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Brookland balks at school plan

(Published February 22, 1999)

By LUTISHIA PHILLIPS

Staff Writer

Plans by one of the city’s largest churches to move its private school to a quiet Northeast Washington street have residents battling what many claim is church officials’ disregard for their desire to protect the character of their neighborhood.

And some — like Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mary Baird Currie, who lives two blocks from the proposed school site – charge that Metropolitan Baptist Church’s plan is another example of what they feel is a pervasive trend among the District’s larger religious institutions to create city-based church income while their suburbanite-dominated congregations pay little in D.C. taxes.

"They said they had a matter of right and didn’t have to consult us," Currie said, describing the "arrogant" manner in which church officials originally approached the plan to move their school from its current, constrained quarters inside the church at 1225 R St. NW to the former Howard University Divinity School at 13th and Randolph streets NE. "We didn’t feel the church dealt with us properly," she said.

Currie, armed with letters exchanged over a matter of months, says church officials began to show their current interest in communicating with Brookland residents about their plans only after they learned a zoning variance is needed to bring the 240-student private day school to the single-block, residentially dominated stretch of Randolph Street.

A hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. March 3 before the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment on the day school’s request for a special zoning exemption to increase the former divinity school’s legally permitted occupancy to accommodate the new school. The building’s current occupancy is 150.

Church officials presented their plans Feb. 10 at a meeting before Currie’s ANC-5A06 single-member district, which was attended by more than 60 people. Following the presentation and discussion, residents voted 48-4 to oppose the church’s plan. Residents plan to protest outside One Judiciary Square at the start of the March 3 BZA hearing.

In April 1998, the day school’s board of governors signed a lease with Howard University for use of the building. They hosted a community open house in June and started renovations in August, until they learned of the need to secure a zoning exemption.

Madeline C. Petty, chairman of Metropolitan Baptist Church’s Community Relations Committee, tried to assure neighborhood residents at the start of the meeting that the church will work with and respond to the community in order to build a "quality product."

The day after the meeting, Petty said church officials "will continue to dialogue with the residents and hope that both sides can come up with some solutions" to the expressed concerns.

But most residents who spoke at the meeting indicated any negotiations would be pointless, steadfast in their belief the school for kindergarten through 8th grade students will disturb the primarily older residents who live near the proposed site.

Resident Linda Mines talked about her 79-year-old father who has already suffered from lack of sleep due to trucks and demolition that has gone on for the school.

"My father has to wake up at 6:30 in the morning with this noise," Mines complained.

Mines and other residents attending the meeting also voiced concerns about parking becoming a problem for residents when parents pick up and drop off their children.

"Ninety-nine percent of these kids (will be) coming by car," Mines said.

Randolph Street resident John Deal said he’s already had a problem with people parking in his driveway and that neighborhood problems existed when Howard’s divinity school occupied the property.

"One woman even used my hose to wash her car in my driveway," Deal said, remembering when Howard used the site proposed for the new, larger school.

Traffic engineer Osbourne George, who was hired by the church to study traffic in front of the proposed school, told the audience that he’s worked on the same issue at other schools and has been successful in alleviating problems. At Washington International School, for example, George said parents are given numbers and stickers to quickly identify which cars are waiting for which students.

"It has proven to be very effective," said George, who noted the neighborhood’s traffic and parking concerns must be dealt with separately.

Bruce Mitchell, the designer and structural manager of the school project, said plans include 19 off-street parking spaces. He said the only additions that would be made to the school would be an elevator for the handicapped and an enclosure for the courtyard area to turn it into playground space.

Many of the residents said they believe the playground space is too small for so many students and will be unsafe. Mitchell said only 30 students will be allowed on the playground at a time.

Few of those in attendance at the meeting spoke in support of the school’s relocation into their neighborhood. One of them, resident Sally Matthews, said her granddaughter has made a lot of progress since she began attending the church’s school.

"When I pick her up now, she never wants to leave," Matthews said.

Resident Stafford Lands expressed mixed feelings about the church’s plan to locate its school in his neighborhood. "I will not fight the church, but the church should be more considerate of all people," he said.

"We reserve the right to say who should use this space and preserve our neighborhood the way it is," said Cynthia Reed of the North Michigan Park Citizens Association. Reed said that she would help her Brookland neighbors, though she lives in North Michigan Park, since they stood with her in opposing the nonprofit Boys Town’s proposed expansion in her nearby neighborhood.

"And if our officials won’t stand with us, then they must go," she said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator