New Coletta campus widely hated here

The comments have been anything but kind.

“Ludicrous” states one e-mail, “oddball” another. “Inappropriate and garish,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commission ex-Chairwoman Julie Olson. “Conceptual hogwash,” states another; “does not belong in our neighborhood,” says another.

The comments have been anything but kind.

“Ludicrous” states one e-mail, “oddball” another. “Inappropriate and garish,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commission ex-Chairwoman Julie Olson. “Conceptual hogwash,” states another; “does not belong in our neighborhood,” says another.

Of course comments, some anonymous on a popular Hill website (run by the Hill Current Voice of the Hill, a neighborhood newspaper not affiliated with The Hill) are easy to make and unaccountable. But the harshest critique of the design for massive St. Coletta’s School by world-renowned architect Michael Graves came from a respected close neighbor to the big project near RFK Stadium.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Francis Campbell went on record last year with this sarcastic blast: “It’s god-ugly, and the best thing to address that would be with two matches and five gallons of gasoline.” Campbell later said his comment was made in the heat of the moment and regrettable.

The $25 million campus, however, is speeding toward completion, having overcome all obstacles, a tribute to its single-minded leader, St. Coletta’s Executive Director Sharon Raimo. She ignored the barbs and pushed ahead with her vision of a school for the city’s retarded and disabled “special education” students in response to a public-school system that pays out millions (usually over $50,000 per student) to outsource educating these difficult children.

Raimo famously set hackles on the rise with the statement, “We don’t have to give the community anything,” during the 2003-2004 furor over the city’s secret gift (a $1-per-year, 99-year lease) of four prime acres just off Independence Avenue near the stadium.

Raimo had the vision to see how dealing with the disabled and retarded kids could be good for everyone concerned. Now she has planning permission to enroll 225 children and 25 adults in a spanking new facility — which will also hold 200 staff members and accommodate 63 buses and approximately 100 cars, according to National Capital Planning Commission documents. The nonprofit group will get about $50,000 per student for its work, thus saving the city some money, and it gets its new headquarters — tax-free, of course — at a rent to die for.

An additional and controversial benefit to the school is the right to sublease part of the property on a commercial basis at going rates — even though the D.C. taxpayers are paying the full amount for the operation of the school (through the tuition) and are subsidizing the lease arrangement.

As for Graves’s design, it will become either a Hill icon or a subject of ridicule. Graves, perhaps best known for his conical teakettle (with red rooster whistle), is a strange genius of the quirky. “Whimsical” is the word often associated with the 71-year-old, who during the St. Coletta design process was struck down by a nerve infection that left him paralyzed ftrom the waist down.

Graves has already made his mark on Washington with his design for the widely noticed scaffolding that enclosed the Washington Monument during its refurbishing in 1998-2000. Another big Graves project is the U.S. courthouse at Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues N.W.

St. Coletta’s design is far more eclectic and colorful than these government projects. In it he seemed to be using the idiom of childhood toys — geometric blocks and wooden shapes, perhaps symbolizing the world of the school’s students. It seems as if a giant has thrown down painted blocks.

But to residents nearby, the campus looks wildly out of place — like a Disney park or other public attraction, yet enclosed by a forbidding 6- to 7-foot wall. That wall symbolizes to many the nature of St. Coletta’s membership in the Hill community, a private nonprofit organization landed here by political insiders who saw opportunity and seized it.


What were we thinking?

One of the biggest mistakes Washington ever made was the destruction of its light-rail system, the D.C. Transit trolley network.

There are places on the Hill where one can still sight ghosts of the rusty remains poking through the pavement. A few yards of the old steel rails and cobblestone street surface are preserved in Georgetown at P St. N.W.

How did it happen, and why?

Like so many unexplained mysteries of the federal city, the loss of the trolley system is related to suburbanization, which is related to race, white flight, school desegregation and other traumas of the 1950s. It suddenly became clear to the ruling elite of the city that moving people in and out of the city was far more important than moving them around within the city.

Before that time there was a trolley system that ran from Cabin John, Md., to Mount Rainier, far up Georgia, Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues and down to the Navy Yard and east to 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue S.E. on the Hill — to mention only the main branches.

Alas, my former great newspaper, The Washington Star, wrongheaded on so many things, was firmly on the wrong (anti-trolley) side of this fight, running story after story about efficient, clean and economical buses that would allow car traffic to move more smoothly. And so it went.

The bus lines, then as now, were inefficient, dirty and uneconomical, and they clogged traffic lanes.

Now many call for “light rail,” and there is a chance that it may come again to the Hill. Ironically, pressure is building to create the new trolley line along H Street and thence to Benning Road N.E. to the Minnesota Avenue N.E. Metro station, areas, like the whole of Anacostia, not served by the old trolley system.


Biting the hand that feeds the District

How can it be that a city that prides itself on its liberal image, and constantly votes to the left, can act like a tight-lipped Puritan judge when it comes to personal matters?

I’m talking, of course about smoking, the habit that in the United States (where moderation has never been invented) is now seen as worse than anything except perhaps drunk driving, molestation of the young and wife beating.

The District is about to impose a smoking ban that will cover all places except private homes. It’s another example of the city that never heard of moderation, never takes a reasonable course and will always be on the fringe. The ban will do little to save the lives or health of nonsmokers (it’s been pointed out over and over that sunlight is a far more dangerous carcinogen than secondhand smoke), but it will be another reason why tourists, the city’s greatest asset, will choose to go elsewhere.

Needless to say, it will involve police in fruitless extra duties, sure to reduce the power of the force to prevent and punish criminals. And it will criminalize a whole category of people who may smoke — like my wife — one cigarette a week. But who ever heard of moderation here?

Only one council member, Carol Schwartz (R), has steadfastly held out for individual rights, logic and reason.

Certainly not the rest of this City Council, which wanted a living wage that would further disadvantage the chronically unemployed underclass, pays itself a king’s ransom ($92,600) for part-time work, rewards deadbeat contractors and outright swindlers with rich contracts, and in past iterations has voted for a specious “Constitution of New Columbia,” which guaranteed by right a job or an income to all residents no matter what their inclinations.


METRO

• Charter push: Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s Board of Education has reversed itself on the charter-school issue, lifting a moratorium that stopped the granting of new charters, in spite of the fact that the same board has done nothing to change the process by which charters are granted, the issue that caused the moratorium in the first place. ...

• There may be a few left. Daffodil bulbs, that is. Nine thousand were granted to the Hill’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B; 200 are available to applicants who will plant them in mini-parks. Individuals can get as many as 40. Contact former ANC Chairwoman Julie Olson at 544-7247. ...

• An unusual tree ornament, a tiny replica of the Capitol’s Statue of Freedom, is one of the Hill’s objects of Christmas desire. The back story is that the statue faces east — the direction that Gen. Pierre L’Enfant envisioned for the commercial part of the city. Oh well. It’s $14 at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (www. uschs.org). ...

• Pretty Linden Place N.E. is getting its first (and the first in the city) spy camera in an effort to stop illegal dumping as well as other illegalities. Civil libertarians decry the cameras, but what about this: fake cameras, cheap and easy to install, would accomplish the same thing. Security-company people say the most effective crime stopper is the sign, not the wiring. ....

• Barry Watch: With his sentencing coming up Jan 18 for failing to file with the Internal Revenue Service over several years for an alleged $500,000 in income, friends are worried. Councilman Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) will doubtless get the agreed-upon probation, but what about paying the tax bill? And where are those developers who were such pals? ...

• Wise indeed the Hill resident who turns in to Riverby Books at 417 E. Capitol St. S.E. Where else a warm, light-filled window, a comfortable chair, endless books to read and free tea each day at 4:30 p.m.? Riverby is touting the handmade jewelry of Riverby partner Nicky Cymrot, if you really must buy something...

• Longing for Chicago? I’m reminded that a relative newcomer to the Hill’s pub scene, the Billy Goat Tavern at 500 New Jersey Ave. N.W., is an echo of the famous spot of the same name in Chicago, complete with White Sox artifacts and a burger, a sausage and a corned beef well worth looking for.