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Community curiosity

City ends lease of center called public nuisance

(Published March 13, 2000)


Staff Writer

On any given day, the nondescript two-story building – with a name that many of its Edgewood neighbors can’t figure out how to pronounce – sits apparently idle behind an 8-foot-high locked metal gate and brick wall just off Rhode Island Avenue NE. A silent Jaguar and minivan sit parked inside the fence nearly 24 hours a day.

On the inventory of city-owned property, the building at 2313 Fourth St. NE and its environs are leased for $300 a month as a community recreation center to a group headed by Mary A.T. Anigbo – whose 1997 conviction for assaulting a news reporter began a chain of events that eventually closed the Afrocentric Marcus Garvey Public Charter School she founded and led as principal.

But Thnayn (pronounced ETH-nine; thnayn is Arabic for the number 2) Place has been more a community curiosity than community center for the past few years, according to neighborhood leaders, who began complaining loudly in the summer of 1998 when parties at which alcohol was served began spilling disruptions into the adjacent streets of single-family homes and small businesses.

"They’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and they’re doing it illegally," said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Marshall R. Phillips Sr., whose 5C09 single-member district includes the controversial property.

In response to community complaints, the city’s Office of Property Management recently hand-delivered a letter to Anigbo to terminate what has been a month-to-month lease since 1997. The letter terminates the tenancy of the League of Afrikan Women Corp. on March 31.

Anigbo, whose name appeared as president of the organization on the city’s original lease for $1,200 a month, did not return calls for comment. Elsa Gaiem, who manages the property for a group called Philanthropic Learning and Community Education Inc. (PLACE), recently set up an on-site interview with a reporter but cancelled it 30 minutes later.

Kenneth Kimbrough, the city’s chief of property management, said the file on the property does not indicate the basis on which the rent was reduced to a quarter of the original monthly cost. "This is unusual and on the surface you would question that’s a big rent reduction, and I don’t know why," said Kimbrough, who was not involved in the leasing arrangement.

Public rhetoric over what many community leaders now describe as a "public nuisance" recently escalated when PLACE applied to the city for a public hall permit at the site.

"Excuse me, but what does a community recreation center need a public hall permit for?" said Edgewood Civic Association President Deborah Smith, who also represents ANC 5C10.

Alcoholic Beverage Control records indicate the lack of a public hall permit for the property is the reason ABC officials began denying applications in July 1999 for one-day liquor licenses for private parties held at Thnayn Place.

ABC officials previously issued at least half a dozen one-day liquor licenses for events at the city-owned site, even though the operators did not hold the required public hall permit. Applications for the liquor permits claimed a public hall license existed for the premises, although a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs spokeswoman said the required public hall license differs from Thnayn Place’s occupancy permit status as a "public hall." She could not explain why the ABC licenses were apparently issued without checking for the required permit.

One of the parties that received an ABC permit was a New Year’s Eve party on Dec. 31, 1998, held by a woman who listed her occupation on the ABC application as a "legal instrument examiner" for DCRA.

One Fifth District police officer said he was involved in shutting down a 1998 party at Thnayn Place when he discovered alcohol was being served on the premises without the proper permit.

ANC Commissioner Phillips, whose son attended Marcus Garvey charter school and who served as a member of the school’s board, said ANC 5C and former Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas, now deceased, originally supported Anigbo’s request to lease the city property when she was seeking a location for the charter school. The charter school opened in the fall of 1996.

Board of Education records contain no reference to the Fourth Street NE property ever having been used to hold classes for the school, which shortly thereafter gained use of the former Langley Junior High School at T and Second streets NE.

It is unclear how Philanthropic Learning and Community Education Inc., which is listed in the telephone book and in ABC records at 414 R St. NW, ever became connected with the city-owned property on Fourth Street NE. City property manager Kimbrough said the original lease did not allow the property to be sublet for a use other than as a community recreation center.

The 1999 Haines Criss-Cross Directory also listed a business called Wazobia Clothiers as operating at the Fourth Street address. The 2000 Haines directory no longer lists that business. DCRA officials said they had no record of a business license being issued to Wazobia Clothiers.

The city-owned site on which Thnayn Place is located also contains a multistory dilapidated vacant building with broken windows that years ago was known to the community as "heartbreak hotel" due to its use as a place for drug addicts to shoot heroin. The city responded to community outcries at the time by closing up the lower levels of the building with boards and cement blocks, but the building has sat neglected for years.

The H Street Community Development Corp. submitted an unsolicited proposal to the city at the end of last year to buy the property for $50,000, demolish the buildings and construct a small strip shopping center that would face Fourth Street NE. The CDC currently is negotiating an exclusive rights agreement for the property with the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator