Former ANC Commissioner Karlene Armstead (8E06) at Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center in Southeast. (Abdullah Konte/The Washington Informer)

As Washington Highlands community members and KIPP Public Charter Schools continue to discuss possible changes to the newly constructed Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center, an ongoing demolition project near the recreation center has become a topic of concern among residents who’ve connected it to recent respiratory illnesses.

Toward the end of last month, Washington Highlands resident Leonard Poe counted among several people who recounted experiencing problems with their nose, throat and head during the demolition process.

Weighing on his construction experience, Poe said MCN Build failed to erect a wide net to catch the several pounds of concrete and glass that turned into debris and decimated the air quality.

“My nose was bleeding and I felt that something wasn’t right in my head,” Poe said. “One time when I was sitting outside, I had to take my jacket [out of my bookbag] and put it over my head when the debris was flying so the particles wouldn’t touch my scalp because there was so much dust. One lady told me she had respiratory problems [from the dust particles].”

WASHINGTON HIGHLANDS AND KIPP REACH AN IMPASSE

Since community members brought their concerns to KIPP, construction crew members have pointed a hose directly at the portion of the shuttered Ferebee-Hope Elementary School being torn down as part of a strategy to lessen the debris. At one point, MCN Build briefly halted the project that, once completed, will provide more than 100 parking spaces for faculty and staff members at KIPP DC Legacy College Preparatory.

By late May, KIPP and Washington Highlands community members had been engaged in four advisory committee meetings that included representatives of the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Trayon White’s office. These meetings have focused on how best to rectify discrepancies about the Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center, the size of which had been significantly reduced during the construction of KIPP DC Legacy College Preparatory.

Community members familiar with the negotiations said while KIPP officials offered the community space for the boxing gym, they have refused to finance its construction. For the time being, DPR has offered to drive boxing enthusiasts patrons to Bald Eagle Recreation Center to determine the demand for that sport. In regard to the pool, it hasn’t been determined whether DPR will expand it to its original size.

Meanwhile, a group of Washington Highlands community members led by former ANC Commissioner Karlene Armstead have compiled a list of demands. Their demands include: an emergency stop-work order; the return and transformation of 4,000 square feet of partnership space into a boxing gym; ADA accessibility for residents with special needs; and community members’ examination of architectural designs from 2019 and 2020.

They have also requested the removal of Jacque Patterson as KIPP’s point of contact on the advisory committee. Armstead, a constant figure in community discussions that started in 2019, said KIPP misled the community about the final design of the recreation center.

“This is a lose-lose for the Black community,” Armstead said. “Now we have no recreation space. We have a yard that looks like a prison with fencing and locks everywhere. It’s not even safe. I wouldn’t even play on the outdoor basketball court because I couldn’t get away if someone came for me. KIPP has put up a retaining wall to separate public housing from the school.”

THE EVENTS LEADING TO KIPP’S ACQUISITION OF FEREBEE-HOPE

Patterson, who also serves as an At-large State Board of Education representative, said in its proposal to the D.C. Council, KIPP never misrepresented its intentions for the Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center to the Washington Highlands community.

During the summer of 2020, months after the pandemic halted KIPP-Washington Highland community engagement meetings and relegated most District residents to their homes, D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson (D) introduced legislation at the request of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser that would allow KIPP to lease and construct its new school on the site of Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center and Ferebee-Hope Elementary School.

Months before the project started, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education and the DC Department of General Services released a notice for a charter school to take over the space. KIPP accepted the offer, soon after presenting plans that reduced the square footage of the Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center from 33,000 square feet to somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 square feet.

The DC Council Committees on Business and Economic Development, chaired by D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), and Facilitates and Procurement, chaired by D.C. Councilmember Robert White (D-At large), deliberated on KIPP’s acquisition of the property during July of 2020. On July 21, 2020, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the process that would allow KIPP to start the construction project near Washington Highlands.

In response to an Informer inquiry about their attempts to renegotiate the size of the newly constructed Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center, Ward 8 Council member White’s office referenced a recording of a community engagement meeting that took place in March. At-large Council member White’s office, presented with the same question, cited a Facilities and Procurement committee report.

Washington Highlands resident Schyla Pondexter contends that not enough community engagement took place before KIPP started construction across the street from her community. An additional qualm she expressed centered on the lack of conversation about debris mitigation.

Pondexter, who also deals with respiratory issues exacerbated by mold in her kitchen, said the community had to act before MCN Build explored options to protect them from dust falling from the crumbling building.

For Pondexter, the environmental hazards of living near the construction have further exacerbated the loss of a public institution for members of the community. This situation has caused her to lose faith in District leadership responsible for tending to the needs of public housing residents.

“My children learned to swim at Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center and went to camp there,” she said. “Now, we can’t even go in there and hang out like we used to. They’ve taken a lot away from us.”

“Children don’t have access to the playground all the way at the end. The basketball courts are chained up. This is all just backwards. When these projects are done, they wait to get input from the residents. That’s not the way to do things,” Pondexter said.

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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