Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Franklin School: Plan Fails

The Franklin School, located at 13th & K Street NW, was designed by Adolph Cluss in 1869.
It is a National Historic Landmark. Photo:
army.arch on Flickr.
Plans to transform the Franklin School into a home for one or more charter schools have failed, according to a District government official.

The Franklin School, a historic landmark located in the heart of downtown, had most recently served as a 400-person men's homeless shelter. Mayor Fenty abruptly closed the shelter in September 2008, pledging to establish new transitional housing for the homeless and rely on smaller temporary emergency shelters, a noble and worthy goal. The Franklin School has remained vacant since that time.

City officials had long considered closing the shelter, restoring the Franklin School, and putting it to a private use, as discussed here. The historic school has a rich history, both architectually and from an educational standpoint.

The most recent plan, announced by the Office of Property Management on April 7, 2009, was to use the Franklin School to house one or more charter schools.
According to the city's Request for Offers (RFO), its goals for the reuse of the property included: (1) Providing space that could be leased or owned by public charter schools; (2) Where non-school functions are included, providing space that could be leased or owned by non-profit service providers; (3) Where non-school functions are included, creating new workforce / affordable housing opportunities for District residents; (4) promoting revitalization of District neighborhoods; (5) optimizing the unique amenities of each site (e.g., gymnasiums, cafeterias and multipurpose space); and (6) Where construction is proposed, promoting sustainable development practices.

The RFO provided qualified applicants (public charter schools) until May 5 to submit a proposal describing the program it would operate at the site, how it would redevelop the property, its experience with similar projects, and the private and public sources of funds it intends to use for any acquisition, construction, and ongoing maintenance and operational costs.

The Office of Property Management was to evaluate proposals between May and June.
According to a DC government official, however, the RFO closed and offerors were informed that no awards were made.
"There are no plans pending with respect to this property here at the Department of Real Estate Services," she noted.
No additional detail as to what organizations had applied for use of the space was provided.
The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, which also manages dispositions of closed schools, may now hold the key to the future of the Franklin School.

That public charter schools were unable to make a convincing proposal for use of the Franklin School should come as no surprise. Although some upgrades were made to the Franklin School in recent years, the building needs substantial work before it can host a school or any other use. It's difficult to see where a public charter school would have the finances for such a massive undertaking, particularly in this economy.

Was the District's RFO a legitimate, good faith attempt to open the building for the use of charter schools or was it is just a step to putting the building up for private sale or lease? Were applicants required to meet an impossible standard? The District can now say, "we tried an educational use - it just was not possible" - or "there was a lack of interest."

There are other options. The Franklin School could become the flagship building of a new community college for the District. The college would open its doors onto Franklin Square Park, where one can envision students preparing for class. It would be a convenient location for students working a daytime job downtown who take classes in the evenings. Perhaps it could be incorporated into UDC's new community college program as a downtown campus.
Turning the building into a boutique hotel may have appeal, but this historic building should -- no, must be -- something more.


Si Kailian said...

Watching this incredible building rot is so sad. I love the community college idea.

Tom A. said...

I hate to say it, but it probably makes the most sense to sell the building - but be sure to sell it to someone who will maintain its beauty. DC needs money and tax revenue. Keeping it a public school provides neither. And few kids lives in the neighborhood anyway.

I'm all for selling it anyone who will pay property taxes on it. DC has enough tax-less inventory on its books as it is- much of it vacant.

Charter parent said...

I know for a fact that my son's school has been drooling over this space. The Parents Association discussed it at length. This post is dead on that the city is not giving charter schools a fair shake. We have struggled to get bids in on properties, going up against the pros with more working capital and experience, only to have the city cancel the competitions, change the rules, or play some other games to keep prized (school!) buildings out of the hands of public charters. Why are they doing this?

Anonymous said...

"going up against the pros with more working capital and experience..."

...and no doubt a whole lot more cash to dump in candidates' coffers at election time. Money talks.

Pete said...

Thanks for providing an invaluable service and posting this info. I'd like to highlight the last words of one sentence: "Mayor Fenty abruptly closed the shelter in September 2008, pledging to establish new transitional housing for the homeless and rely on smaller temporary emergency shelters, a noble and worthy goal."

Fenty's goal is noble and worthy, as was Bush's goal of bringing democracy to Iraq. There's little evidence in either case that the goal was taken seriously. According to the men who used to stay at Franklin who I'm in touch with, they are now, for the most part, at other shelters, now much more crowded due to Franklin's closure.

The homeless need downtown shelter which allows them access to the services they desperately need. In my opinion Franklin should be reopened as a shelter, with the services it always should have had, especially in light of the current unprecedented shortage of beds in DC.

Anonymous said...

They really ought to give the school idea another try. Notwithstanding the fact that the location is far from where people live, it is really close to where they work! And I know a number of parents who would welcome an opportunity to be closer to their children's school, making commuting and life much easier. Businesses really ought to come together in support of such a plan which would make the work/life balance for so many of their employees much easier to handle.