will remain, lowering the walls and trimming tree limbs will create clearer lines of sight, giving the park a more open feel while allowing police on Florida Avenue to observe activity within.

The play equipment will be redesigned with no enclosed spaces or large ledges—eliminating hiding spaces but also making it more challenging, and thus rewarding, to climb. Space beside the basketball court will be reserved for a community bulletin board and game tables.

But ultimately, it will be up to the Friends of Florida Avenue Park to organize concerts, clean-up days, meet and greets, and other social activities that will allow the community to reclaim the park as its own—ultimately the most effective deterrent to undesirable activity.


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.

The Cook School's facade. Image from In Shaw on Flickr.

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.


I Wish This Were... in Bloomingdale/Eckington/Truxton Circle

Forward-thinking New Orleanians started putting stickers on abandoned buildings and other places they wish were more than they are.

Borrowing the idea, minus the physical tagging of properties, we bring you the first installment of "I Wish This Were...", where GGW contributors imagine a better use for vacant properties and poorly-conceived public spaces in the DC area.

This one focuses on the Bloomingdale, Eckington and Truxton Circle neighborhoods of Northwest and Northeast DC. All photos by the author, who is a Bloomingdale resident.

Local developer Brian Brown almost came to agreement with two restauranteurs to turn this lovely late 19th-century firehouse, at the northwest corner of North Capitol St and Quincy Pl NW, into a 2-story bar and restaurant. Both deals fell through due to lack of financing. Let us hope that a committed investor comes forward.

This site of a former Esso service station at the northwest corner of Florida Ave and North Capitol St NW, behind "Truxton Park," has been vacant for many years as developers have been unwilling to pay to decontaminate the site. A 3 or 4-story affordable apartment building with a neighborhood grocery or shop on the ground floor would be ideally suited for this prime real estate at the junction of two heavily-used Metrobus lines.

The DC government owns this lot at Florida Avenue and Q Street NW and condemned the boarded-up building (which appears to have had retail space) in August 2009. OECD reports that 'affordable housing' is planned here. Homes here should be architecturally similar to the rowhouses to the right (west), perhaps with retail or office space mixed in. The rooftop of a 2-story building here would afford a view of the Capitol and Washington Monument.

The District or a developer should transform this "L'Enfant wedge" at Florida Avenue & R Street NW into a welcoming space similar to the one with the LeDroit Park gate at Florida & T Street NW.

As I recently suggested, imagine this mini-highway decked over to become a tree-lined plaza framing the view of the Capitol dome.

Bloomingdale already boasts some fine examples of smart urban design:

Crispus Attucks Park

Big Bear Cafe

Timor Bodega (locally-owned organic grocery)

Picturesque Victorian rowhouses on tree-lined streets.
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