Friday Question of the Day – What Should Become of the old Franklin School?

13th and K Street, NW

Today’s question is a reader request. A year ago we first learned about plans for transforming the historic Franklin School building into “exhibit space for contemporary art, sculpture, installations and performances”. Folks were pretty excited about the prospect and then plans were scrapped. The art critic from the Post eviscerated the decision by the Mayor:

“Little more than a month into her administration, Muriel Bowser has abruptly canceled one of the most promising cultural projects to take root in the District in decades, tearing up an agreement two years in the making with the Institute of Contemporary Expression.

The city’s office for planning and economic development has decided after a “top-to-bottom review” that it no longer supports the plan. And so we have a first, clear and painful indication that despite professed support for the arts and arts education, Bowser will prioritize the interests of commercial developers over the public well-being.”

So I guess the question is – what do you think should be done with the building? Should there be a preference towards a cultural institution like was proposed before? Or should top dollar win? Do you think a place like the Institute of Contemporary Expression could flourish in a place like the Franklin School? Do you think the decision to cancel the project was political? If a museum/cultural institution has no chance – what would be the next best thing?

71 Comment

  • There is something to be said about getting the best use out of a potential public good. While the envisioned artistic space is a fine idea, let’s be real – this is a prime location and the tax revenue generated from this location could help fund homeless shelters, affordable housing, pre-school – you name it. The public good would say that while a museum is an important civic amenity, we have plenty of venues, we need to maximize this particular space to support basic needs of our residents. Those who support such a venue should seek the region’s monied interest and raise the millions needed to buy, renovate and operate such a facility. When the District “invests” in art-related development it typically means that it will loose money, need subsidies and then fail. The City Museum is a good example of a nice idea in a prime location that should have worked but didn’t. I’m not sure we would avoid that fate with this project.

    • I completely agree–a lack of museums is not what this city is suffering from. I know most won’t like it, but I think these would make awesome condos. This area could use some more residential life in the evenings and weekends.

      • Yes to more residential in that area, and a nice ground-floor restaurant or brewpub that does NOT turn into a club at night.

        Or just a brewery!

    • +1 The LAST thing this town needs is another cash sink. Get it on the tax rolls.

      • clevelanddave

        +1 It is fundamentally a bad place for a museum, particularly an underfunded, ill conceived one. Put it on the tax rolls. Make it into a hotel or condos with some public space on the first floor, a restaurant, bar, gallery.

        • yeah…pop that puppy up too while we’re at it…put a ouple extra stories on it for even greater density. YAY!
          It’d look awesome w/ a couple of floors of vinyl siding up top.

  • Uber-Luxury hotel. Thinking a Waldorf-Astoria, Peninsula, Burj Al Arab. As mentioned above, the tax revenue et sl. could fund those bleeding heart programs.

  • Franklin School should be turned into a shrine in honor of DC Mayoral genius, integrity, and competence. Oh wait. . . .

  • The city seems to always get a poor deal when it sells public assets to developers. I’m not sure this will end differently.

  • I liked the idea of an arts & cultural center. I don’t get why Bowser shut it down?

    • clevelanddave

      Because it was a poorly planned, poorly funded idea that went to one of Mayor Gray’s donors. Hopefully that won’t happen in this case, but go to someone who will develop it in some way that reflects its highest and best use while preserving its historic character.

  • binpetworth

    I’d love to see another Union Market-style place, with maybe food shops on one level and crafts/artists on the others.

    I also think this would make a cute boutique hotel. I’d rather it not be converted to condos, just because I think it would be a nice place for a lot of people to be able to use/visit (rather than just a handful of resident owners).

    • That’s exactly what I was thinking. Maybe 3rd floor as communal office space, 2nd floor as retail and 1st floor as foods and such. I also think a better integrated version similar to that Living Social/Groupon location that was on F– a place where you can take classes (arts, crafts, culinary, etc).

      • Well, that concept clearly failed.

        • I think it failed partly because it was a stand alone concept. Having it as part of a retail/restaurant development might draw more people in to take the actual classes. I’d support something like Brooklyn Craft Company which has fantastic classes, private parties and DIY kits for take home.

          • My understanding is that they had great attendance for their events, just that it didn’t work out financially (I imagine rent on that building was enormous). Is that not the case?

          • clevelanddave

            They owned the building. The concept behind LivingSocial- coupons/discount online failed.

          • Quick correction – they did not own the building, but leased it from DC’s local Trump, Jemal Douglas.

    • Agreed re a market option! This location is better for non-drivers who don’t want to schlep to NE or SE (Eastern Market) for a large, quality, diverse market.

    • Eataly has signed a lease at Capitol Crossing ( the new development being built over the highway over on Mass Ave. opening date still a couple years away.

      • HUD is right, but I agree with Joe Schmoe that this would be -outstanding-.

        • I’m not so sure. As much as I can’t wait to see Eataly in DC, I’d honestly have some liberal guilt pangs visiting a temple of excess right in front of the largest open-air encampment of homeless and hungry in the city, and I’d bet I’m not alone.

  • I am not a Bowser fan, but I agree that more museum space was the best use for the space. Per capita, the District has more museum space than any other city in the world. Even removing the Smithsonian from the picture, DC is flush with public/private/university art and exhibition space.

    While the space is protected, it wouldn’t seemingly take too much effort to turn it into a boutique hotel. Hotels provide the DC Treasury more revenue per square foot than any other use, and DC seems to still have a deficit of hotel rooms. Or the idea floated below of high end condos. There are obviously enough buyers around who would pay the multimillion dollar price and it would add foot traffic to the downtown area after work.

  • Children’s museum!

  • …any reason it couldn’t be a school? Otherwise, something like the Torpedo Factory might be neat. However, I definitely don’t agree with hotel/housing until the city can do something about the issues at Franklin Square. I used to work on K between 12th and 13th while the building was still a shelter and the park has only gotten worse since its closure. The litter, the public urination/drinking/drug use. It’s not DC’s finest for a luxury hotel.

  • I don’t really have a strong preference of what goes in there as long as the building is preserved. Frankly though, it isn’t like there is a dearth of cultural/artistic institutions in this city. I’d much rather see something that will be open longer hours and appeal to a wider swath of district residents versus mostly tourists and those who follow the arts.

  • In one corner, a dance studio, por favor. With adult classes. I don’t really have a preference re: what to do with the rest of it.

  • Linc Park SE

    A Homeless shelter

    • Why do that when we can ship the poor to motels in Maryland or cram them into old gymnasiums where the lights are on 24/7? This is downtown, we don’t want to have to actually see poor people. More condos and small plates concepts!

  • I think their main concern is getting rid of their rat population. On the side of the building where you can see their basement windows is a huge hole that rats live in. One evening 20 rats, no lie, ran past me into that hole. I don’t even like walking past it after work because the rats are out at 5pm in the park across the street.

    • Hmmm, have you ever been to Dupont Circle (the actual circle) at sun down? It’s like Rat Carnival. I literally saw three run across a blanket a couple and their kid were sitting on, it was horrifying.

  • MPD headquarters. Something about this building always vaguely reminded me of the precinct building on Hill Street blues.

  • In Portland, they turned this old elementary school into a hotel/event and concert space/restaurant. It was really cool to be able to walk around this beautiful, old, preserved building and enjoy it, though we didn’t stay there. The restaurant was fun and kitchy too, and it served as a small venue for concerts and independent plays and things. I think it’s called the Kennedy School? Something like that could be cool here. Or mixed use of restaurants/craft spaces/yoga and dance studios and maybe some pent house condos would be cool.

  • orderedchaos

    *sigh* they seemed really far along with this project, and Bowser scuttled it for what seems to be no good reason—it’s like she killed it just because Gray was in favor of it.

    Check out this excellent take on the situation in the Post, including the normal due diligence *not* done by Bowser’s office in assessing this project’s progress:

    • Prince Of Petworth

      That is the article quoted from above “The art critic from the Post eviscerated the decision”.

    • I’m guessing that she didn’t get a large-enough kickback from this particular developer for this project. I’ll be curious to see how much money she got from whoever ends up with the winning bid.

    • clevelanddave

      Well that was their stupidity: it hasn’t been cleared by council and the mayor who signed it was a lame duck. Sounds like they had some commitments for funding but a long way off from having what was needed to really do this project right.

  • I think one problem for development as a hotel or office space is that the entire building – both inside and outside – has some historic preservation protections attached. Using it as some kind of educational or instructional facility may be its only use. Let’s hope that the city leaders – both elected and cultural – will come together and find a way to keep this architectural gem intact.

    • Yes, I think this is one of the key points that Kennicott made. The interior of the building is protected, which makes most types of redevelopment infeasible. This project was both a realistic use of the space and was well on the way.

      • clevelanddave

        Why should the interior walls be preserved? I understand the moldings and special features on the first floor, but the darn place was a homeless shelter for 20 years!

  • offices with day care (and maybe some retail) on ground floor level. DC needs more downtown day care (Bambini is looking for a second space) are day care rules about having kids at ground level for easier evacuation in emergencies. A restaurant and event space on the top level–get it on the tax rolls!

    If it’s going to be something for more public use, what about developing it as the new site of Banneker High School? I think all the other high schools in DC have been beautifully renovated in recent years, but not Banneker. Our District’s flagship high school would do well in such a central location and the current Banneker site could be redeveloped as truly mixed-income rental housing (some units market-rate, others for people leaving homelessness) with DC still owning the land and building, but doing some sort of lease to a group that would renovate and manage it.

    • Banneker is the District’s “flagship high school”? On what basis?

      • You have to apply to get into Banneker, there are no “local” students, just the top students from across the city.

      • jim_ed

        It’s consistently rated as one of the top high schools nationally, it’s a magnet school, it recently produced two Gates Millenium scholars who are both going Ivy League in 2014, and has some of the city’s highest test scores. I’d say the flagship mantle is a toss up between it and School Without Walls, but you wouldn’t be wrong calling either of them that.

  • I believe it should become a VERY hard science technical school for (highly qualified no nonsense) middle grade students.

  • Why not make it a public high school with admittance by application only, ala Thomas Jefferson HS in Fairfax. Set rules that the demographics of the students have to match the demographics of the city’s youth population and it can be a quality school that serves the top students and meets her goal of founding a school that targets college bound students.

    • The last thing DC needs is more application schools pulling high-performing students out of the general population. Walls, McKinley and Banneker are already creaming the best kids and what’s left behind is a lot of low performers dragging done a decent number of mid-level performers.

      • Ok that’s a fair argument, what about a public prep school for those kids who do graduate from general population schools? 1 year and then on to college, easy expulsion so only kids that are motivated can stay. Would improve the placement rate for DC graduates into university and give those kids at general pop schools something to work towards/the needed prep for university.

  • Well, we don’t have a mayoral mansion. Could be converted to residential up top with entertaining, office, and meeting spaces down below. Sort of a super-fancy version of the Wilson building. It’s a shame to not use it for a solid civic purpose – personally I’d love to see it become a first-tier private or charter high school serving the downtown neighborhoods – but if that isn’t going to happen, using it as a mayoral residence / administration building would at least guarantee it was constantly utilized.

  • It should be a homeless shelter, which is what it was when it as closed in 2008 and it has sat idle ever since. What was the point of that?

  • Auction it off to the highest bidder. Let the market decide what it’s best use should be. Take the revenue and fix our potholed streets.

  • I’m not totally against changing this into a revenue-generating location for the city, but can somebody explain to me how the mayor can unilaterally scrap something like this? No wonder there is so much corruption in DC, if one person can kill such a project and open it up to the bidders they prefer.

  • It should still be used as a museum space.

  • Why not make it a school? BASIS is flourishing as a downtown school. They’ll need more space soon as they continue to add classes. Or move another successful charter school there. Or create a unique Washington DC school, like perhaps a Pre-Law themed application school where students have an opportunity to intern at the K Street firms near the Franklin School.

  • How about we re-look at moving UDC Law back into that space. It would be a great location for a legal clinic.

  • I went there for a photo safari during Fotoweek. It would make a wonderfu full-time photo safari building.

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