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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.

Photo by joseph a on Flickr.

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.

Steven Glazerman is an economist who studies education policy and specializes in teacher labor markets. He has lived in the DC area off and on since 1987 and settled in the U Street neighborhood in 2001. He is a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, but any of his views expressed here are his own and do not represent Mathematica. 


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No. Downtown is NOT a place for a school- right downtown in a busy urban area. This is ill-suited for anything but a tiny school anyways- can't fit a law school or high school here for instance. What school would realistically pay what it takes to fix this up?

Surplus it. Don't spend tax dollars, directly or indirectly, on a specific use just because it "sounds" good. It's just not the highest and best use for this property.

by SG on Nov 22, 2010 10:11 am • linkreport

Downtown needs housing affordable to the people that work down here...federal employees.

by Redline SOS on Nov 22, 2010 10:19 am • linkreport

I cannot understand why they want to basically give this to the developer.

I can see merit in making this a school: the downtown population is growing, and it would be great to have a school near where you work.

by SJE on Nov 22, 2010 10:37 am • linkreport

Are there no other civic institutions that have expressed interest in the space? Seems like this would make a great space for a satellite gallery of the Smithsonian or some other museum.

Although I'd like to see the building stay in public hands, if there really is no practical way of restoring the building, DC might as well turn it over to a group that can make good use of the space, while preserving the building's gorgeous architecture.

by andrew on Nov 22, 2010 10:37 am • linkreport

"This is ill-suited for anything but a tiny school anyways- can't fit a law school or high school here for instance"

Kind of an odd comment, considering that Franklin School was at one time a school -- a high school, in fact. School Without Walls seems to manage pretty well in a small building downtown. There's no reason why Franklin School cannot be set up the same way (as a small public magnet or charter school). The school also served as a teacher training institute for about 40 years, so it could reasonably be returned to that use as well.

As much as I like boutique hotels, I think that's the last thing this neigborhood needs... considering that there are already so many small-scale hotels within a half mile radius of 13th and K.

by Scoot on Nov 22, 2010 10:47 am • linkreport

The nice thing about it being a hotel is making it more public as long as they stipulate preserving as much as possible. As a school, I think it would lack the playing fields that ought to go hand in hand with youth. The square it sits on is one of my favorite urban parks in DC, and it's always saddened my not to see the park full of children running around it's georgeous canopy. That's a pipe dream, but getting something besides office workers to enliven it might be nice.

by Thayer-D on Nov 22, 2010 10:56 am • linkreport

Spending $35M to make a school that could be anywhere in the city on valuable real estate seems like a poor use of resources. Why not use the tax revenue from the hotel to build schools in areas that are less expensive?

by jcm on Nov 22, 2010 11:11 am • linkreport

This is such a gorgeous building and a great location. It's worth the public investment to preserve its facade and return it to use. I think returning it to use as a school would be great. A hotel wouldn't be bad. A museum would be great. What about a boutique mall sort of thing? Or artists' enclave? Sort of like the Torpedo Factory?

by Josh S on Nov 22, 2010 11:24 am • linkreport

The Square is pretty dead at night. I think a hotel would be perfect. The public monies spent on renovation would be more useful spent elsewhere. It would be irresponsible when there are so many other pressing needs, like transit.

by aaa on Nov 22, 2010 11:40 am • linkreport

Show me the $$$!

The advocates are so confused! First, the oppose cuts to social services as part of closing the budget gap.

Then they are against a development that would put a property back on the tax rolls, which would generate revenue to help avoid these cuts.

Can't have it both way, people.

by Rick Mangus on Nov 22, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

How about as a homeless shelter? just kidding.

I liked the school idea, but as someone pointed out, a hotel would bring some nighttime traffic to the area.,

by beatbox on Nov 22, 2010 12:33 pm • linkreport

The arguments for using it as a school are nice.

But where's the money going to come from to do a likely complete gutting of the interior to meet current building and environmental codes?

by Fritz on Nov 22, 2010 12:43 pm • linkreport

I know there is an elementary school on the edge of Downtown, is it full? Is there a need for a middle school somewhere? Look I am all for a school if one is needed, but my sense is all of the new residents in that area do not include many school age children. The lack of a school I don;t think is discouraging anyone as there are any number of schools within 1.5 miles of downtown.

