Downtown needs a school more than a boutique hotel
Representatives from the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and the DC Department of Real Estate Services got an earful last Thursday night at a hearing on the proposed plan to declare the Franklin School building a surplus property.
Declaring it surplus would clear the way to sell or lease the building, located at 13th and K Streets NW, to a private developer. A packed room full of DC residents and interest groups expressed opposition to the plan, urging city officials to reconsider the many public uses for this building, despite the prospects of high renovation costs.
The Franklin School is a historic Adolf Cluss-designed building that was used as a homeless shelter until 2008. For years the city has been trying to declare the building surplus so they could sell it to the developer behind Potomac Mills Mall and Washington Harbor to turn it into a boutique hotel.
The city paid the developer half a million dollars in a legal settlement after Mayor Williams bungled the sale last time around, not seeking Council approval. Judging by online editorials and comments made at the meeting, homeless advocates, preservationists, and education advocates are united against the surplus action.
I myself testified on behalf of educational uses of the building, asking city officials whether they understand the public benefits of a downtown school. (I was a co-founder of a charter school that applied to use the Franklin School building and was rejected.)
Understandably, the renovation costs are high and the space is not ideally suited for young children. But that does not mean that the building could not house a high school, UDC law school, or some other educational facility that would honor the legacy of Cluss and draw students from all over the city to a flagship building in a central location. Regardless of which public use is determined to be best, we need a more thoughtful and transparent analysis before the city moves forward with the plan to surplus Franklin.
The historic protection of the building's interior and exterior and the many years of neglect will surely drive the renovation costs even higher. Seeking a private entity to take on the risk and covert the building to a revenue-generating use is understandable. So has someone run the numbers to show what the revenue stream will be net of tax abatements? Did the city have estimates of renovation costs (and did they share them with prospective bidders before the last Request for Offers)? Does the city have estimates of net employment and revenues that will be created by the best commercial use? These numbers would help DRES and DMPED make their case more than assertions about it being "costly" to renovate and that other uses are "not viable."
Someone described schools to me as "non-revenue generating" uses, but what about income and property tax revenue generated by residents who choose these schools over Montgomery County or Fairfax County schools and bid up the value of DC real estate? It's hard to know whether such revenues are a major or minor factor until you run the numbers.
A central location for a school is something that cannot be replicated by locating schools on the fringes of the city, as is now being done with many charter schools. A central location like Franklin Square provides a unique opportunity to draw students from all four quadrants to a racially and economically integrated school, and one whose stunning historic facade could house a flagship facility that would have symbolic value for the city. Has DRES or DCPS come up with a different site that could accomplish this?
What about the homeless? Has the city demonstrated that the savings from surplusing this building will make it possible to serve the needs of displaced homeless men somewhere else? Mayor Fenty asserted that this was the case when he closed the shelter two years ago. Perhaps the analysis is sitting out there somewhere and I haven't found it. If anyone has economic analysis supporting uses or alternative uses of the building, I'll update this post with links.
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