Friday, October 22, 2010

"No viable public use" for Franklin School

Today's Washington Business Journal [subscription only] highlights the ongoing saga of the disposition of the Franklin School building. 

Jose Sousa, a project manager with the deputy mayor for planning and economic development’s office is quoted as saying, “It is our belief there is no viable public use for that space.” 

Thus, the D.C. Council Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development will hold a public hearing on November 18 as it considers whether to declare the 150-year old historic building "surplus."  If approved, the District will likely enter a 99-year lease with Brooklandville, Md.-based Cana Development, which will turn the building into a boutique hotel and restaurant.

The Coalition of Franklin School, however, believes there are many viable educational uses for the Franklin School - but they have not be adequately sought and vetted.

The problem is that the District, as owner of the building, has allowed it to deteriorate for decades.  When built by famous architect Adolf Cluss 150 years ago, it was a model public school that was looked to for inspiration not just within the United States, but internationally.  After later serving as the District's Department of Education, and as a vocational education center, it was left vacant, then turned into a homeless shelter.  It has remained empty again since Mayor Fenty cleared it out in 2008.

Estimates are that it will take $35 million to bring the building back up to par.  The District has not made a commitment to renovate the building for an educational use.  Nor does it appear to have vetted potential uses with D.C. Public Schools, the Charter School Board, the University of the District of Columbia, or others.  Yet, it puts out RFP's and, receiving no proposals to take on a lease without a commitment from the city to make the building habitable, finds that there is "no viable public use."

Here's just a few viable public uses for the Franklin School:
  • A gifted-and-talented middle or high school, so that parents of high-achieving students have options other than sending their children to private school or leaving the District.
  • A downtown campus for UDC's new community college system or a new facility for its law school.
  • A home to one or more charter schools that are seeking space.
  • A public high school for Ward 2-area residents (many of whom currently treck up to Wilson High School in Tenleytown), particularly given the growing residential population of downtown.
  • A space for nonprofits providing job training and career services programs.
  • A facility for teacher training and continuing education.
  • Flex space for lectures, conferences, exhibits, performances, and meetings, similar to the use of the Sumner School near Dupont Circle.
Others would rather see the prime-location property turned into a money-maker for the city, rather than the city invest in improving it.  “There’s only one bidder and that is a hotel, and if that’s the only prospect then that is what I want to see,” said D.C. Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, who represents the Franklin School neighborhood. “I would like to see Franklin return to the tax rolls.” 

That's certainly an enticing position, particularly in this economic climate.  But the better long-term solution is to identify a best educational use for the Franklin School and invest, perhaps from District's School Modernization Fund, to make it a model for the 21st Century.

The public hearing on surplusing the Franklin School will be held on Thursday, November 18, 2010, 6:30pm, at Thomson Elementary School (large meeting room in basement), 1200 L Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.  Contact persons on this project are Jared Kahn (202) 213-9215 and Nimita Shah (202) 215-3650.  You can sign up to testify against the proposed surplusing here.


Anonymous said...

Correction - the meeting is being sponsored by DMPED, not the Council.

Because of the historic nature of the building, a school will not work, as it would require too much demolition and reconstruction.

We have to make tough decisions here. If we want to fund the programs that everyone is going to freak out about cutting (ie social services and education), we have to think about how to bring in more property tax.

Can't have it all, I'm afraid.

si said...

Its a tough situation and the price tag for fixing the place properly is really really high. whatever happens it should be put out for public bid, not just turned over to a favored developer with some sweet tax breaks. public process and let the taxpayers get their money's worth. This building is special and any option that lets it rot with substandard or no use is not good imho.

si said...

hmm the last time they put it out for bid, the one they deemed plausible was a hotel which included a culinary school component. intriguing...could make a good compromise? An educational use that generates tax revenue...

CCCA Prez said...

why would a hotel require less demolition than a school?

DC taxpayer said...

I can't believe there is only one "viable" bidder. Sounds completely rigged to me. Can't the Fenty Administration punt this over to next calendar year or are they so eager to close the deal with Cana? And if so, why?