In the argument above I didn't see any facts or a real argument besides schools are cool. They are, but empty unused space in the middle of a city is not good. That is what I think we would be getting if we put a school there.

by nathaniel on Nov 22, 2010 1:09 pm • linkreport

@SG and @Rick Magnus both of you may be right, but I think the city bears a burden of proof regarding this magic stream of revenue from commercial development and the low public benefit from alternative uses. I'll drop my opposition to a hotel as soon as I see convincing analysis.

@jcm, I think your position is the same as that of the Fenty Administration, but my argument is that we could possibly benefit as a city by having an educational institution in our downtown, like a magnet high school or even a public graduate school, even (or especially) a small one. The concept of a magnet school is that it's *not* in a neighborhood, but in a central location that draws students from neighborhoods all over the city.

by Steven Glazerman on Nov 22, 2010 1:15 pm • linkreport

Weren't around twenty schools closed during the Fenty/Rhee administration? Why are the charter school fanatics focusing so much on Franklin when it needs the most renovation (due to historical preservation) and has no dedicated outdoor area for recess/phys ed? There are better candidates.

by Paul on Nov 22, 2010 1:25 pm • linkreport

Speaking of this where are the schools that would be considered the neighborhood school of someone living in Chinatown, Noma, Penn Quarter, anywhere else downtown and also Navy Yard.

The only school that comes to mind for Noma, Chinatown and Penn Quarter is Walker Jones and that is kinda far and dangerous considering some may have to travel on H/2nd/4th streets or New Jersey/New York/Mass Avenues.

If there is one person with a child there is need for a school people should not have to travel across the city for schools.

What we should have is that no area in DC excluding the mall is more than 1.5 miles away from a elementary school and no more than 3.5 miles from a junior high/middle or high school. To go to your local school you should not have to get on a damn bus.

by kk on Nov 22, 2010 3:32 pm • linkreport

The school where the actual meeting took place is the school that serves Penn Quarter and Chinatown.

It is 1.5 blocks from the Franklin School

by John on Nov 22, 2010 4:21 pm • linkreport

What is "magical" or unproven about revenue from commercial development? There is a hotel/lodging tax, is there not? I'm pretty sure I've paid restaurant/meal taxes. I assume that even if there are abatements the property will ultimately be taxed as well? But yes, by all means let's keep it vacant while we blue-sky about unrealistic alternate public uses that will be prohibitively expensive at a time that DC government is looking at massive spending cuts.

by Neil on Nov 22, 2010 4:24 pm • linkreport

@Neil I agree that the building sitting vacant is bad for DC. There could have been a school renovating the space a year ago and moving in next fall if the city had wanted to make that happen.

I never said that a hotel wouldn't generate revenue, but I am baffled as to why we have no numbers to work with. Instead I have to dream up numbers, like this:

If a school attracts 200 families, half of whom would not live in DC without the school, and they contribute an average of $5,000 per year in property and income taxes, then $500,000/year is the equivalent of the DC hotel/lodging tax (@14.5%) for a 40-unit small hotel charging $300/night on average with 70 percent occupancy. Throw in a restaurant with its own revenue stream and you still don't have a slam dunk case for surplusing this building.

I have no idea how many rooms a hotel could build out, whether it could fit a restaurant/bar on site, how much they would charge, what their occupancy rate would be, and how much business would be new versus siphoned off from other hotels.

I have no idea how many families would be interested in a school located there or how many of those families would be the marginal choose-DC-over-suburbs type or what their earnings and property values would be.

I have not calculated the impact on good employment of a school versus hotel, or the impact, positive and negative, on area businesses.

