Posts Tagged Rev. Oliver “OJ” Johnson
More than twenty potential candidates have gathered their nominating petitions and begun organizing for the April 28th Special-Election to fill the Ward 8 City Council seat left vacant by Marion Barry’s death on November 23rd. In order to qualify for the ballot candidates must secure 500 valid signatures by January 23rd.
In recent weeks vitriol has been exchanged between candidates on social media platforms and between campaign staff and volunteers on neighborhood streets. Rev. Oliver “OJ” Johnson, a community activist in Ward 8 for more than four decades and a former campaign organizer and ground operative for Mayor Walter Washington and early Barry campaigns, says Marion Barry’s death has made, “Ward 8 a political battlefield. We are witnessing a Civil War, brother against brother, family against family.”
Some candidates, such as Sandra Seegars, Nate Bennett Fleming, Trayon White and Eugene Kinlow, are recognized across the ward while others, such as Greta Fuller, and Karlene Armstead, are more closely associated with their respective neighborhoods. While many aspirants currently serve as Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners or have held the office in recent memory, other potential candidates face the challenge of being largely unknown.
Sheila Bunn, a high-ranking member of Mayor Gray’s staff and daughter of recently deceased Congress Heights’ business owner James Bunn, announced her candidacy upon the swearing-in of Mayor Bowser. After much speculation within the media and community, Marion Barry’s son, Christopher, has picked up his nominating petitions making the continuance of a local political dynasty possible.
Factious political climate
Johnson says the opportunity to replace Barry has brought out nearly every possible community leader the ward has to offer, which has the potential to create long-term problems.
“You see a lot of support for candidates along geographic and demographic lines–young people, professionals, public housing residents, ex-offenders, established homeowners, single moms,” Angela Copeland, administrator, and sometimes referee, of the Great Ward Eight Facebook page where many candidates have posted in recent weeks, wrote in an email. “Each group saying their candidate is THE candidate. The choice candidate will have to cross those boundaries and represent the entire ward, take us into the future; free of the morass of ward in-fighting. It’s going to be a ‘show-up’ moment for Ward 8 in many ways.”
“When Marion was alive many of today’s candidates didn’t have the courage to challenge him. Therefore they were part of Barry’s campaign structure. That has all splintered now. This election could cause bad feelings among folks for years. Marion, whether or not he truly delivered results in the Ward, could maintain the peace among these different groups and their organizers. There wasn’t infighting when Marion was on the council because there wasn’t anything to fight over. Now we are seeing the lack of political infrastructure and sophistication in the Ward because for more than a decade there was very little organizing.”
In addition to Johnson’s analysis of the current special-election process, he says the short turnaround, with the four-year term coming up in 2016, means the factious political climate will likely endure.
“There is no time for these groups to coalesce because in less than two years they will be battling each other for the council seat. For those that qualify for the April ballot but lose they will try and keep their ground organization together. To run an effective campaign, a winning campaign, you have to have campaign workers, precinct captains, sign wavers and others. There are a lack of experienced workers available in the ward with so many candidates running, which means those with finances can import workers. Now that funding may help get you over the top and win, but once you’re in office you realize money doesn’t maintain support. Everyone who lost is going to be attacking the Councilmember because they’re calculating for 2016. It’s some madness that I’ve never seen before and I’ve damn near seen it all.”
Copeland offers a similar assessment, “It’s really early in the game and folk are posturing themselves and readying their squads. Some are out doing the work–getting petitions signed, shoring up their team—those are the serious candidates that will make it to the next step. Others are blowhards with a lot of talk of yesteryear associations, ad hominem attacks, and no platform. We’ll have a better idea of the playing field once the petitions are turned in and they clear the challenge period.
From the nearly two dozen potential candidates it is probable that a half-dozen will qualify with a likely field of Sandra Seegars, LaRuby May, Natalie Williams, Marion C. Barry, Sheila Bunn, Trayon White and possibly Nate Bennett Fleming. While it may be too much to hope that the tone will change, there is discontent building as the candidates personally attach each rather than advancing policy.
Now that Busboys & Poets has announced plans to open a restaurant in Anacostia in the spring of 2016 the hard work begins. At last month’s announcement few intimate details of the deal were shared, leaving many familiar with neighborhood development to question the project’s timeline.
The Far SE Family Strengthening Collaborative, which has owned the vacant building at 2004 – 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE since late 2012, is primarily a case management social service provider without a record of development experience. The non-profit will most likely have to rely on a series of substantial city funds from the Department of Employment Services, Department of Housing and Community Development, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and others to make the project possible, according to a developer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Perry Moon, executive director of the Collaborative, says the community should prepare itself for a “long process.”
