Fierce foes

Mild-Mannered Will Hill turns into a tiger

By Duncan Spencer

The Hill, January 24, 2001

From the nearest corner to Will Hill’s modest row house on 14th Street Southeast, he’ll be able to see the campus of the planned “residential facility” where Boys Town USA is to house over 40 delinquent – “at risk” in the deplorable lingo – youths.

It will happen, Hill vows, over his dead body.

Will Hill is the senior member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B, which covers the southeast part of the Hill. His day job is that of a career civil servant on the staff of the Senate Post Office. He is a calm and patient man, known for his unexcitable nature. Until Boys Town that is. When it was announced that over $7 million had been included in the D.C. Budget Appropriations Bill to enable the expansion of Flanagan’s Boys Town and now known as Boys Town USA, insider Hill knew that the “fix” was in – and he was furious.

Boys Town already has a branch in the far Northeast. That facility for 20 youths is responsible for over 200 calls for police help in the past year, Hill says.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), usually dependably on the neighborhood’s side on development issues, has been silent on this one. Mayor Tony Williams (D) is avoiding taking sides, and Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) says she can do no more. Hill fights on. He says he will continue to fight even if it is built; “We will watchdog this thing like a hawk,” he declared.

“It’s the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he told The Hill, as he announced last week his group, concerned Citizens for Smart Development, would start lobbying members of Congress who live on the Hill for help. In the past four months, ever since Boys Town USA spent $8.2 million for a third of a block’s cleared land now used as a parking lot, Hill has led a tireless opposition movement, keeping up a drumbeat of letters, meetings, rallies and phone calls, and gathering over 1, 000 residents’ signatures on a petition to the mayor. He also won the influential Capitol Hill Restoration Society over to his cause.

Hill’s energy seemed to grow, not diminish, as other opponents realized the development was the classic “done deal.” The developer had the money, had the friends in Congress, had the zoning permission (the site at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, is outside of the Capitol Hill Historic District boundary).

Now Hill is arguing that the reason Boys Town paid the huge price (which he estimates is about twice the marketplace valuation) is, ” So that Boys Town will have a Pennsylvania Avenue address, for lobbying purposes. Boys Town is a big business. it has become a money-making organization,” he charges. He points to the organization’s big endowment and $80 million per year in investment income – despite its 501(C) (charity) tax status.

Even meetings with Boys Town executive Fr. Val Peters proved fruitless, as did offers to swap with another site and the promise of help from Mayor Williams’ office (though insiders say the mayor is not willing to fight the development). City Councilwoman Ambrose, a veteran of several successful development fights, has abandoned all weapons, but hope in this one. “I’ve done everything I could,” she says, “It’s up to the mayor.”

So what keeps Hill pushing? He hopes that the federal funding of Boys Town will prove its undoing. “That money could have gone to the city’s foster care program,” he says. Hill notes that Boys Town does not yet have the necessary building permits; that little has gone on at the site aside from some demolition. “We will keep fighting,” he vows.