Sherwood's Notebook: Two Radical Changes

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s ambitious — and expensive — plan to close the homeless shelter at D.C. General is getting a major rewrite.

And a key House committee on the Hill is showing District citizens who’s boss of the city’s budget.

First, the mayor’s housing plan.

The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved a move to scrap Bowser’s plan to build smaller, alternative housing on five privately owned sites around the city and close the decrepit D.C. General shelter in 2018.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson instead offered a substitute bill moving three of those five projects onto parcels already owned by the city. That move alone would save millions of dollars and deny lucrative profits to private developers. (That was a big criticism of Bowser’s plan in the first place.)

Under Mendelson’s revised homeless plan, the remaining two sites on private land would be purchased by the city upfront, again denying huge profits to current owners. If the owners don’t want to sell at a given price, the Mendelson bill allows for eminent domain to seize the properties.

The council move irritated the mayor, who says it jeopardizes her ability to close D.C. General in 2018. WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle reported overhearing Bowser scream an obscenity — “f—-ing liar!” — at Mendelson for saying that the changes wouldn’t impact the 2018 closing and that the mayor hadn’t consulted with the council enough. The mayor’s office declined to comment on the reported slur.

From Mendelson’s committee report: “The Committee closely examined its cost-effectiveness, its potential for complications due to zoning disputes, its long-term impact on the District’s ability to meet its obligation to shelter families experiencing homelessness, the adequacy of individual proposed sites for the intended purpose, and the overall feasibility of the plan to close D.C. General as rapidly as possible.”

That’s a long way of saying the Bowser plan was too expensive and had not had enough community involvement with picking sites.

The report, in particular, said the proposed Ward 3 site on Wisconsin Avenue NW (and now moved adjacent to the 2nd District Police Headquarters on Idaho Avenue NW) would have created “windfall” profits for private owners.

Both the mayor and the council agree D.C. General is no proper home for anyone. But the mayor and council still will need to work out details on the scattered-site homeless plan. And community groups — and zoning concerns — still need to be heard.

Visit tinyurl.com/shelter-draft-bill and tinyurl.com/shelter-committee to read the revised bill and the committee report, respectively.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill Tuesday, the city’s bold move to radically change how Congress reviews the city’s annual budget may be hitting the wall many have expected.

The House Government Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday approved on a partisan vote a bill to nullify local legislation allowing “budget autonomy.”

In short, the city decided it would change the congressional charter under which the local government has operated since 1974. Instead of awaiting formal approval of the budget each year, as it has done for more than four decades, the city decided the local budget need only be subject to a 30-day review period, like most D.C. legislation.

City voters backed the change to the charter, and it survived its own legislative review period on the Hill. But the Government Accountability Office and Republican leaders of the House said all along the move was illegal. D.C. officials disagree, citing a court case decided by a D.C. Superior Court judge.

The full Republican House likely will move the bill nullifying the city’s grab of more independence. If it comes up for a vote in the Senate, it may pass. And if it is attached to some must-pass legislation, Democratic President Barack Obama is unlikely to put up a fight based on his treatment of the city in the past.

At a press conference Tuesday, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton vowed to fight on. “We are by no means giving up on Congress,” she said, noting only full statehood would get the city out from under congressional rule.

■ Bourbon & Bluegrass. The Notebook was out at President Lincoln’s Cottage on Sunday for the Friends of the Soldiers Home fundraising concert. The weather cooperated, and about 300 people showed up for bluegrass, lawn games and Rocklands Barbeque.

With our friend Pepin Tuma, we walked the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, on which the cottage sits. It is remarkable space, but much of it is in disrepair. The stately Grant Building is empty and fenced off.

As much fun as we had at the Bourbon and Bluegrass event, we couldn’t help but think a new tune needs to be played to save the old buildings.

Take a walk on the grounds the next time you visit President Lincoln’s Cottage. The buildings are magnificent to see; just look past the fencing of the Grant Building. It needs a savior.

And here’s your chance — the upcoming Memorial Day holiday on May 30 is a perfect day to go. There’s a wreath-laying ceremony at the Logan Mausoleum and guided tours of the cemetery where Abe Lincoln himself would walk, struggling with the grief of the Civil War dead and wounded. The cemetery is beautiful and haunting and far less crowded than other national cemeteries on this important day.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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