14th and Blue
Pity the poor ghost of Frank D. Reeves.
Reeves was a prominent attorney who helped successfully argue for the desegregation of public schools. He advised President John F. Kennedy on minority affairs. He was the first African-American nominated to serve on the Board of Commissioners, the precursor to the D.C. Council, and the first African-American Democratic National Committeeman. He also helped a young civil rights activist named Marion Barry beat charges of destroying government property.
Reeves, a man who took full advantage of life’s opportunities, died from a stroke at the age of 57 . But his namesake, the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at the corner of 14th and U streets NW, is an eight-story, 500,000-square-foot basket case that stands as a symbol of wasted opportunity and government dysfunction. When Barry’s administration pushed to construct the building in the 1980s, the goal was to help spur the redevelopment of U Street, which had been devastated in riots in 1968, then left mostly ignored for more than a decade. The Reeves Center, and the opening of Metro’s Green Line, helped do the trick. The neighborhood is booming, with condos, fancy bars and restaurants, and boutique shops galore. Now, 25 years after it opened, the District’s own parcel of real estate feels like it’s been left behind.
Visit the Reeves Center on a rainy day, and you’ll find buckets in the lobby collecting water. If you’re feeling creative and good at math, try and make sense of the third floor’s office numbers, which go in the following order: 302L, 303A, 326A, 327D, 327B, 351D, 332C, 332A, 330.
On the seventh floor, you can see what it would be like if the Rapture happened and only took employees from the District Department of Transportation. DDOT decamped for spiffy new modern digs on M Street SE in Navy Yard earlier this year. In its wake, the agency left a depressing maze of high-walled cubicles, outdated furniture, stained carpet, and plenty of trash.
Things LL found left laying out in plain sight included: A bottle of prescription cholesterol pills; a 2004 performance review of a senior street sign installer (“Supervisors are concerned about [the employee’s] lack of job interest”); and a thick file marked “New Convention Center Hotel.”
But LL could have found much worse. A recent report by the Inspector General found that a DDOT employee “engaged in sexual activity” with another city employee on several occasions in a Reeves Center office and in a city-owned car in the parking garage. (Emails obtained by Washington City Paper detail the trysts.) So add the office sex scandal to the leaking ceilings and an entire unused floor when tallying up the recent indignities as the Reeves Center ages.
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On the second floor, there’s a less juicy mystery. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham appears to have a constituent services office there. The room has a conference table, a handful of computers along a wall (under a sign that reads, “Computers will only be used for job search related activities”), and a small private space. On the glass wall, a sign reads “The David A. Clarke Community Center, Jim Graham, Councilmember, Ward 1.” (Clarke is a former council chairman.)
There’s also a sign on the third floor of the Reeves Center that says the office for “Ward 1 Neighborhood Services” is in room 325. Room 325, however, doesn’t exist.
The office on the second floor was provided to Graham by the city, which by law has to provide councilmembers with free space, when available, for constituent service in their wards. The idea is that residents shouldn’t have to trek down to the Wilson Building to get help from their councilmember’s staff.
The problem is: Neither Graham nor his staff actually use the space. Instead, he’s loaned it out for several years to an organization called All Faith Consortium.
All Faith is actually two organizations, a nonprofit and a separate for-profit company. All Faith Consortium Inc. is a social-services nonprofit, whose main focus is operating the Qi Life Center, a dorm-like residence for about 20 veterans, in Ward 7 off Benning Road.
Marvin Muhammad, the head of the group, says his organization operates a full-service help center out of its Reeves Center office for residents who need help with rent assistance, finding jobs, or other problems. Whenever a Ward 1 resident needs help, Muhammad says, “we make the office available.”
“It’s a community center,” says Muhammad.
City records indicate that All Faith has used the Reeves Center as its address since 2004.
During its lengthy stay in the municipal building, the group has kept a very low profile. LL spoke with several social service providers active in Ward 1, and none of them had ever heard of the group.
Roxana Olivas, who works next door to All Faith’s office as the city’s director of the Office of Latino Affairs, tells LL that in her first nine months on the job (often working long hours), she only saw All Faith’s space being used once. (She says the office has been busier in the last week since LL started asking questions.)
During several visits to the Reeves Center in the last two weeks, LL often found the office empty and never saw anyone but a lone All Faith staffer in the office. Last week, Muhammad invited LL to visit whenever he wanted, and even said LL could help man the phones to answer incoming requests from needy citizens. But when LL dropped by on Tuesday, an All Faith staffer told LL that he needed to direct his questions about the space to Graham’s office.
“I have no comment,” said Graham, before hanging up on LL and, later, sending a curt email to LL’s bosses complaining that LL was asking questions about the office.
All Faith’s other endeavor is a for-profit firm whose goal is to win federal procurement contracts in information technology and other fields; Muhammad says proceeds help fund the nonprofit. Both groups list the Reeves Center as their main address on records filed with the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. On its website, the for-profit version of All Faith also says it has offices on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
Muhammad says his for-profit firm does not do a lot of business and doesn’t actually have a physical address. Tax records indicate that Muhammad was paid $80,000 for running All Faith’s nonprofit branch in 2009, the last year for which IRS papers are available. He says he doesn’t live in the District and declined to say where he resides, but notes that he’s often traveling for work.
“I’m out hunting for government opportunities for contracts,” he says.
The arraignment between All Faith and Graham has caused some heartburn among officials at the Department of General Services, the new city agency responsible for running the District’s buildings. Why? Well, there’s the fact that there’s no contract between the city and All Faith for it to use the District-owned space. City law requires that organizations competitively bid for city-owned offices unless there’s a clear reason for a sole-source contract.
With acres of empty square footage available, All Faith isn’t the only organization at the Reeves Center that’s gotten a free ride in city space. The District is currently trying to force out Municipal Deli, a convenience store located on the first floor of the building that sells mostly gum, snacks, and sodas, along with a random assortment of other daily needs like individual rolls of toilet paper, bleach, and panty hose. The city says Fitwi “John” Tekeste, the store’s owner, owes more than $340,000 in back rent dating to 2000. He disputes the amount.
Next door sits the remains of the Emma Mae Gallery, which owner Sandra Butler-Truesdale got to run rent-free for four years. The city nudged Truesdale out of the first floor location a while back, but her stuff—which includes multiple tape decks and a bejeweled miniature lion—still remains.
Up in a corner office on the third floor sits the Office of the City Historian, a District agency that few have heard about. (It’s been around since 1998, but has yet to leave even the faintest trace on the Internet, for example.) The current (and only) city historian is Janette Hoston Harris, a volunteer who also runs the Washington DC Hall of Fame. Harris’ nonprofit organization honors “residents who have had an impact on the city,” according to its tax records. Like All Faith, Harris’ neighbors say her visits to her office are infrequent. She did not return calls seeking comment.
It’s not all just vacant offices and mysterious long-term leases at 14th and U, though. On the top floor of the Reeves Center sits a branch of the new Department of General Services. The renovated offices include a layout that’s based on function rather than seniority, which means employees who need large desks for rolling out maps have large desks, while folks who just need a computer have smaller work spaces. The cubicle walls are low. The office feels light, open and spacious. There’s a nice break room and kitchen, with stainless steel appliances.
Eventually—though no one’s quite sure when—a similar renovation is scheduled for the abandoned DDOT office, which the Department of Corrections and the fire department will take over. The Reeves Center could still have a future—if only city officials remember it’s still here in the present.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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