South by West

Unity Health Clinic on I Street SW will be rebuilt as part of the plan to construct a family homeless shelter. Photo: William Rich

Family Shelter to Be Built at Unity Clinic Site

The DC Council voted on May 31 to move the proposed Ward 6 community-based, short-term family-housing locationfrom a parcel adjacent to Blind Whino SW Arts Club at 700 Delaware Ave. SW to the Unity Health Clinic site at 850 Delaware Ave. SW. Since the Blind Whino site was privately owned, it would have required the District government to lease the shelter building, significantly raising the cost. During the council’s review of Mayor Bowser's Homeward DC plan to close DC General by creating homeless shelters in each ward by 2018, all of the proposed privately owned sites, including that in Ward 6, were changed to District-owned parcels. For a time the proposed Ward 6 shelter was not going to be in Southwest at all. A site was identified at 200 K St. NW, but owing to legal issues Unity was selected instead.

Square 643

Back in 2003, Steve Tanner, the owner of 700 Delaware Ave. SW (Square 643), planned to transform the old Friendship Baptist Church building into office space and build condominiums on the adjacent land. The project received planned-unit-development approval over a decade ago but was delayed due to inaction on the redevelopment of Randall Junior High School across the street. (Coincidentally, a homeless shelter used to be located at Randall, but was closed in anticipation of the site’s redevelopment as a museum/residential project.)

The developer came to an agreement with Blind Whino to convert the church into the nonprofit Blind Whino SW Arts Club, and a mural was painted on the building's exterior. The club opened in 2013, but the residential portion of the original development was not built. Other temporary uses for the site included batting cages for a youth baseball league and a community garden.

When the city initially selected 700 Delaware Ave. as the proposed site for a shelter this past winter, there was broad opposition by community members, especially residents of neighboring Capitol Park IV condos, who questioned the Bowser administration’s lack of transparency in selecting a privately owned site not close to transit or support services for homeless residents. Other community members also decried the decision, which would further concentrate poverty in the area near the Greenleaf Gardens public housing complex. 

ANC Action

Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6D passed a resolution regarding Mayor Bowser’s Homeward DC plan in December 2015. At the time, the ANC did not know where in Ward 6 a proposed shelter would be built, but anticipated the possibility the selected location could be within ANC 6D. The resolution supported the need to build community-based, short-term family housing in each Ward of the city, but if ANC 6D was selected as the Ward 6 location, there were several criteria the commissioners listed in the resolution:

  • Private bedroom and bathroom areas for each family, with doors that close and lock.
  • Indoor and outdoor play space for children, open after school on school days and longer hours when school is not in session. Such space should offer programming and be monitored by background-checked staff or volunteers (such as Homeless Children’s Playtime Project).
  • Accessibility for residents with disabilities.
  • Adequate transportation for children to attend school and parents to seek and attend work.
  • Excellent cleaning, security, and pest-control protocols, both inside and outside the building.
  • On-site classes (e.g. parenting, GED, job training, AA/NA, literacy) as well as referrals to outside providers.
  • Case managers and licensed social workers at an adequate ratio to connect families with resources and help them develop and reach individual goals.

In addition the commissioners requested that a shelter in 6D should be constructed as a mixed-use building, and the operation of the facility should be of a higher quality than what exists at DC General.

In response to the selection of Square 643 as a shelter in February 2016, ANC 6D passed an additional resolution in March expressing their preference for a publicly owned site with better access to public transit instead of 700 Delaware Ave. The resolution requested city investment in other community assets, including programming at Randall Community Center, a build-first commitment at Greenleaf Gardens, improvements at Unity Health Clinic, Jefferson Middle School, and Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, a crosswalk on the north side of the intersection of South Capitol and I streets, and the installation of a drinking fountain at Lansburgh Park. The commissioners also reiterated the criteria for what is needed in a shelter located within ANC 6D and indeed across the city.

The decision to move the proposed shelter site to a publicly owned site at 850 Delaware Ave. SW satisfied some of the requirements in the ANC’s resolutions. Commissioner Stacy Cloyd, in an email dated May 31 to neighbors regarding the council’s vote, explained that 850 Delaware Ave. had several advantages over the Blind Whino site: “It is already owned by the District, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in lease payments. Since the District will own the shelter and the land on which it sits, the site can remain in service to the public much longer than a lease would have guaranteed. The space is bigger than what could be developed at Blind Whino, allowing for more flexibility in design.”

According to a statement by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen's office, Unity Health Clinic will also be rebuilt as part of the deal to build a new shelter. “The 850 Delaware Avenue SW site was identified early on by the Southwest community as a possible alternative to the initial proposal at 700 Delaware Avenue, SW,” the statement noted. “In addition, this location has more favorable zoning and is large enough to accommodate up to 50 units of housing. Further, after constructive conversations with the Mayor and her team, the city has committed to replacing and rebuilding the community health center located at that site, and has also committed to protecting and preserving critical Greenleaf public housing through a Build First model of redevelopment as prioritized by the Southwest community.”

What About the Proposed Greenleaf Seniors Building at Unity?

An initiative by the Near SE/SW Community Benefits Coordinating Council several months ago called for the Unity site to be used as a seniors' housing/health complex, as a first step in redeveloping Greenleaf under a build-first model. As a result of the DC Council's actions, a new District or federally owned parcel in Southwest would be used to implement build-first at Greenleaf. A preliminary plan (as reported in South by Southwest in May 2016) by the DC Housing Authority would construct an initial phase of 127 units under a build-first model on a District or federally owned parcel in Southwest. It would then replace the 38 townhomes on the block bounded by L, M, and Third streets and Delaware Avenue with a new seniors’ housing building. The families living in the townhomes would not be displaced; they would move into some of the units built at the 127-unit build-first building.

The proposed shelter and new Unity Health Care Clinic at 750 Delaware Ave. are anticipated to be completed by fall 2018, in time for DC General to close before hypothermia season begins.

William Rich is a blogger at Southwest … The Little Quadrant that Could (