But I expect a city agency to come up with some defensible estimates of all of those numbers before making decisions like this. If pajama-clad bloggers can do back of the envelope calculations then surely well-educated professional planners can provide much more realistic analysis. I have no doubt that a commercial use will bring in more dollars than a public one, but it's reasonable to ask how much more and whether it's enough to offset the intangibles that you get from keeping this treasure for use by the people of the District.

by Steven Glazerman on Nov 22, 2010 6:14 pm • linkreport

@Steven - Won't the building require massive construction due to building and environmental requirements? And won't any DC-owned renovations then have to be done to LEED standards? How much money will all that cost? And where will that money come from given Gray's announcment today that capital budget projects are done for the next few years.

by Fritz on Nov 22, 2010 7:02 pm • linkreport

But I expect a city agency to come up with some defensible estimates of all of those numbers before making decisions like this. If pajama-clad bloggers can do back of the envelope calculations then surely well-educated professional planners can provide much more realistic analysis.

I would say your calculations are so fanciful that they can't really be put on a sound basis. No, there's no way to measure how many families will move to DC because of a hypothetical school, especially when you haven't built it yet. What if you spend millions on the school and no one shows up? How would you predict, in any objective way, how many more families of how much greater wealth are going to be attracted to that school rather than some other school? On the other hand, the revenues from a hotel are concrete.

by David desJardins on Nov 22, 2010 10:04 pm • linkreport

Thank god it will not be wasted on homeless bums anymore

by Wayan on Nov 22, 2010 11:17 pm • linkreport

I am not trying to make the case that commercial development would bring in less revenue than public uses, but that the benefits of public uses tend to be overlooked precisely because they are not "concrete".

At this moment there is pressure to sell off the building because we don't have the capital budget to develop it for public use. But if we extend that mentality, then we should sell off the John A. Wilson Building and put city offices in an inexpensive office in a less desirable location. After all, the Mayor and Council offices are not revenue-generating in the sense they use the term.

by Steven Glazerman on Nov 23, 2010 7:02 am • linkreport

Surplus it.
1) The city's finances are already in tough shape. Private development would strengthen them, public development would weaken them.
Plus, the city would be adding to its already long back log of projects.
2) A hotel would further DC's transition from a 9-5 office zone to a vital civic heart.
3) The sale of the building could fund the construction/renovation of educational properties in other parts of the city.
Such a costly school in terms of both direct expenditures and the indirect costs of forgone development would eat at money that could otherwise be spent in the actual classrooms instead of wasted on physical infastructure.

by chris on Nov 23, 2010 7:11 am • linkreport

@ Steven Glazerman Your back of the envelope calculation is still too naive. How many of those 200 families would only move to DC if the school were built in this location, rather than at somewhere like Walter Reed?

I agree that schools are a public good, and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand simply because they don't directly generate revenue, but magnets and charters can be located anywhere. That $500K+ per year could finance a nice school in an alternate location.

I do think it's an important conversation to have, though, so thanks for writing.

by jcm on Nov 23, 2010 8:07 am • linkreport

My kids are still at the elementary school age, so I'd rather not lug them across town. However, as I understand it, the point of this would be a high school level magnet program.

At that point, location will matter, but much less than the quality of the program. I'd much prefer scarce funs be spent improving the current high schools than on this one. If demand grows (and I hope it does), for an additional high school, it would be far more cost effective to put it in one of the many new infill developments going up around town.

And for now, I agree with chris. Adding a hotel to downtown would be helpful in reorienting the area from a static 9-5 office park to a more vital core.

by TimK on Nov 23, 2010 8:23 am • linkreport

An arts-based school in my neighborhood hosts evening and weekend classes for an improv theater and so it's an 18 hour presence for sure. I think schools nowadays are often utilized for more than just the regular school day and therefore put a lot of eyes on the street.

Evening adult ed would be a good feature to build into any school design.

by DM on Nov 23, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

At this moment there is pressure to sell off the building because we don't have the capital budget to develop it for public use.

I don't think that's the main reason. The main reason is that it isn't the best use of public dollars, even if there were a big pool of money available.

by David desJardins on Nov 23, 2010 1:04 pm • linkreport

To those above who've stated that the building shouldn't be 'wasted' on the homeless, I'd like to say that I was a resident in the Franklin School for close to a year. It provided a safe space for myself (and 300 other men) after two years of sleeping on concrete and being assaulted numerous times by people who had much the same opinion of the homeless that you folks have displayed.

by David Pirtle on Nov 24, 2010 8:32 am • linkreport

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