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New Proposal Would Keep Police Station in Southwest

The saga of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 1st district station move has taken a step forward, with the building now likely to stay in Southwest despite an earlier lease signed for a facility in Southeast.

Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) has proposed a site at an elementary school on his school closure list. The station will move by early 2009 to 101 M St. SW, where Bowen Elementary School now stands, according to Fenty’s plan.

The proposal has been met with a mixed reaction, with some city officials upset about wasted money and potential delays. But residents who balked at the earlier idea of moving the station from its location at 415 Fourth St. SW into Southeast were pleased.

“The move is good for a variety of reasons,” said David Sobelsohn, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. The M Street location will be closer to the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark, he noted.

“It will be a visible symbol of security for people coming into the Southwest neighborhood, and having it right smack on M Street, just two blocks from the stadium, is going to comfort a lot of people coming into Southwest,” he said.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D) also supports the move.

The proposal brings direction to a process that had been stagnant for months while city officials and residents argued over the finances and community impact of the station move.

The 1st district station has to move to make room for D.C.’s new $220 million forensics lab, which is scheduled to open by 2011.

City officials originally planned to move the station and five other MPD agencies to the old Washington Post plant at 225 Virginia Ave. SE. The city signed a 20-year lease for the facility in December 2006. But that plan was opposed by residents in Southwest who liked the security the station provided, and by residents in Southeast who worried about parking and traffic problems the new station would create.

Officials eventually determined it was a waste to lease a facility when there is plenty of District-owned property available.

“It makes more sense to put agencies in buildings we already own,” said Charles Allen, Wells’ chief of staff. “This was a deal that was signed both before Mayor Fenty and Tommy Wells got into office. Once my boss and the mayor got a look at the deal and heard the community concerns, we said this is not the way to go.”

In an effort to cut losses from the lease, the city is considering bids to sublease the Virginia Avenue facility.

“Today’s announcements provide the city with some great opportunities to move forward with critical priorities of my administration,” Fenty said in a statement when he made the move public.

But not everyone is happy.

At-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D), who chairs the Public Safety Committee that has oversight of MPD, noted that the city has been paying rent since June for an empty building that it now won’t even use.

“We’ve been wasting money at the rate of half a million dollars per month, and I think that’s outrageous,” Mendelson said in an interview. “It’s an enormous waste and a product of indecisiveness and poor long-range judgment.”

Because Bowen will still be a school until June, Mendelson said he sees no way that the station can move there by January — and it must move before construction of the forensics lab can begin.

“My guess is that everything’s going to be delayed another half-year,” he said.

Sobelsohn, the ANC commissioner, said that although his community is happy the station is staying in Southwest, a couple of drawbacks make the decision “a mixed bag for us.”

Construction near the Waterside Mall in Southwest will lead commuters to the Federal Center SW and L’Enfant Plaza Metro stations, which are closer to the current police station, he said.

“A lot of people will be coming home that way, and it’s pretty deserted,” he said. “We felt protected by the presence of police station, and if that’s not there we’re going to be nervous.”

Sobelsohn also said residents are sad to see the school go, especially with the neighborhood’s growing population.

But he emphasized that, overall, residents support Fenty’s plan.

“We’re very pleased the station is staying in the neighborhood,” Sobelsohn said.

Southeast resident Bill Phillips, the president of Friends of Garfield Park, credited residents for working together to change the city’s mind and keep the station in Southwest. Phillips was concerned the move would cause traffic and parking problems in Southeast, and he noted there already is a 1st district substation a few blocks from the Virginia Avenue facility.

“I think that had the citizens not coalesced and said something, that this wasn’t good for us, the station would have moved,” Phillips said. “The total reaction by the citizens was instrumental in not having anything occur. The mayor, in particular, was very sensitive to that.”

“I think it’s a win-win for Fenty,” he added, “and a win-win for the neighbors, too.”