What will that process entail? That process will include forming partnerships with a development team and culinary training team and securing financing, none of which appear to be in place.
In late December 2012 the Collaborative purchased the former bowling alley and furniture store for $2.195 million. According to tax records, as of May their outstanding mortgage stood at more than $1.7 million. With a reported revenue, mostly in the form of city grants and case management government transfer payments, after expenses of nearly $0.54 million the Collaborative faces significant capital shortfalls to finance the development.
Since their purchase the property has remained vacant, generating no revenue. Nearly five years ago Unity Healthcare and the DC Primary Care Association identified the building for a new health facility. The neighborhood organized opposition and Unity eventually built a complex adjacent to the Frederick Douglass House.
At the announcement Andy Shallal, founder of Busboys & Poets, indicated he would be signing a 20-year lease. Moon declined to name the conditions of the lease. The Collaborative currently rents offices in the Anacostia Professional Building across the street, and, according to neighborhood sources, plans to relocate at the end of 2015. These present tight deadlines to make a deal.
“They didn’t announce the lease in clear terms,” says Rev. Oliver “OJ” Johnson, a former board member of multiple community development corporations in Anacostia, who began his activism during the administrations of Mayor Washington and President Nixon. “I haven’t seen a prospectus of an agreement detailing what Busboys will or will not contribute to the build out. There’s no evidence there’s any money in this. In order for any bank to underwrite a loan they have to see funding feasibility, the sources of expected grants and other planned revenue streams. There’s nothing here.”
Johnson also questioned the decision making process narrative advanced by the Collaborative. “There’s been no public hearing process or community meetings. There was one or two invite-only meetings. Not one 8A Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner spoke at the press conference. They haven’t been given notice of what their script is. Last [month’s] event was improvised to the fullest.”
“There are no current plans for funding for this redevelopment because none has been applied for,” wrote Marcus A. Williams, Community Outreach Director for DHCD. “However, DHCD has had ongoing conversations with both the Collaborative and Busboys to discuss what subsidies the Department might be able to offer through an open and transparent competitive process. The developer is welcome to submit a proposal to request support for this project next spring when the Department releases information about the 2015 funding competition.”
Summing up sentiments of both the neighborhood and city officials Williams said, “We are excited to see interest in development in Ward 8 and specifically in revitalizing Historic Anacostia.”
The two-story building was constructed in 1940 as a bowling alley and has most recently served as a Masonic lodge and furniture store. Its current space of 20,848 square feet is not enough to house Busboys & Poets on the ground floor and the administrative offices of the Collaborative and a culinary training school on the 2nd floor. Plans to add a third floor and build upon the rear one-story wing passed Historic Preservation Review Board earlier this year and are incorporated into design drawings. Construction would add 7,000 – 10,000 additional square feet.
“The build out will start immediately to bring the building into code and then it will be turned over to Busboys and Poets for our fit out,” Shallal wrote in an email.
According to a Historic Preservation Office staff report by Time Dennee, the building “has hallmarks of the Art Moderne style: uniform light-colored brick, a curved northwest corner, and streamlining suggested by the contrasting, projecting brick flanking the windows and the simple continuous projections above the storefront and as a schematic cornice.”
An addition brings the building’s total height to 45 feet, making it the tallest building within the Anacostia Historic District. Most of the building’s structure – column, beam and slab construction with brick-faced block exterior walls – would be retained and used. The roof and one-story rear wing will be lost with the proposed addition. A storefront in the first-floor facade will also be added.
Signature project for Mayor Bowser?
The lone city employee to speak at last month’s event was the late Councilmember Barry’s chief of staff. The absence of mayor-elect Bowser (who was announced to speak) was telling, according to a number of developers and neighborhood activists in attendance.
“Most likely no current agency director will be around when this project gets started. Nobody can make a promise or a hold a commitment right now. This will have to be a signature project for Muriel’s administration. They’ll have to wait for her to settle in which will take time,” says Johnson.
A developer who spoke on the condition of anonymity offered, “Did you hear Shallal with the one-off applause line, ‘I should have been Mayor!’? Muriel doesn’t want to share the stage with him.”
With Moon giving duplicative answers to a series of questions, including, “How is this really going to happen?” he closed our phone interview by saying, “This will be a long process. We’ll work to see that the community remains excited and enthusiastic and stays with us.”