Greater Greater Washington

Is contemporary art the best use for the Franklin School?

DC economic development officials have selected a bid to turn the Franklin School into a modern art center that will host temporary exhibitions.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

The plan comes from a prominent collector, Dani Levinas; developer EastBanc will turn the former school into the museum. It will include a ground floor restaurant by José Andrés, Jonathan O'Connell reported in the Washington Post.

Levinas' bid won out over proposals to turn the building into a boutique hotel, by Douglas Development; a technology start-up center; and offices for the company CoStar.

A flexible arts space, known as a "kunsthalle," is something many arts organizations in DC had asked for. Leaders of the Phillips Collection and Hirshhorn Museum noted that many arts organizations don't have enough flexible space for temporary installations.

There had been significant community support for the idea, which would be the only one to keep the beautiful and historic interior open to the general public. Phillip Kennicott extolled the idea, noting that the interior spaces didn't really lend themselves to office or hotel, and therefore the hotel would have few yet very elite rooms.

On the other hand, a number of people on Twitter were left scratching their heads to some extent. According to O'Connell, the museum will be a nonprofit, meaning it won't pay taxes; only the restaurant and gift shop will. Another use would have brought in a lot of tax revenue in a city where a huge proportion of downtown space is tax-exempt, either government or nonprofit.

And even if local museums say they need more space, is even more exhibition space the best way to activate the area? (It's probably better than more offices, particularly than for CoStar, which had a building and sold it for a huge profit after getting a very large DC tax break.)

Finances were paramount when the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) passed over JBG's plans for 965 Florida Avenue NW. JBG wanted to bring in a Harris Teeter, something neighbors wanted, and reconnect W Street, which is part of the city's plans.

Instead, the economic development office chose another plan by MRP Realty. According to reports, they did so because MRP could offer more money. Fortunately, in the other big development news today, JBG and MRP reached a deal to work together, still bring in the Harris Teeter, and still extend W Street.

Back in November, Kennicott called the "kunsthalle" proposal a "dark horse" because it seemed less lucrative for the District. He didn't expect it to win out, given that. Levinas and team will still have to raise a lot of money, at least $10 million, to make the project work.

Others say the school should actually become a school, given the growing number of families downtown, its Metro-accessible location, and the fact that many charter schools could serve more students but can't find space. An education use might serve the public interest even more, but at much greater cost.

What do you think?

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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DC probably has he highest ratio of museum square feet to residents in the nation. We have a whole lot of museum space.

Not only do we have a huge amount of museum space, its hard for DC to keep up what we have. Private museums like the Corcoran are really hurting for funding. Why add another museum to a city that can't even manage what we have?

I know it sounds great to open a museum, and its fun to imagine all the great art, but just about any of the other possibilities make more sense to me.

by turtleshell on Feb 3, 2014 5:08 pm • linkreport

The fate of all great architecture is to become either a museum or condos.

It's definitely better than another office building. Will it bring more foot traffic to the park?

The best kunsthalles have big, open spaces that can be reconfigured for installations. I would be curious to see how they plan on doing that here.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 3, 2014 5:08 pm • linkreport

Any idea what the plan is with W Street? West of Florida, it runs one-way east (with a bike lane). But between Georgia and 4th, it runs one-way west (with no bike lane). Then from 4th to 2nd, it runs one-way east. So the connection between Florida and Georgia would go... which way?

by Gavin on Feb 3, 2014 5:59 pm • linkreport

Several charter schools tried several times to get the space, relying in part on a law that says that educational uses get first priority for surplusssed public buildings (if I recall correctly). A downtown middle/high school near transit would have had benefits. But the fix was in. I have no idea whether a Kunsthalle will be better.

by JLK on Feb 3, 2014 7:48 pm • linkreport

I have been looking at this beautiful building from my office window for a decade, walking by every day. It just needs to be SOMETHING -- a museum, school, homeless shelter, just something. It is frustrating how LONG it has taken for the City to hear out whatever ideas there are, and just decide and ACT.

by Gary Thompson on Feb 3, 2014 8:00 pm • linkreport

Totally agree with Gary Thompson. Something has got to be better than nothing. I really like making it a modern art space. Thanks for a good post, David Albert!

by richie on Feb 3, 2014 8:04 pm • linkreport

A museum would be great, but maybe it could be the new library and make the MLK a modern art center.

by Thayer-D on Feb 3, 2014 8:31 pm • linkreport

The women's museum a block down has had a great influence on the area, especially with it's outdoor sculptures in the median of NY Avenue there. This museum will be able to do the same with Franklin Square.

Besides adding to DC's tourist industry, art like this adds value to existing nearby buildings and makes living and working there much more pleasant.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 3, 2014 10:40 pm • linkreport

I think a hostel would be more appropriate. Not a youth hostel, but rather an anyone hostel. Bums, hippies, junkies, and runaways. Heck yea the park would be hopping!

by NE John on Feb 3, 2014 11:42 pm • linkreport

relying in part on a law that says that educational uses get first priority for surplusssed public buildings

That was my first thought as well. Then I realized that while I've heards about this purported law for years, I've never actually read it, and surplused DC schools are routinely provided to developers for other uses. So, does the law really exist, or is it the legislative equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster? In the alternative, is it the most toothless piece of legislation in history?

by dcd on Feb 4, 2014 7:41 am • linkreport

merely another example of my point that an RFP isn't a plan. DMPED doesn't do planning, they do development. If you want a city property to activate X, Y, or Z, first there should be an underlying plan.

by Richard Layman on Feb 4, 2014 9:00 am • linkreport

What a lost opportunity. This is precisely what the District doesn't need.

This area of town is screaming to be activated at night. Hospitality or residential would have been an excellent choice, for both the neighborhood and tax basis.

Absent hospitality or residential or office (which WOULD work here pretty easily)a school would have made better sense. Expect whatever form this kunsthalle eventually takes, I expect it will be a underprogrammed and underperforming mish mash of weird hours with far between exhibits that will, for all intents and purposes be an enormous waste and lost opportunity to the neighborhood.

by Waste on Feb 4, 2014 9:02 am • linkreport

A museum would be great, but maybe it could be the new library and make the MLK a modern art center.

The two buildings are substantially different in size. Franklin is 51,000 sf but the RFP documents indicate only 38,000 (or less) are useable. MLK, by contrast, is 444,000 sf.

by Alex B. on Feb 4, 2014 9:09 am • linkreport

I'm not quite sure I understand the proposal, but I think it sounds ok. I'm not oppossed to a cultural use but I think a gallery/workspace/exhibition space would be better than a traditional museum. We have sooo many of those.

by BTA on Feb 4, 2014 9:09 am • linkreport

Good call Alex. I still think one could add large wings to the original library. The MLK seems to be an ordinary office building location for such an important civic institution. I guess a museum makes sense on this site, but contemporary art seems like a bad fit.

by Thayer-D on Feb 4, 2014 9:28 am • linkreport

My question if it is a museum is - will they charge for entry? If so, then I believe they will probably get less foot traffic and therefore not be exactly what DMPED/the city (or at least us residents) had in mind for the corner. If there will not be a charge, will there be scarce hours that it will be open?

Agreed that any programming is better than nothing. Hopefully if this is not the RIGHT programming, something better will be able to come along in the future.

by CityGal26 on Feb 4, 2014 9:57 am • linkreport

What about an event/reception hall? I've never really looked but it always seemed like cities need large, flexible convenient spaces you can rent out by the day for a wide variety of events.

by BTA on Feb 4, 2014 10:08 am • linkreport

I love that this will be an arts space. I work next door to this building and have admired its outdoor architecture for years. It's just so pretty with so much potential! It's definitely a bit on the oddly-shaped side, so I didn't think that a hotel or condos would work well. It looks like a gem in the middle of a downtown where beautiful, old buildings have all been replaced. I'm so excited that I'll be able to go into the interior of this building soon. I'm looking forward to purchasing my membership and enjoying breaks in the courtyard or admiring art. Yay!

