Four development teams vie to rehabilitate Franklin School in downtown D.C.

The irony of the Franklin School is that although it is one of the District’s more revered and historical buildings, it is also one of the more difficult to return to robust economic use.

Designed by Smithsonian architect Adolph Cluss and built in 1869, the Franklin School was the site of experiments by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and became the District’s first high school. It later served as the headquarters of D.C. public schools and as a homeless shelter.

Then-mayor Adrian Fenty closed the shelter in 2008, and the building has sat empty overlooking Franklin Square, spoiled by a leaking roof and infested by rodents.

Estimates for the cost of saving the building and rehabilitating it to modern standards run from around $15 million to more than $30 million. Despite its location at 13th and K streets NW, however, experts say the payoff isn’t likely to be that great. The building is 51,000 square feet, but only 33,000 to 38,000 square feet of that is usable floor space. There is no underground parking.

On top of that, the school is a National Historic Landmark, making any dramatic changes or additions very difficult. It is one of the few buildings in the city with interior features that are protected from undo alterations, including its stairwell, original mural paintings (frescos) and a timber-frame roof truss system.

In 2005, the city leased the building to a group led by developer Herbert S. Miller, but a year later, it opted to retain the homeless shelter. Fenty attempted to re-use the building, but did so during the economic downturn and received only two proposals from developers, later choosing Cana Development on a preliminary basis to turn the property into an extended-stay hotel. The deal failed to progress.

Economic development officials under D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) succeeded in ginning up wide interest for the building this year and narrowed the pool of candidates to four.

Gray and his team are expected to make a choice imminently and announce their selection in January.

The community weighs in

In an industry that sometimes suffers from a herd mentality, the proposals are all remarkably different. Two of the proposals recently won the support of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F, which represents that part of downtown. The first, by the Institute for Contemporary Expression and D.C. developer EastBanc, proposes a contemporary art museum and a ground-floor restaurant by famed chef José Andrés.

The other is a 40-room boutique hotel with a rooftop lounge and two or three restaurants by D.C. developer Doug Jemal. Kimpton Hotels and Gemstone Hotels & Resorts have both signed letters of intent offering to operate such a hotel, according to Douglas Development, and other operators including Grupo Habita (a Mexican firm) have expressed interest.

Neither of the community’s favorites is likely to be a blockbuster financially. Backers of the museum concept, led by local art collector and businessman Dani Levinas need to find at least $10 million to $15 million in charitable donations to restore the building. They plan to open the museum five days a week and charge around $10 a ticket for entrance. Philip Kennicott, architecture critic for The Washington Post, wrote that the museum would “offer the city more flexible space for arts events and give local audiences access to the broader arts conversation that can’t be experienced in museums constrained by government overlords.”

‘Not a moneymaker’

Jemal and his son, Norman, want the Franklin School so badly that they have offered to put up a combined $10 million of their own money to turn it into a boutique hotel. Eagle Bank has also offered to back the project with a $15 million to $20 million mortgage, according to Paul Millstein, vice president of Douglas Development.

“We love the building. We want to see it done properly,” Millstein said. “I will tell you unequivocally this is not a moneymaker.”

CoStar Group, the real estate data firm that is headquartered on L Street NW and expanding dramatically, has proposed moving 150 of the firm’s software engineers and data scientists into open office space in Franklin School. After submitting a bid with Abdo Development, Andrew Florance, CoStar chief executive, called the building “one of the city’s most important architectural gems.”

“I could see that some of that highly creative space could turn off a lot of tenants. It’s something that would be far more attractive to a company like us. All of CoStar’s offices globally have an open floor plan,” Florance said in the spring.

In trying to harness the city’s growing technology sector, developer Lowe Enterprises proposed creating the Franklin Digital District, which Lowe and its partners described as “a central node and catalyst for future growth of the innovation economy in the District.” It would combine elements of office space, training, residences and a café.

Whichever team the District government selects, there are plans in the works to rehabilitate Franklin Park into a vibrant urban oasis. It remains to be seen if the old school next door gets treatment to match.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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