Political Profile: Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham
Incumbent Jim Graham has been a member on the DC Council since 1999, when he was first given the opportunity to represent the residents of Ward 1. When I approached him to talk about the upcoming election, he offered instead to give me a tour of Park View in general – and Georgia Avenue specifically – to point out his successes since taking office. According to Graham, when he came into office all that was happening on Georgia Avenue were studies, reports, and meetings. There had been very little physical progress.
“I’ve worked hard for this Ward,” states Graham. “When people vote this year, they’ll be looking at candidates’ track records,” he continues. With that we motored off in his iconic VW bug with his dog, Guapo, and started our tour of how Graham has delivered for Park View.
Our first stop is the Park Place development at the Georgia Ave/Petworth Metro. “I know we’re in Ward 4,” states Graham, “but this was a very important project to the community and it required a lot of work on my part in my capacity on the Metro Board.” People may not realize that the land belonged to WMATA and there was a lot involved in making it available for development. Getting this project off the ground was essential for the area. In a way, it’s a gateway into Ward 1 and will attract other development.
To this last point, one needs look no further than across the street into Ward 1 where a new CVS is nearing completion. “That was a complicated project,” states Graham. In fact, most of these projects are more involved that many realize. The CVS is located on a site that formerly supported a gas station. Because of this there were environmental issues requiring involvement from DCRA and the Department of Health. Graham also led the effort to incorporate a critical parcel of Metro land into the CVS project.
One of the early proposals for the site on the corner of Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues was to put another gas station there. “We were able to prevent that,” Graham continues, “and find a developer and a project that was better suited to the community.”
The next stop happens to be an unassuming storm drain on the 800 block of Princeton Place. This storm drain used to jut out into the street rather than nestle neatly with the adjoining curb. Graham describes how it needed to be reworked and be properly installed since it had been causing tire damage to residents’ cars when they were parking there.
Further illustrating Graham’s responsiveness to his constituents, we move from the storm drain to the Park View athletic field. Many may know that a new athletic field is currently scheduled for later this year. What residents may not know is that a short time ago – and mere days prior to my time with the councilmember – there was a serious threat to the project due to disapproval resolutions being filed by two of Graham’s colleagues. Had it not been for Graham and his ability to work with his fellow councilmembers, the athletic field project would have been stalled, if not killed.
While Graham’s recent success in saving the athletic field is notable, it is not the only reason he has chosen to visit this site. The councilmember also wants to talk about the surrounding black fence and the lights around the playing field. “I used to get numerous complaints from residents about the drug dealing on this property,” Graham comments. “No matter how many times the chain link fence was repaired, people would just cut it again to access the field. Ultimately, we had to double fence it and install the lighting.”
Continuing along our way we head east on Otis, Graham notes that the back of the Rec Center building was an addition that happened under his watch, and the school being used by Bruce-Monroe has had numerous repair challenges to improve the conditions of the students and educators there.
“As you may know,” continues the councilmember, “the Bruce-Monroe issue is complicated and has required a lot of my attention. Recently, I arranged a meeting between Chancellor Rhee and the community, the outcome of which,” he continues, “is that we will be issuing a RFP to get a new Bruce-Monroe off the ground.”
Noting his involvement in the development of the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School and the JC Barber Shop he frequents, we end up at the southwest corner of Newton and Georgia Avenue. I’m particularly proud of this corner, Graham asserts, since it represents one of the communities successes. This corner could have become a homeless shelter. His support for public housing notwithstanding, Graham explains that the scale of the proposed project would have been devastating for Georgia Avenue. Graham credits two things for preventing the shelter development from occurring – 1) Community activism, that was key, and 2) his work with Mayor Fenty and the Central Union Mission to find and alternative location for the shelter.
