D.C. stops exterior demolition of building near key homeless shelter after finding lead

Building 9 on the D.C. General campus won’t come down until it’s been decontaminated, officials say

D.C. General
 The Washington Post/Getty Images

D.C. officials have temporarily stopped demolition work on the exterior of a vacant building located about 250 feet from the city’s largest family homeless shelter after tests came back positive for elevated lead levels in several soil samples taken from around that building last month. They say the work won’t begin again until the soil has been decontaminated.

The demolition of Building 9, as the vacant structure is called, is part of the District’s plan to close the ailing D.C. General shelter at 1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE and replace it with new, smaller shelters across the city. City leaders have sought to replace D.C. General for years, and in 2016, lawmakers approved the scattered-site strategy.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, some residents have publicly opposed the new shelters being built in their neighborhoods. But in recent weeks, controversy has arisen over exactly when D.C. General will close and what will happen to the families living there.

Advocates for the homeless say Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is rushing to shutter the decrepit shelter before the end of 2018. In the process, the advocates say, the city has exposed over 100 families at D.C. General to potential health hazards by starting demolition on Building 9 before relocating all the families to other housing, like apartments or motels.

Those concerns gained traction this past week when the city agency overseeing the deconstruction of the D.C. General campus acknowledged that health inspectors had collected environmentally risky amounts of lead in the ground around Building 9. The inspectors concluded that the lead likely came from the building’s wooden window frames.

As first reported by WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle, then confirmed by the Washington City Paper and the Washington Post, the D.C. Department of General Services (DGS) is halting demolition work on the outside of Building 9 until the lead is abated. Interior demolition work, though, will continue.

A spokeswoman for DGS did not respond to Curbed DC’s requests for comment on Monday. But the agency’s director, Greer Gillis, told the Post that officials needed to understand how much lead it was dealing with before “finaliz[ing] an abatement plan.” She also said “there’s not a hard-and-fast-date” by which the city must finish the D.C. General campus demolition.

Last March, the District hired Rhode Island-based construction firm Gilbane Building Co. to deconstruct the 704,000-square-foot complex, under a contract with a $36 million budget. The contract has a May 31, 2019 date for “substantial completion” and is poised to terminate on Sept. 30, 2019.

The timing of the work has become a sticking point between the Bowser administration and activists, who allege that the project is not being driven by the welfare of homeless families. Demolition on Building 9 began this month.

When running for office in 2014, Bowser made a campaign promise to close D.C. General and recommitted to doing so after being elected. In January, she said her administration would shutter the shelter “this fall,” even though only three of the planned replacement shelters are set to open in 2018.

The city ceased placing homeless families at D.C. General on May 15. In the interim, it has worked to find permanent housing for the remaining families at D.C. General.

As of July 31, 131 families were staying at the shelter as compared with 242 on May 15, according to city data. Of those 131 families, only 77—or 59 percent—had what officials call a “clear exit path” from D.C. General, such as a scheduled lease-up at a private apartment.

A coalition of advocacy groups including the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and Bread for the City say they are worried that homeless families could be harmed during the demolition phase.

They also say the Bowser administration has failed to explain why the demolition work must get underway while families are still living at D.C. General, and have suggested that the administration wants to clear the land for new development.

Bowser’s team has answered those claims by saying the development potential of the site—located along the Anacostia River on a largely undeveloped piece of land—is not related to the timing of the closure.

When asked on Tuesday why demolition had to start before families at D.C. General could be relocated, Bowser’s office provided a statement from Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue.

“In 2015, Mayor Bowser made a commitment to make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring and to close DC General permanently,” said Donahue. “The DC General Campus has outlived its useful life, and we must ensure that we never again use it to warehouse women or families in conditions that are unsafe, unsanitary and undignified.”

Also on Tuesday, D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the Council’s human services committee, sent a letter to DGS Director Gillis that includes a list of 18 questions about soil samples from the D.C. General campus and how the shelter’s residents would be protected from any environmental hazards moving forward.

“I am pleased that DGS is being proactive in developing a strategy for responding to the positive lead samples,” Nadeau wrote. “However, I have deep concerns about the level of transparency that has been afforded DC Council, the current residents of DC General, and the community members and advocates concerned about the well-being of workers, staff, and residents on site.”

A former hospital, D.C. General has operated as a homeless shelter since 2001.

As featured on dc.curbed.com