By Melissa Silverman
Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser joined a Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) community meeting on October 25 to discuss a range of timely topics, from combating COVID-19 to education, transportation, crime, and even the burgeoning rat population in Southwest.
SWNA is the publisher of The Southwester, and Editor-In-Chief Mike Goodman served as the moderator, posing questions submitted by community members to Mayor Bowser and her staff members. Other high-profile DC leaders joined the virtual conversation, including Metropolitan Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, Executive Director of the DC Housing Authority Brenda Donald, Director Christine Davis of the Department of Public Works and Acting Director of the District Department of Transportation Everett Lott.
The conversation, which was streamed on Facebook Live, included nearly 80 participants, marking one of the largest online gatherings of the pandemic period, according to SWNA President Donna Purchase.
Bowser opened with appreciation for the community’s efforts in following coronavirus guidance and doing their part to end the pandemic. “We are on our pathway for coming back from this virus,” Bowser said.
Bowser spoke about her budget priorities and investments made in affordable housing, education and other community services, including significant projects in Southwest DC such as the new Southwest Library and updates to Jefferson Middle School.
“We have new and improved middle school buildings to reflect what’s happening inside,” Bowser said. “I’m proud we were able to make those investments stick and deliver for Ward 6.”
Bowser also spoke positively of her efforts to add funding to the police department, in an effort to compensate for a year of not being able to hire new police officers, as well as what she described as “substantial” investments in alternatives to policing.
Police Chief Robert Contee also noted that “there is a lot of work that is going on, not just on the law enforcement side, but through the investments the Mayor has been making on the public health side,” in order to reduce violent crime city-wide.
Contee mentioned additional overtime and mountain bike-based officers on duty in response to recent crimes, and said “Any one incident is one too many. We continue to remain focused on Southwest and work with our partners on the public health side to ensure safe communities.”
Bowser and her team agreed on the wide range of community solutions needed to reduce and prevent crime, and included issues as wide-ranging as affordable housing, public health and education, as well as new and expanded jobs programs for 12th graders, as part of their package of solutions.
Housing and development were significant topics of conversation. Bowser described a whole-of-government effort to review housing investments and said in one year, her administration is investing $1 billion in affordable housing across all agencies.
“It has been a major tenant of my service as mayor to invest in affordable housing,” Bowser said, while also noting “It is important for a healthy and thriving city that we continue to grow.”
Bowser acknowledged the need for larger, family-style units, such as three and four bedroom houses and apartments, and the challenge of incentivizing private developments to build larger units.
In response to a question about whether she would support a Community Land Trust, a model that aims to provide permanently affordable housing and let communities decide the best use of land, at the site of the current fire truck repair station on M Street Southwest, Bowser said, “We are interested in every tool that works. If it’s competitive, if it can help us build and preserve affordable housing, then we will consider it as one of many tools in the creation of affordable housing.”
Executive Director of the DC Housing Authority, Brenda Donald, who has been on the job since this summer, joined the mayor to address questions about the Greenleaf redevelopment project, which will reshape Southwest over the course of the next decade.
Donald has participated in a series of meetings with the Greenleaf community, and said she has a conversation scheduled on-site and in-person to hear more directly from residents. She acknowledged the importance of Build First, a principle of redevelopment that keeps residents nearby while new construction is completed and reduces the number of moves required before residents can return to their homes.
“We were disappointed that our original plan with our developer for Build First was turned down by the zoning commission, but we are already working on Plan B,” Donald said. “It is our commitment to keep our residents in their same community, and we think our alternative plan will be even better. It is absolutely a commitment to Build First.”
Bowser added that “we continue to look forward to investing in [Greenleaf’s] transformation.”
Acting Director of the District Department of Transportation Everett Lott joined Mayor Bowser in a discussion of transportation safety and infrastructure, including four sidewalk repaving projects in Southwest over the past year, and the importance of safe passage for pedestrians on roads and sidewalks. A new regulation stating that scooters must be locked to bike racks or signposts, rather than left in the sidewalks, and speed limit reductions to 20 miles per hour on many neighborhood streets were cited as examples of solutions already in place.
Although recent high-profile and tragic pedestrian deaths have dampened the mayor’s progress toward the stated Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic fatalities,“you have the city’s commitment to do everything we can” to address infrastructure and add safety measures at intersections and on roadways, Bowser said.
SWNA is an all-volunteer civic organization working to improve the quality of life for residents of ZIP code 20024. For more information, visit swna.org.