Smart growth, dumb process: Tenley-Janney will proceed without PPP
The multi-year saga of the Tenley-Janney PPP is finally at an end ... mostly. Today, Mayor Fenty announced that DC will move forward immediately to build a new library at the corner of Wisconsin and Albemarle, across from the Tenleytown Metro. They will also move ahead right away to improve the neighboring Janney school.
DC officials will not proceed with a public-private partnership with LCOR right away, but they're not giving up for good. As Councilmember Mary Cheh has asked, they will design the library so that in the future we can add more floors on top. "The library will be designed to accommodate future development above and around the facility and the District will continue to work with the Library and its development partner to adjust and refine future plans for the site," reads the Mayor's press release.
This decision meets the immediate needs of a community itching for a new library and a school bursting at the seams. It also preserves some possibilities for the future. Still, after a multi-year, often acrimonious process, we've lost a great opportunity to get some more housing and pedestrian activity at a major corner. Meanwhile, we gain a case study on how not to handle a public-private partnership or the surrounding community debate.
The idea was simple. DC plans to replace the two-story library at the corner of Wisconsin and Albemarle. Next door, the Janney School is overflowing and needs upgrading. Janney currently devotes a large portion of their land to surface parking. Why not build a larger building on the corner, combining the library, some residential, and underground parking? With the profits the developer makes from the residential construction, they could afford to give Janney free underground parking, making up for any extra space the building would occupy, and yielding extra funds which DC can use to modernize Janney sooner.
Here are the most recent LCOR plans, from January, now shelved:
Reality, however, pinned this good idea between a rock, a hard place, neighborhood opposition, and space and time constraints that ultimately doomed the idea. By closing the library before making plans for its replacement, DCPL hung a ticking clock around the idea's neck. Tough site constraints and vociferous neighborhood opposition left the project with little room for error. And the city didn't handle the project free of error, not by a long shot.
It all started when DC Public Library (DCPL) closed the Tenley-Friendship library in 2005. Facilities moved to an interim library a few blocks south. This created immediate pressure to build a new library as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the Janney school was getting overcrowded and needed more modern facilities. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (ODMPED) began exploring the possibility of a win-win solution: build a public-private partnership (PPP) on the library site, raise money to accelerate Janney's modernization, and better utilize the corner. Many members of the community supported the idea, while others did not. Some Janney parents liked the plan, while others did not.
Community members identified several key objectives for any successful PPP. Chief among them was "no net loss of green space" for Janney. The school must not lose usable playing field land, and if they do lose some, replace it with other land reclaimed from surface parking. Other principles included affordable housing and LEED certification, no undue delay to the library, and of course moving Janney up in the modernization queue.
In October 2007, ODMPED released an RFP for the project. Three teams submitted bids: LCOR, Roadside Development, and the See Forever Foundation. According to some residents, the Roadside team did the best job listening to community input and tailoring their plan. However, in July, ODMPED selected LCOR, to the surprise of many project supporters. Some say this decision doomed the PPP.
Or, perhaps ODMPED's indecision on the project parameters doomed it. In February 2008, after bidders had submitted their original proposals, ODMED changed the parameters to require the library and apartment building to occupy separate sites. This would enable DCPL to start work on the library right away. However, it would also inhibit putting housing atop the library. Any building that earned enough money to pay for Janney parking and modernization would have to take away even more space from Janney. Such a solution would satisfy one constraint while smashing headlong into another. Ultimately, they acceped an LCOR bid which did indeed use the space above the library, perhaps because no team could make anything else work.
Things fall apart
Early on, supporters had built a fragile coalition in favor of this project. Unfortunately, they say, a lack of communication from ODMPED made that difficult to sustain. Plans posted online for the project contained few details. Staff for Councilmember Mary Cheh, who represents the area, told me that even they could not get answers to questions about plans or status.
In October, Cheh and Councilmember Kwame Brown wrote a letter withdrawing their support for the PPP. They argued that the PPP was "fatally flawed". Instead, they asked DCPL to proceed with a standalone library, but to incorporate structural supports necessary to allow more floors on top at some point in the future.
In response, ODMPED replied in January that they still believed in the PPP and were moving ahead. Cheh scheduled a roundtable for today. On Friday, her office announced that ODMPED and LCOR principals would not be attending, and therefore canceled the roundtable. Cheh reiterated her position from last fall urging DCPL to move forward with a library including structural supports. Today, we learned why LCOR and ODMPED weren't going to appear at the roundtable: the Mayor has decided to take Cheh's recommendation and shelve, at least for now, the PPP.
The neighborhood war
During these years, few neighborhoods have seen the degree of public fighting as Tenleytown. Much of the traffic on that neighborhood's email list over the last year concerned the PPP, often taking a nasty tone on both sides. Lead opponent Sue Hemberger, in particular, wrote hundreds if not thousands of emails to the Tenleytown email list, rebutting any arguments in favor of the PPP.
Hemberger and others contend that DC Public Schools, ODMPED, and/or Mary Cheh conspired to manipulate the modernization queue to help the PPP. Essentially, they allege that Janney had already gotten bumped up to 2010 or 2011 after DC closed many public schools last year (further crowding Janney). They say that Janney was deliberately moved to the end of the queue so that this PPP could accelerate it.
Ad evidence, they cite documents which they received from a FOIA request. They asked for all documents pertaining to the PPP. However, some project supporters argue that Hemberger and her "special committee" investigating the matter selectively quoted from documents to support their anti-PPP point of view. And ANC Commissioner Jonathan Bender wrote that since the "special committee" destroyed all documents except those they published, there's no way to know the broader context.
What went wrong
It's a tough project. This wasn't an easy site. Janney parents naturally worried about taking land away from a crowded school. A PUD containing a library is complex. The site is small and constrained. Multiple governmental agencies had to coordinate. By any measure, this was not an easy spot to orchestrate such a project.
The library was closed too early. Why did DCPL close the libraries back in 2005? It would have been much better to leave the old one open until designs were finalized for the replacements, and funds allocated. The community's understandable eagerness for a real library on their regular library site squeezed the PPP.
Silence wasn't golden. Opponents made frequent arguments that the new location of the soccer field wouldn't work, that the process would take too long, and more. Perhaps these arguements were correct. Perhaps not. If ODMPED believed otherwise, supporters could better rebut them in the public discourse armed with some useful information. Without real facts, the tide turned against the project. The debate moved from the merits of the project to the conduct of individual participants, such as the allegations about manipulating the queue and destroying evidence. That's not productive for anyone.
If DCPL hadn't jumped the gun, we might have had a great mixed-use project already planned for this site. If neighborhood opponents weren't so tenacious, or ODMPED more open and communicative, or the site more conducive to a project, we might have it. Maybe one day we still can.
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