Capitol Quarter Community Center – Key to Mixed Income Community – a Ship without a Captain
Critical Component Meant to Tie Community Together Is Stalled by Red Tape
By Larry Janezich
Many see lack of Congressional representation as responsible for Metro’s failure to maintain its infrastructure but in areas where the city has complete autonomy, it makes the similar mistake of privileging glitzy programs over essential infrastructure. Two examples are the Energy Generating Sidewalk Unveiled in Dupont Circle last Friday http://bit.ly/2g8Idqt and the free charging stations/WiFi Soofa Bench pilot project reported here http://bit.ly/2eamJXG on Capitol Hill Corner. Meanwhile, the city can’t find funds for operating the Arthur Capper Community Center in Capitol Quarter, the city’s largest mixed income housing project which lies between the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill.
Saturday, the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) held an open house for the new Community Center at 5th and L Streets, SE, but DCHA has launched a ship without a captain. Currently, there is no operator to provide or contract for the programming that would fulfill the intended purpose of the facility, and it’s not clear under what circumstances such an operator could be engaged, and if one is found, whether the arrangement could be successful. Funding to construct the facility was provided by DC tax exempt bonds, but no funds were provided for operating the facility, which was intended to be self-sustaining.
Capitol Hill Corner asked DCHA if the center could be transferred to and operated by DC Parks and Recreation, and the reply was, “Budget constraints for the District prevent them from absorbing this center into their budget.”
DCHA broke ground on the community center in August of 2014, and issued an Request for Proposals (RFP) soliciting an operator in October, 2014. One of those responding which drew initial enthusiasm from DCHA was Capitol Commons Management, Inc. (CCM) – a coalition of community businesses who wanted to run the facility and provide programs for a fee which would not only sustain the center, but would also allow the offering of other free programs. The CCM member organizations included: Capitol Hill Day School, United Social Sports, Sports on the Hill, and Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Despite initial positive reaction on the part of DCHA, in August, 2015, CCM was told the project could not be implemented as described in the RFP. DC’s Chief Financial Officer nixed moving forward on the basis of the RFP, citing legal restrictions under public financing which precluded a private-public partnership allowing for outside management of the center.
Eight months later, after no way around the restrictions could be found, CCM wrote to DCHA, “The restrictions precluded funding sources that CCM had anticipated for start-up costs as well as future funding and development options for ongoing operations and capital costs. Thus, the restrictions largely mooted the financing and planning assumptions in the Proposal …. In addition, the new restrictions severely undermined any autonomy in developing programming and operations to achieve the vision and mission described in the Proposal.” On May 6, 2016, the CCM Board of Directors voted unanimously to withdraw its proposal from DCHA.
Thus ended, what would seem to have been an ideal community-based solution, tying together not only the mixed income aspects of Capitol Quarter, but also linking Capitol Quarter to the neighborhoods north of the freeway.
The community center is widely viewed as a critical element of the emerging community replacing the 23 acre former Capper/Carrollsburg public housing project lying between the SW Freeway and the Navy Yard – now called Capitol Quarter. The original Arthur Capper Recreation Center was demolished in 2007, but a down economy and lack of funding prevented the construction of a new community center until 2014. The building was completed in 2016.
DCHA told Capitol Hill Corner, “We opened in July under a temporary conditional Certificate of Occupancy for a summer youth program….We are currently in a startup phase, offering only the after school program under a license agreement with the provider.” The afterschool program for children is operating under a license agreement with the Community Services Foundation.
Moving forward, DCHA says it “…will be using public solicitations to invite community based individuals and organizations to provide a wide range of recreational and enrichment activities at the Community Building.” This could occur as early as next month and the solicitations will provide options for one time, short term or long term opportunities. Activities are expected to include basketball, indoor soccer, arts and crafts, dance and exercise classes, computer lab, homework help, sewing and quilting classes, chess, etc. In addition, the building will house a full service child care center and will be available for meetings, birthday parties and other individual uses and events.
DCHA is currently the operator, and says, “We are now working to insure that we meet the requirements of the funding source which was tax exempt bonds. The IRS requirements for facilities funded this way are directing and controlling how we proceed with bringing in outside organizations to allow the facility to fully achieve its potential to serve as a catalyst to bring a new, growing and diverse neighborhood together as an integrated community.
According to ANC Commissioner Meredith Fascett, DCHA is writing a position description for an RFP to find an operator for the center. Part of the difficulty is determining the nature of the relationship between the operator and DCHA. Fascett said that the vision of the operator will be critical, “I think this is a very important neighborhood asset to tie together the larger community. We need a thoughtful operator to manage programs while keeping the larger mission in mind – that of building a cohesive, inclusionary mixed income neighborhood.” Fascett sees the planned first floor day care center as being the “anchor” around which the other services can be built. She hopes that the day care component will be operational by next September.