Across the street is the Ward 1 Senior Wellness Center. “That was another complicated project,” Graham recalls. The properties that make up this site were acquired by the city via a DC government tax sale, which was complicated by a bankruptcy action. Working through all of these technicalities and also pressing DC government lawyers took a lot of effort by Graham over a period of years. Finally, DC obtained control of the properties – for a tax delinquency of $20,000 per rowhouse. Thereafter a number of ideas on how to use the property were considered before finally settling on the senior wellness center … which then had a false start with a developer who just didn’t want to do the work. Graham then pressed to hold the developer in default, which ultimately happened. Now, it’s finally taking shape.
We then take a side trip down Park Road to the 3rd District Police Substation. “I worked very hard with Chief Ramsey and others to make this substation happen,” Graham states. Crime in this area needed to be addressed more effectively and part of that required a permanent presence. This historic police building was being used by the Department of Parks and Recreation at the time. “I authored the funding that enabled Parks and Rec staff to relocate”, says Graham, “thus making way for the substation and the good that has come from it.” The Councilmember notes that the officers who now work out of the substation have made a significant difference in the area.
“You know,” he continues, “there are only two other MPD substations in the District, one in the First District and one in the Sixth District.” The Sixth also has a Satellite station. “To not only have been able to establish a substation in the Third District but to have maintained it is very significant.”
Noting how crime in the neighborhood has changed since he first took office, Graham points to the Small Smiles Dental Clinic and the Murray’s, both on the 3400 block of Georgia Ave. Small Smiles used to function as a club one night a week. To enter, party goers had to go through magnetometers. If they left, they were not allowed to reenter. “It was the only place I’m aware of in the Ward,” states Graham, “that the police used to show up at closing time with shotguns to keep the peace.”
Murray’s, on the other hand, was an open air heroin den. It didn’t matter when you went to Murray’s, recalls the Councilmember, you had to pass heroin users just to enter the store. To emphasis his point, he adds, “and this was during the day.”
Taking a short jaunt down to Lamont Street, Graham notes that the Lamont Lofts were another significant project — and the first condo project — to be located along the Georgia Avenue strip. He also notes that there were environmental issues that were overcome to make that project happen.
At the southern end of our trek we come upon the site of the former Bruce-Monroe school. “This project has been long-delayed,” he points out, noting that the removal of the debris that was supposed to be completed by April 30th is still ongoing. Until a developer can be selected for a new school, the site will be developed for neighborhood use on an interim basis.
Continuing, Graham refers to the multiple meetings he’s participated in and initiated with the community about the development of this site. “I’m very involved with how the Bruce-Monroe property will be developed,” he states. More as a reminder to himself than anything else, he next says: “I need to identify more money for that project.”
As we head back, we travel past other items of significance: the renovated Bruce School (Cesar Chavez), the Children’s Center at Park Morton (Graham has provided funding), and the New Commandment Baptist Church (among other things, Graham notes a job training program there). Warder Street, he asserts, “used to be a speedway before stop signs were installed on nearly every block.”
With regards to Park Morton, work is scheduled to begin later this year to transform Park Morton into a mixed use, mixed income residential complex while permitting ALL of the current residents to stay there. “This project is key,” Graham points out, “to the whole lower Georgia Avenue situation.” Even with the significant improvement of peace and order at Park Morton over the last four to five years, the redevelopment of this housing community is expected to jump-start other progress along the avenue.
Throughout the tour, the much recognized Graham has the opportunity to connect with his constituents. While parked at the corner of Newton, a Park View teenager comes up to him to shake his hand and asks if Graham remembers his mother. “Of course I do,” he responds, “please give her my regards.”
On another occasion, he reaches out to a resident sitting on their balcony of the Lamont Lofts. “Do you like where you’re living?” he asks. “Sure do, why, are you planning to move in?” responds the neighbor. After introducing himself and some follow-up conversation, Graham asks for his vote. He ends the conversation by laughingly saying: “Don’t put me out of work!”
“Park View,” Graham tells me, “was my weakest precinct in the last election with around 72% of the vote.” He also won a third term with 87% of the vote in the Democratic Primary. Still, he continues, “I don’t take anything for granted.” This attitude was evident as we toured the neighborhood. Throughout the entire trip he continued to engage or be engaged by residents and continued to ask for voter support.Elections, Government, People comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.