by Allison on Feb 4, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

Another potential income producing property taken off the tax rolls and turned over to a non-profit. Soon they will be applying for grants to operate the facility. I guess we didn’t learn from the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. and the Carnegie Library building. I love art, but this is not the BEST use of the property.

by CDCWDC on Feb 4, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

As someone who works literally next door, I am happy for anything to get rid of the homeless people that sit around there all day long.

by Jlpsquared on Feb 4, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

Thayer-D, fwiw, there is an interesting thesis in an article about Bilbao that makes the point that the most successful cultural facilities associated with revitalization are contemporary art museums, compared to history and other foci.

But that being said, DC's a tough place for museums that have to charge. CDCWC mentioned HSW, but the Corcoran and even the Intl Spy Museum are examples (apparently ISP wants the Carnegie space because it will be lower rent). Madame Tussauds has had a hard time, etc.

So adding this facility without having an overall plan is a real problem.

by Richard Layman on Feb 4, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

Make it a school. A really great high school, focused on entrepreneurship and innovation

by Tim Brown on Feb 4, 2014 2:04 pm • linkreport

Is the Franklin School at 965 Florida Ave? I'm confused by the jump in the article at paragraph 8 - Are these the same properties?

by Tina on Feb 4, 2014 2:45 pm • linkreport

Tina: Sorry, no. The Franklin School is downtown. It just sort of related to the Florida Avenue property because DMPED made choices about both recently.

by David Alpert on Feb 4, 2014 2:47 pm • linkreport

@BTA
I did a quick search on Cvent (they profile event spaces), and see 49 gallery/museums in DC proper that rent out space for events. This is more than Seattle (19), Denver (36), Nashville (6), and Boston (16) proper. This isn't to say that DC doesn't have enough demand, but it does seem like there is a lot of space available for events.

by Brent on Feb 4, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

Tim Brown -- DC already has 5 too many high schools based on enrollment, demographics, and the underlying capacity of the schools.

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2014/01/dc-high-schools-capacity-versus.html

As it is we're spending about $130MM per school to rebuild or rehab, even though we are way overcapacity in terms of demand.

by Richard Layman on Feb 4, 2014 4:16 pm • linkreport

sorry, this is the entry with enrollment figures:

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2014/01/dc-public-schools-high-school.html

by Richard Layman on Feb 4, 2014 4:17 pm • linkreport

While a museum is a nice amenity for anyone who enjoys art, DC needs to think about generating more jobs for people at all skill levels. A hotel would have helped employ many people who lack the skills to compete for other kinds of jobs.

by Falls Church on Feb 5, 2014 12:45 am • linkreport

Since I work nearby here, I can see myself personally using a museum, so from a selfish perspective, I guess I like the decision.

From a broader perspective, I think DC has enough museums, and I don't like the idea of DC taxpayers underwriting it, either through grants or through foregone tax base.

by Jameel Alsalam on Feb 5, 2014 11:52 am • linkreport

Maybe a children's museum? I'm always seeing questions pop up about what to do with kids in DC besides the Mall.

by BTA on Feb 5, 2014 12:12 pm • linkreport

Only in DC does a modern art gallery move to a historic structure while a modernist building is being built for a history museum.

And after sitting vacant for many years, this is a failure to say the least. Doubt this modern art gallery lasts more than a couple of years and doesn't generate much in the way of jobs, tax revenue, etc. This should have been converted to a hotel residential units b/c we need more people staying overnight downtown.

by Burd on Feb 5, 2014 4:30 pm • linkreport

Well, I was really hoping for a quality charter school, but I agree with Gary that at this point, it just needs to be something! I'm glad to see it will remain a public space. It's a stunningly beautiful building and deserves to be returned to its former glory. And who knows? In time, since it'll still be public, it may yet return to its original purpose as a school!

by Bradley Heard on Feb 5, 2014 5:50 pm • linkreport

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