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Last-minute D.C. budget move at Marion Barry's request hands Ward 8 building to UDC

The slash to the streetcar program wasn't the only big change to the city budget made in the wee hours Tuesday night.

Via little-noticed language that first appeared in budget legislation released after 2 a.m. Wednesday, the Patricia R. Harris Education Center in Ward 8 was removed from the city's real-estate portfolio and transferred to the control of the University of the District of Columbia, for use as a campus for its newly established community college.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) included the Harris transfer hours before Wednesday's initial vote at the behest of Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry (D). When top city officials learned of the transfer plan, they furiously but unsuccessfully tried to stop it.

"I'm one of the strongest supporters of UDC on the council," Barry said Thursday night. "Launching this community college, I've always insisted that we have a campus east of the river in Ward 8." Barry says he approached Gray about including the transfer in the budget "three or four days ago."

Harris was closed in 2008, one of 23 D.C. Public Schools shuttered that year. Since then, the 358,000-square-foot building has housed a variety of city agencies -- including training facilities for the fire department and the child-welfare agency. The nonprofit Sasha Bruce Youthwork occupies space at Harris, as does UDC, which is leasing space in the building.

Both Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin and Robin-Eve Jasper, director of the city real-estate office, lobbied council members ahead of the budget vote Wednesday, urging them to hold off. It was to no avail.

Work has already started at Harris on a physical agility testing facility for fire recruits -- a contract that recently passed council review. If the transfer goes through, Jasper says, work will have to stop and an undetermined amount of taxpayer money will have been wasted.

"It's a shame we didn't have an opportunity to work with UDC on this," said Jasper Thursday. "We could have given them some information and suggestions that might have been helpful in their consideration of their options."

Ward 3 Council member Mary M. Cheh (D), who as chair of the government operations committee oversees city real-estate dealings, also learned of the move hours before the vote and started asking questions. "At that point, it had a certain momentum I was not able to stop," she said.

Cheh raised concerns Thursday about the process used to make the transfer. "It's not the best way to proceed to make a decision like this, especially because this doesn't seem to be an emergency," she said.

Said Barry, "It's above board. The [budget legislation] is public. We voted on it in public. If anybody didn't read it, that's their problem, not mine."

It's unclear why the transfer had to be included along with the budget. On a day when Gray criticized the Fenty administration for inadequately planning its streetcar program, there was little indication much planning went into the Harris transfer.

Even within UDC, there seems to have been little knowledge of the plan.

University spokesman Alan Etter indicated Thursday evening that a facilities executive wasn't aware of the building's transfer -- just the existing lease to house the community college's workforce development programs. Shortly afterward Etter called back to report that his boss, President Allen L. Sessoms, indeed knew of the transfer.

"Dr. Sessoms is thrilled for this new property, and we're going to fill it up with the proper resources," Etter said, adding that early estimates peg renovation costs at $21 million -- money that has not yet been identified in UDC's capital budget.

In an interview, Barry floated the idea of a more extensive community-college campus in his ward, to be located on the more Metro-accessible St. Elizabeths Hospital site within a decade. An interim renovation of Harris, he estimated, would cost as little as $6 million.

With the potential of moving so quickly, a reporter asked, why not just continue a lease arrangement?

"Because the mayor's sneaky," Barry said, raising the prospect that Adrian M. Fenty (D) might auction the building to developers.

This isn't the first time the council has used the city budget to appropriate a shuttered school building for UDC's use. Last year, the council took Bertie Backus Middle School -- located on a valuable site near the Fort Totten Metro station -- and handed it to UDC for its community college over the objections of mayoral officials.

UDC has already started to advertise classes beginning in the fall at Backus. The building, however, is still in need of serious renovation and work has yet to begin.

Etter says construction will proceed now that the council approved funding for the Backus renovation on Wednesday. UDC, he says, is "hoping to accelerate construction as much as possible."

By Mike DeBonis  |  May 28, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Budget , Marion Barry , Mike DeBonis , vincent gray  
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Let's see - what are Gray's mayoral themes?

Character? Integrity? Leadership? And the often promised transparency and a 'new' way.

Right, I guess his definitions were grounded in 80s DC government and his ally and ward 8 council colleague.

Love to hear about the planning and community involvement/notice that went into this transfer. (and where the funds will be found for rebuilding the training center).

Posted by: capitolhilldc1 | May 28, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

This is a good thing for the community. Some people will benefit from having a campus near their homes.

Posted by: fivetogo | May 28, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Agreed - it is about process. Tony Williams tried to openly in the public view establish UDC campus in Ward 8 -- I might be wrong, but I think that Barry was a leader in blocking that process.

Think of the opportunity lost over many years by that action. Hopefully, the Post can provide the historical record.

Posted by: capitolhilldc1 | May 28, 2010 7:40 PM | Report abuse

UDC's location has always puzzeled me seeming to aspire to be a traditional college campus in the traditional bucolic setting while serving an urban population, many of whom in the early '90s seemed not to value a college education very much. The outcry against Tony Williams' idea to relocate it to St. E's campus amazed me and I still remember one young man saying that part of the educational experience of going to UDC for him was that it was in upper NW--the "rich", "white" part of town. That broke my heart.
I'm glad that things are changing and there will soon be a college level educational institution in a part of the city that has never had one.
Nevertheless, I don't much appreciate how its been done if this report is accurate.

Posted by: 1citizen | May 28, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

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