March 11, 2013 at 9:32 am EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Rat problem, rent hike delay Center’s move
Reeves building, D.C. Center, gay news, Washington Blade

Center leadership is eager to complete the move into the Reeves building, despite hiccups in the process. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Michael Sessa, president of the D.C. LGBT Community Center, said the center knew the city’s decision in December to allow it to rent space in a desirable city building at 14th and U Streets, N.W. came with an “as is” provision.

Under the provision, the center is responsible for paying the full cost of any renovation work needed to get the first floor, store front space ready for the center and its mostly volunteer staff to move into the Reeves Center, an eight-story office and retail building.

But Sessa told the Blade last week that the extent of the renovation work needed is far greater than initially expected and would cost as much as $75,000.

“We had an inspection and found that a rat problem has been so bad that the entire place needs to be gutted,” he said.

“We have to have a demolition team come in and rip the floor up and rip down everything in the ceiling and the walls because the rats were living there for how many years – leaving rotted floors, urine and feces – the whole deal,” according to Sessa.

The discovery of the need for more renovation work came shortly after officials with the city’s Department of General Services [DGS] handed the center a proposed lease calling for $1,500 in rent over and above the $4,000 per month rent initially proposed for the 2,468 square foot space.

When Mayor Vincent Gray announced on December 11 that the city had accepted the D.C. Center’s bid to rent the Reeves Center space, center officials noted that the $4,000 per month rent was significantly less than the market value for rent in that area.

Sessa and center executive director David Mariner noted that the below market rent was part of a city program that seeks to bring non-profit community groups to the bustling business and residential area as a means of enhancing the neighborhood and community.

However, Sessa said that the additional $1,500 would create a burden on the center’s budget and finances. It was not part of the city’s request for proposals, or RFP, inviting bids from businesses or organization seeking to rent the space, Sessa said.

Sessa said he has been negotiating with DGS officials for more than two months over details in the lease, including the $1,500, which DGS says covers a share of building maintenance costs such as janitorial services.

During that time, the space has remained untouched because no work can begin until the lease is signed, Sessa said.

“It’s just been a lot of back and forth,” he said. “And now we’re at the last point. I have someone doing a legal review of the lease, and then we’re ready to go.”

Darrell Pressley, a spokesperson for DGS Director Brian J. Hanlon, told the Blade he expected negotiations over the lease to be completed within a week or two.

“The process in terms of the negotiations is still at play,” he said.

Sessa, meanwhile, said the center also discovered that the “as is” clause requires it to remove abandoned restaurant equipment left behind years ago by Ben’s Chili Bowl that once used the space. Among the equipment left behind is an enormous walk-in refrigerator that can’t fit through the doors.

“We have to get someone to come in and disassemble it inside the room and carry it out piece by piece,” he said.

Despite these hassles, Sessa said the center is looking forward to moving into the new space, which is double the size of its current space one block away at 1318 U Street, N.W. The building in which the current storefront space is located is slated to be demolished to make way for a new office building.

Reeves building, D.C. Center, gay news, Washington Blade

The renovation work needed for the space is far greater than initially expected and would cost as much as $75,000. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“Maybe in a couple of weeks we’ll announce a ‘ground breaking,’ he said, to kick-off the renovation work at the Reeves Center.

“Just so we get the community excited, we’re going to release the plans, the drawings to show people what the new space is like,” he said. “We’re going to put them online. You can meet the architect, meet the designer,” he said in discussing the planned ‘ground breaking’ event.

He said that if all goes according to plans, the center will hold a grand opening event in June in which Mayor Gray will be invited to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

As for the rats, Sessa said they are still living in the long abandoned space at the Reeves building into which the center plans to move. Holes in the floor leading to the building’s garage are believed to be their portal of entry.

“They keep saying the construction will solve it by sealing the holes,” Sessa said. “Well, yes, it will solve it. But unfortunately, we can’t save anything in that space, not a single thing – floor tiles, ceiling tiles, everything’s got to come up.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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